ULX: Urban Open Spaces

The following 10 projects—all completed in the past five years—not only revitalized deteriorating public parks but also transformed sites such as a former theme-park parking lot, a derelict sugar factory, and an abandoned rail line.

A 2018 United Nations report predicts that three decades from now, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban centers—an increase of about 2.5 billion people. With such densification comes the challenge of supplying sufficient outdoor opportunities for active and passive recreation, gathering, walking in nature, and relaxing. To offer places of urban respite and capitalize on local histories and natural resources, cities are converting industrial land into parks, working with developers to incorporate open space, and refreshing aging green spaces.

The following 10 projects—all completed in the past five years—not only revitalized deteriorating public parks but also transformed sites such as a former theme-park parking lot, a derelict sugar factory, an abandoned rail line, the site of a hotel demolished long ago, and once-industrial waterfronts.


(James Florio Photography)

1. 150 North Riverside
Chicago, Illinois

Sandwiched between railroad tracks and the Chicago River, a narrow strip of land offered proximity to one of Chicago’s busiest commuter train stations but was nevertheless long thought to be unbuildable. The site measures only 85 feet (26 m) at its widest, and the city required that at least 30 of those feet (9 m) be turned into a river promenade. Local developer Riverside Investment and Development acquired the land, along with air rights to two adjacent parcels, and worked with local architect Goettsch Partners and the local office of structural engineer Magnusson Klemencic Associates to construct a 54-story office tower while devoting more than 75 percent of the two-acre (0.8 ha) site to open space.

To do so, the team devised a core-supported structure, which allows the tapered building to balance on a base measuring only 39 feet (11.5 m) wide. Local firm Wolff Landscape Architecture placed an elevated park above underground parking, with tall grasses, a lawn, flower beds, trees, and curving hardscape and paths that contrast with the tower’s rectilinearity. The promenade provides overlooks and benches for viewing the river and includes a tiered amphitheater. The park opened in 2016.


(©Barkow Photographs)

2. The Battery
New York, New York

The Battery is one of New York City’s oldest open spaces, occupying the southern end of Manhattan on the Hudson River. In recent years, the New York City Parks and Recreation Department has been working with the nonprofit Battery Conservancy to revitalize the 25-acre (10 ha) park. Local firm Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners collaborated with landscape designer/horticulturist Piet Oudolf of Hummelo, the Netherlands, and local architecture firm WXY to rejuvenate the neglected Battery Bosque, a two-acre (0.8) grove of London planetrees planted amid cobblestones and asphalt.

The team replaced the paving with 34,000 perennials and 70,000 bulbs, adding curving benches and paths, food kiosks, and a spiral fountain. Ten years after the Bosque’s completion in 2005, the Seaglass Carousel opened across the path from it, illuminating a once-dim corner of the park with a nautilus shell–shaped carousel that WXY designed, inspired by the historic New York Aquarium that once occupied the Battery. Children ride on large, iridescent fish that glow with color-changing LED lights. Other elements of the Battery’s renovation include the creation of the Battery Oval Lawn and the Battery Bikeway, both completed in 2016, and the Battery Woodland, opened in 2017.


(ZM Yasa Architecture Photography/Studio Evren Başbuğ Architects)

3. Bostanlı Footbridge and Bostanlı Sunset Lounge
İzmir, Turkey

As part İzmir’s regeneration of the Karşıyaka coastline, local firm Studio Evren Başbuğ Architects took the regeneration project’s motto, “Easy Way of Living,” to heart and created two attractions to get visitors to slow down and pay attention to the site’s beauty.

The Bostanlı Footbridge spans its namesake creek, closing one of the gaps in the coast’s promenade. With views of the city skyline and bay, the arched bridge allows small boats to pass beneath. To invite people to linger, the design team lined one side of the bridge with an angled platform of ash wood, thermally modified to enhance durability. Supported by a steel frame, the platform allows visitors to sit or sprawl. The companion piece, the Bostanlı Sunset Lounge, consists of tiered platforms of the same ash, providing more venues for taking in the sunset. The footbridge and lounge were completed in 2017.


(Brett Boardman)

4. Darling Harbour Public Realm
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Before the arrival of the Europeans in the late 18th century, the coastal Eora people fished in what is now Sydney’s Darling Harbour. In the 19th century, industrial uses took over the harbor until the government began returning it to public uses in the 1980s, adding museums, an aquarium, and shops. Twenty-five years later, the New South Wales (NSW) government’s Infrastructure NSW entered into a public/private partnership with Lend Lease, headquartered in nearby Barangaroo, to build three new convention exhibition and entertainment facilities along the harbor, designed by the local offices of landscape architect/urban designer Hassell and architecture firm Populous.

As part of the project, Hassell transformed 49 acres (20 ha) of public domain, expanding and renovating the existing Tumbalong Park to accommodate up to 27,000 people at live outdoor events and adding green space, 650 new trees, plazas, artwork, and active water fountains. Completed in 2018, the project also involved extending and enhancing the area’s network of streets, improving pedestrian access and dedicated bike paths, and establishing new at-grade public access to the existing light-rail stops.


(©Daniel Levin)

5. Domino Park
Brooklyn, New York

The Domino Sugar Factory used to be one of the world’s largest sugar manufacturing facilities. Built during the 1850s, the factory closed in 2004, leaving a vacant 11-acre (4.5 ha) site in a prime spot along the East River. After the city rezoned the site, local developer Two Trees Management purchased it and brought in New York City–based SHoP Architects to master-plan a scheme that will ultimately include 2,800 market-rate residential units, 700 affordable housing units, offices, and shops in new buildings and the renovated refinery, as well as a public riverside park.

New York City–based James Corner Field Operations designed the linear Domino Park, which opened in 2018, to slowly transition from active recreational uses such as a dog run and bocce and volleyball courts at one end, to more passive recreational uses such as picnic and play areas, a lawn, and an urban beach at the other. At the center of the park, Water Square serves as a gathering place with a four-tiered seating area, a water feature, and steps from which to view the river. Salvaged factory machinery and four cylindrical syrup tanks at the park’s north end pay homage to the site’s industrial history.


(PLACE ©CavenPhoto Limited)

6. Prairie Line Trail
Tacoma, Washington

Chartered by Abraham Lincoln and completed in 1873, the Northern Pacific Railroad’s Prairie Line linked the Great Lakes to the transcontinental railroad line’s terminus in Tacoma. The last freight train stopped running in 2003, however, and weeds grew through the tracks until the city of Tacoma, the University of Washington Tacoma, and the Washington State Department of Ecology teamed up to transform the corridor into a linear park.

The first phase, completed by the university in 2014, runs through the university campus. Designed by the Seattle office of Place, it includes a pedestrian/bicycle trail, wetland basins, lawns, plazas, and groves, along with a stormwater treatment facility that filters runoff before it enters the Puget Sound. In 2017, the city of Tacoma completed another section, designed by local firm BCRA, that extends the trail south into the city’s historic brewery district. A planned final phase will connect to the Thea Foss Waterway Esplanade.


(Ngoc Doan)

7. Pulaski Park
Northampton, Massachusetts

Northampton’s Pulaski Park debuted in 1908, offering the downtown a formal lawn and an ornamental pergola. Massive flooding during the 1930s prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to divert a section of the Mill River to protect the downtown, cutting the area off from the riparian ecosystem. After much of the site was paved over during a renovation in the 1970s, the public park fell into disrepair. In 2009, the city held a design competition to revive the park and obtained state grants to fund the project. Landscape architect Stimson of Cambridge, Massachusetts, led a series of public meetings to gather input.

The result embodies the city’s environmental values and ecological history. The park’s new plaza features permeable paving and contains colorful movable tables and chairs as well as a fountain. A new village green accommodates informal gathering and recreation. A bioswale filters rainwater with native plants; heritage trees and native groundcover recall the riparian past. Stimson reclaimed the overgrown steep slope to the south with accessible walkways, a stairway, and gathering spots. The 2.5-acre (1 ha) park was completed in 2017.


(©David Lloyd/SWA)

8. Shekou Coastal Promenade
Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China

Designated as China’s first Special Economic Zone in 1980, Shenzhen quickly transformed from a small fishing village to a major metropolis, but development of the urban public realm lagged behind rapid population growth. As part of creating a parks system along the shoreline, the Nanshan Urban Management Bureau brought in the Houston office of SWA to create the Shekou Promenade and reconnect adjoining neighborhoods to the Shenzhen Bay. The four-mile (6 km) promenade’s pedestrian and bicycle lanes meander through trees, lawns, and gardens of native tall grasses.

A plaza hosts events and gatherings, surrounded by an undulating landscape that recalls the region’s mountains. An elevated overlook and a waterside terrace provide views of the bay, and a pedestrian bridge links the promenade to the rest of the new park system. Art installations reference the coastline’s industrial past, the city’s skyline, and elements of the marine environment. Completed in 2017, the promenade integrates with the harbor’s active fishing trade without disruption.


(©Nadia Molinari for LANDinc)

9. Trillium Park and William G. Davis Trail
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

On three manmade islands just off the shore of Lake Ontario, a theme park called Ontario Place opened in 1971 and operated for four decades. But visitors never experienced the park’s best views of Toronto, which were from a 7.5-acre (3 ha) employee parking lot at the eastern end of easternmost of the three islands. After Ontario Place closed in 2012, the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and Sport embarked on redeveloping the site. The first phase, completed in 2017, transformed that parking lot into Trillium Park, maximizing views of the lake and city skyline with landforms that slope gently toward the water.

The local office of LANDinc led a design team that included the New York office of landscape architecture firm West8, drawing inspiration from an extensive public process and including representatives from the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. The landscaping embodies the region’s geological, cultural, and botanical history, with native plants and trees, a granite ravine engraved with a moccasin design, small hills, and a 272-foot-long (83 m) moraine bluff constructed in an off-site quarry. The winding William G. Davis Trail links the park to the mainland.


(Philippe Ruault/Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Hargreaves Associates and Citymakers)

10. Zaryadye Park
Moscow, Russia

After demolition of the Hotel Rossiya in 2007, a 35-acre (14 ha) site on the Moskva River adjacent to the Kremlin remained fenced off for years. Then Moscow chief architect Sergey Kuznetsov organized an international design competition to turn the land into a public park. New York City–based Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Hargreaves Associates, also of New York City, and Moscow firm Citymakers won with a proposal that weaves natural and urban environments together.

Terraces step down the sloping site, each one referencing a different regional landscape of Russia: forest, steppe, tundra, and wetland. An overlook cantilevers high above the river, granting panoramic views of the Stalin-era Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building skyscraper. Four pavilions and two amphitheaters bring activity into the park, as does a concert hall designed by local firm TPO Reserve, which was also responsible for the reconstruction of the river embankment. A glass canopy semi-encloses the larger amphitheater to take advantage of passive solar heating in winter. The park opened in 2017.

Ron Nyren is a freelance architecture, urban planning, and real estate writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.
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