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11 ugly urban underpasses now functioning as public parks

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Transforming wasted space into community hot spots

An underpass park in Houston, Texas.
Tom Fox, SWA Group

When Manhattan’s High Line opened on the west side in 2009, locals and visitors alike flocked to the revitalized railroad trestle to marvel at its transformation into a gorgeous and walkable park. Arguably the most famous urban adaptive reuse project in America, the High Line made industrial reuse cool and prompted a wave of creative development.

Since then, cities across the country have worked to reclaim seemingly inhospitable urban infrastructure, from old cisterns to sewage plants.

Elevated highways and rail lines were long overdue for a makeover. While freeway cap parks—or removing freeways entirely—have become increasingly popular to reunite cities fragmented by urban highways, capping isn’t always feasible. Instead, many cities are turning transit underpasses into public parks— replacing trash, overgrown weeds, and dark passageways with art installations, funky lights, and pedestrian thoroughfares.

We’ve rounded up 11 creative examples of transit underpasses that have been transformed. In Seattle, a decades-old project turned a downtrodden underpass into a skateboarding destination. In Toronto, a just-completed project created an ice rink under the highway. We’ve also included a few projects that are still under construction.

All are examples of a new era in underpass design—one that emphasizes high-impact solutions to reconnect neighborhoods and revitalize communities.

Know of an underpass park that we missed? Tell us in the comments!

The Underground at Ink Block in Boston

People enjoy OkTacoFest, one of the many events hosted in the 8-acre park called the Underground at Ink Block.
Courtesy of the Underground at Ink Block

Located between Boston’s South End and South Boston, this recently opened 8-acre underpass park features landscaped pedestrian boardwalks, bicycle paths along the Fort Point Channel, a dog park, and 24-hour security. Much of the park is beneath the I-93 underpass, and one of its most unique features is a public art installation that uses local street artists to transform 150,000 square feet of mural walls.

The Wabash Lights in Chicago

A rendering of the future art installation called the Wabash Lights.
Courtesy of the Wabash Lights

In an effort to combat the dark shadow of Chicago’s elevated train tracks, two art-influenced entrepreneurs want to create a light installation on the underside of Wabash Avenue. In February 2016 a beta test of the lights was installed, and eventually the project hopes to light up multiple blocks of the underpass.

What’s the status now after the beta test? Wabash Lights is reaching out to locals who want to buy pixels or lights to help fund two blocks of lights.

Chicano Park in San Diego

In 1960, California officials expanded Interstate 5 through San Diego by building the Coronado Bridge, effectively splitting the neighborhood of Barrio Logan into two. The community was promised a park, but 10 years later California Highway Patrol started to build an office. Members of the local San Diego Hispanic community staged a large protest in response, occupying the site pushing officials to make good on their promises.

Eventually, Chicano Park was built and local artists flocked to the freeway columns to create monumental murals. Today, Chicano Park is on the National Register of Historic Places and the park remains an important site of protest for the Chicano Civil Rights Movement in San Diego.

The I-5 Colonnade Bike Park in Seattle

Built under the elevated spans of the I-5 in Seattle and connecting the Eastlake and Capitol Hill neighborhoods, the Colonnade trail system transformed a long-neglected and dangerous two acres of underpass into one of America’s first urban mountain bike skills parks. Originally opened in 2008, the urban park has had its ups and downs over the years, but its unlikely success story has been a model for many other cities.

Major bonus: the highway also offers protection from the rain, making the bike park an all-weather experience.

The Underline in Miami

Renderings for the Underline in Miami.
Courtesy of the Underline

Following in the footsteps of New York City’s High Line, the Underline in Miami wants to transform a rundown trail below the MetroRail—the city’s elevated rapid transit system—into an urban park. The project envisions a 10-mile walking and biking path that will act as the foundation for Miami’s larger 250-mile pedestrian infrastructure network.

The $110 million project will renovate the existing, unlit path into an interactive trail full of vegetation, art, and workout equipment. The first phase of construction is expected to begin in late 2018 with the first three of its 10 planned linear miles opening in 2020.

The Bentway in Toronto

Visitors to the Bentway ice trail stand on the edge during a zamboni run.
Photo by Denise Militzer, courtesy of the Bentway

Formerly known as Project: Under Gardiner, the Bentway aims to transform the vacant and forgotten area underneath Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway into a new community gathering place. The project stemmed from a decision by the Toronto City Council to rehabilitate the elevated highway, much of which is five stories high.

To take advantage of the wasted space under the highway, a new 1.75-kilometer trail will knit together seven neighborhoods, provide access to important tourist destinations, and serve as a year-round activity and event space with gardens, recreational amenities, and public art.

The first section, a 220-meter (720-foot) long ice skate trail, opened in January with quite the reception: visitors can rent skates, listen to live music, watch freestyle ice skating, and take advantage of pop-up curling.

Burnside Skatepark in Portland

Located underneath Portland’s Burnside Bridge on the east side of the Willamette River, this skate park was originally built 26 years ago without permission. A group of skaters took a dilapidated piece of land protected from the rain and poured a mecca of concrete skateboard features.

When nearby business owners realized that a skatepark could be a positive attribute for the neighborhood, they helped lobby Burnside’s city officials. Now, this completely legal skate park is part of skateboarding legend, and has even been featured in video games and professional magazines.

Underpass Art Parks in Washington D.C.

The Noma Parks Foundation is working on a plan to improve the condition of some of Washington, D.C.’s underpasses by adding art installations to beautify the spaces. There are plans to install art on four underpasses (check out the locations over here).

The first project—which has faced construction delays—will bring a “light-filled art park” to the the M Street Underpass Art Park. Called Rain, the installation will use LED lights inside hundreds of polycarbonate tubes to look like a thunderstorm. At the L Street Underpass, “Lightweave” will feature LED lights that float from the ceiling. Both projects should be finished in April 2018.

Parisite Skateboard Park in New Orleans

Opened in 2015 as the city’s only official skateboard park, the Parisite Park sits under Interstate 610 in New Orleans. The collection of ramps, half-pipes, and steps measures 18,000 square feet and was a collaboration between neighborhood skateboarders—who built some DIY skate features years ago—City Hall, and the federal government who oversees the highway above.

Cool fact: the park was designed to catch storm water coming from the interstate above, feeding rain gardens full of native plants. Want to help add more features for the kids of New Orleans? Head over to Kickstarter to read about Parisite’s plans for a new ramp and peanut pool at the front of the park.

Sabine Promenade in Houston

The Sabine Promenade in Houston, Texas.
Tom Fox, SWA Group

This award-winning park—completed in 2006—located below Houston’s I-45 features bike and pedestrian pathways landscaped by architects from the SWA Group, a large firm founded in the 1950s by Hideo Sasaki and Peter Walker.

The half-mile stretch below the highway uses nighttime lighting that changes from white to blue depending on the phases of the moon, provides access to the Buffalo Bayou, and boasts what some have called an “unintentional sculpture park” made up of the highway’s underpinnings.

The Lynch Family Skatepark in Boston

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Developed by the Charles River Conservancy—the same group working to bring swimming back to the Charles River—this $3 million, 40,000-square-foot facility in East Cambridge was built underneath ramps to the Zakim Bridge.

The park opened in 2015, is designed for skaters of all skill levels as well as athletes in wheelchairs, and is the largest skate park of its kind in Boston.