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Case Study Public infrastructure

Pieter Vandenhoudt

Studio Brooklyn 2011-2012

Infrastructure as urban opportunity

The last five decades urbanism is characterized by an upcoming dominance of mobility issues. The influence of transportation can’t be underestimated, even more it’s impossible to imagine a world without car, bus, train or subway. After the car’s reign we are now arriving at an era where public transport is growing in importance with a special focus on the subway. Transporting millions of people a day in the metropolitan cities, the subway can be seen as the most efficient means of public transportation over long distances in little time. Considering its 230 miles of routes, a total of 468 station operating 24/7 for its annual 1.4 billion users, the New York City Subway is among the busiest urban transit system in the world1. Since the decay of the Brooklyn elevated railroad tracks in the 1970s and their renovation in the 80s2 the MTA (Metropolitan Transport Authority) is up to new upgrades, repairs and replacements of their infrastructure. Placing these maintenance in a broader context new interventions are extended. In this era of returning concerns to the people in the street and the human scale in the city new possibilities for infrastructure are brought up to the contemporary urban discourse in the concept of infrastructural re-occupation. Most of these ‘elevated monsters’ were built between the end of nineteenth century and 1930’s and form part of almost fifty percent of all rapid transit in Brooklyn. Exceeding the scale of the individual these infrastructures are in most cases attended with vacancy and parking or storage, lacking any place of value beyond them. This case study picks up some very recent projects in the city of New York that explore the idea of infrastructure as opportunity for new urban places with the need of activating the urban voids by which they are surrounded. Through new design concepts, adaptive re-use, unconventional development strategies and a flexible approach to program can help activate infrastructure for both public use and local benefit. Mainly since the opening of the elevated linear park running along the West side of Manhattan the combination of urban infrastructure and urban park development is increasingly seen as a locus of opportunity.


MTA Facts and Figures 2, The New York City Transit Authority in the 1970s and 1980s

Meatpacking District Manhattan

James Corner Field Operation Diller Scofodio + Renfro

First section 2009 Second section 2011

the high line

One of the things I admire the most about the High Line is that it’s taking an old piece of New York infrastructure and brilliantly repurposed it without turning it into an exercise in nostalgia. Richard Lacayo, TIME Magazine Art and Architecture Critic, 2009

The High Line CONTEXT Because of its pioneering role in the combination of aged urban infrastructure with contemporary green environmental issues the history and design of the High Line is indispensable in this case-study. The 1.5-mile long linear park situated in the west side of Manhattan provides new ways of experiencing green, right in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world. After the departure of its last running train in 1980 the Manhattan West Side elevated railroad fell into oblivion for about twenty years. During this period different efforts were made for both demolishing and preserving the structure until the New York City administration of mayor Giuliani planned for demolishing as the line laid unused and in disrepair. In the years of forgetfulness a thin layer of soil had formed in some areas and a self-sown wilderness had created its own beauty which appealed to some local residents. In 1999 Friends of the High Line was formed to advocate for the Line’s preservation with an eye on public reuse in the concept of an elevated park. With lots of community support and thanks to interest of the new mayor Bloomberg, the Friends of the High Line succeeded in saving the West Side Line from demolition in 2001.

DESIGN The design concept is starting from the dilemma to preserve the spontaneous beauty without underestimating the intended use, popularity and scale of this project as a new public space. Started from how to create a pathless landscape (where the distinction between plantings and path is not strictly defined) the idea grew about making a planked pathway which is integrating with the vegetation and results in a system of varying ratios from hard to soft surfaces. The development of the pathway starts from elements of five pre-cast concrete planks whereby both hard and soft areas can be provided and by which the existing railway can be integrated. In this system the amount of paving is calibrated to accommodate a variety of uses with specific locations among the structure. For example seating is developed as a simple system of benches, fixed and movable chairs, which allows for multiple arrangements located on paths, in gathering spaces, in alcoves and in overlooks. Specific configurations accommodate everyday activities and small scale gatherings still allowing sufficient flexible places for special events. Along its route the pathless landscape contains different places and buildings providing different identities and activities for all varieties of users.


Self-sown wilderness 1980-2006, Looking NorthWest from 29th Street Manhattan, June 2000 Photograph by Joel Sternfield

Gansevoort Entry, section 1, Gansevoort Street Photograph by James Corner Field Operations

Platform with a view over 10th Avenue, section 1, 17th Street Photograph by James Corner Field Operations

Ratio’s in soft and hard pavement and varying vegetation and walking heights. Image by Diller Scofido + Renfro

Small tribune and grass field, section 2, 22nd - 23rd Street Photograph by James Corner Field Operations

Elevated platforms, section 2, 25th - 26th Street Photograph by James Corner Field Operations

Long Island City Queens

Marpillero Pollak Architects Margie Ruddick (WRT-design)

under construction

Queens plaza

It feels like there is starting to be an awareness of a wealth of public space, previously unnoticed. The potential is incredible; these places are magic.

Sandro Marpillero, Marpillero Pollak Architects, 2009

Pedestrians emerge from the subway disoriented. We wanted the place to ground you somewhere. Linda Pollak, Marpillero Pollak Architects, 2009

Queens Plaza CONTEXT The Queens Plaza Bicycle and Pedestrian Landscape Improvement is about the transformation of an area overwhelmed by an enormous tangle of urban infrastructure dissecting Long Island City. The design is focused on the organization of various flows and scales in the area together with providing a refuge for passers-by and residents in a new concept of urban green. The concept of the design redefines the existing infrastructure by the integration of nature, art, ecology and bringing back the human scale into the area. The site is completely dominated by the Elevated while most plans of the site do not register its presence. Instead of ignoring the overwhelming modernistic structure it is up to urban designers and landscape architects to redefine these structures into a new concept where attention is given to the scale of the individual. The main objectives for the Queens Plaza Bicycle and Pedestrian Landscape Improvement are designing a place that brings back this personal scale into the area with a clear landscape that easily explains how to move through and where people are stimulated to lounge around or return later. The idea behind the design is that something hard, urban and harsh can operate in an ecological way. An idea that is gaining in attention in the language of landscape architects since the existence of the High Line. Both projects are examples of immersive green landscapes that alter the conventional notion of what can be understood as an urban park and where a language of green, beauty and lushness can coexist with the hard edge of infrastructure. The Queens Plaza project consists in a broader context of a 1.3 mile intervention running along the elevated structure starting from the Queensboro Bridge and is translated into a linear landscape of medians and streetscape meeting in the JFK Park. The project is part of a street network but will operate as a park where our common perception of an urban park is altered since clear boundaries are absent.

DESIGN The main design idea is the creation of an urban canopy to visually organize the already present elements. The Elevated of Queens Plaza is transformed to address two aspects of its historical layering. In the first place its direct surroundings have to be more legible by making a more constituent trajectory of the structure’s different modules. Next the presence of the abandoned tracks need to be highlighted in order to offer a wayfinding clue. The boring, overwhelming structure is transformed into an elegant lantern-like series of sculptural spaces suspended above the flow of people and traffic below. The sense of legibility is provided by the integration of different landscape elements across scales, from benches and street furniture to landscape and topography. The personal and clever aspects of the design are situated in the very precise details to address to an intimate scale of the place. The way of how is dealt with storm water is carefully designed by artist Michael Singer who created a system of interlocking, permeable pavers that can manage and filter storm water through various kinds of planting and serves as hard walking surfaces at the same time. When putting two pavers together a little peephole appears so water can flow down into the planting. Another goal was the remake of the JFK Park so passers-by would have the sense of being a refuge while at the same time the place should manage the flows in and out the refuge together with the other flows of the trains and the traffic. Turning the arrival of the trains on the Elevated into an event, the aspect of the flow and the scale of the train have been engaged at the individual scale. This makes the arriving train part of the perception of the public space instead of a noisome distraction from it. Video:

Site of JFK Park before intervention, Long Island City, Queens picture from UrbanOmnibus

Paving Tiles Michael Singer

Design elemnts for the urban canopy Image by Margie Ruddick

Platform with a view over 10th Avenue, section 1, 17th Street Photograph by James Corner Field Operations

JFK Park today,

JFK Park today Photograph by Marpillero Pollak Architects

JFK Park today

Red Hook Brooklyn

John McGill

Design Research

the culver viaduct


Underline is an opportunistic repurposing of existing, functioning infrastructure to address the need for a vibrant and coherent public realm.


John McGill, architect and lecturar in San Francisco, 2010

the culver viaduct CONTEXT The Culver Viaduct is a massive steel and concrete 90 feet high viaduct carrying the F and G trains over the Gowanus Canal. In 2009 the MTA planned for extensive maintenance of the Culver Viaduct in the area of Red Hook, Brooklyn3. In the context of the Gowanus Canal area many others see this site in a broader intervention concerning the structure, the transit gateway and the neighborhood. The research and design of the viaduct is part of a master thesis addressed by John McGill to explore the idea of infrastructure as opportunity where it can transcend its only purpose; mobility. Since the Gowanus area is designated a federal Superfund in 20104 and shipping almost disappeared from the polluted canal the implementation of the viaduct structure can be reconsidered. Within this context a set of new conditions is offered and can be placed within the currently undergoing concrete structural deck replacement.

DESIGN The design approach starts from four types of preservation and four potential modes of intervention. The preservation is facing the game of sunlight and shadows through the structure, the structural ability, the structure’s existing character and a limited footprint at ground level with extra attention to the array of unique spatial conditions since the curving line of the viaduct is not constrained to the urban grid. Interventions regards the creation of flexible space for public assembly, a concrete decking as a public landscape running through the structure hung from above on steel rods, pure infill at ground level and adaptive reuse of existing adjacent structures. Within the existing structure it is impossible to assume that the additional loads of the concrete ribbon can be carried by the existing reinforced concrete trusses. For support, the ribbon is dictated by clearances found within and between the trusses at various heights above the streets and places where it can be fastened to the re-engineered deck above. The ribbon is allowed to move freely through and outboard the structure to create different viewpoints and spaces below, while seeking light and connecting different elements in the neighborhood additional to the Underline design. The adaptive reuse includes different additional programs depending on specific locations and conditions of the area. Together these implementations create a series of distributed spaces connected by a linear public park establishing a sequence of different visual experiences together with the rhythmic discharge and departure of passengers to and from the existing stations. The program is arranged in discernible clusters to provide clearly legible points of access from the street. Possible programs are the additions of a climbing wall, public exhibition space, a cafÊ, covered outdoor basketball courts, small public fitness center, a lap pool and retail and production spaces. To take into account the contemporary concerns about ecology, sustainability and storm water management hanging gardens are added to filter and retain storm water before it reaches the streets and to filter sunlight during summer. VIDEO:


Culver Viaduct Rehabilitation Project 4, Superfund

Culver Viaduct, Smith-9 Sts station, Red Hook, Brooklyn Image from

Underneath the viaduct, Nelson Street Photograph by John McGill

Design Proposal from above Image by John McGill

Culver Viaduct, Smith and 9th Street Photograph by John McGill

Design proposal for the pedestrain ribbon through and outboard the existing structure Rendering by John McGill

Basketball courts Rendering by John McGill

Hanging Gardens for filtering storm water and sunlight Rendering by John McGill

Climbing Wall Rendering by John McGill

Conclusion All projects discussed above are developed in the last ten years. This points out the very recent idea of providing public space and greenways together with the distant character of urban infrastructure. The idea has several potentials related to creating a new imago for the often neglected infrastructure despite their important role and image in New York City. Since the development of the High Line in Manhattan many comparable projects and design ideas followed in all imaginable conditions from abandonned railroad tracks to transportation infrastructure that is still in use today. As described in Bloomberg’s PlaNYC towards a greener and greater New York, the areas of the public realm, brownfield cleanup programs and transportation issues are very relevant topics for contemporary city planning in New York City. The supply of parks within a ten minutes walk from residence The idea of combining the big flows of the city with the very personal scale of the city’s residents fits in the idea of improving ,expanding and maintaining sustainable transportation infrastructure and its options as described in PlaNYC. The areas of the public realm, brownfield cleanup programs and transportation issues are very relevant topics for contemporary city planning in New York City.5 Because most brownfields are located near elevated transit structures these vacant lots can take up the provision of green places with a strong local and personal feeling. In the same time these new locations are embedded in a wide connected network of greenways and transit. It is clear that the public realm in the twentyfirst century is drwan by very new concepts of combining different concerns in city planning. Next to all the advantages of these new urban concepts one should also take into account different difficulties the projects are facing. One has to take care of the noise level of still running trains close to new public places or one should consider safety problems because of blurred boundaries between public and private spaces. Paying attention to all aspects these places are facing and bringing them together in a clear, strategic plan new urban places will be created with very high concerns about the genius loci while at the same time the broader context of the neighborhood is implemented.


PlaNYC, The Plan


AURORA FERNÁNDEZ PER, JAVIER ARPA, The public chance, New urban landscapes, p 310 a+t architecture publishers, Spain 2008, 420p. KELLY SHANNON, MARCEL SMETS, The landscape of contemporary infrastructure, p 136 NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, 272p. THE HIGH, The official Web site of the High Line and Friends of the High Line, december 27, 2010 URBAN, Shepard Cassim, “Queens Plaza: Infrastructure Reframed”, February 13, 2012. URBAN, McGill John, “Underline: The Culver Viaduct”, February 13, 2012.

Case Study _ Public Infrastructure  

Some examples of projects where urban infrastructures fit together with new green spaces.

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