Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Reclaiming Nature in the Urban Context

In Madrid’s Heart, Park Blooms Where a Freeway Once Blighted (New York Times):
All around the world, highways are being torn down and waterfronts reclaimed; decades of thinking about cars and cities reversed; new public spaces created.

Most famously, in beauty-mad San Francisco, the 1989 earthquake overcame years of entrenched thinking: the Embarcadero Freeway was taken down, which reconnected the city with its now glorious waterfront. In Seoul, the removal of a stretch of highway along the now-revived Gaecheon stream has made room for a five-mile-long recreation area called Cheonggyecheon. In Milwaukee, the destruction of the Park East freeway spur has liberated acres of downtown for parks and neighborhood development. Even the nearly-30-year, bank-busting Big Dig fiasco made Boston a better place by tunneling a downtown highway, though it was obviously nobody’s idea of a stellar urban redevelopment project.

In New York, city and state officials are inching closer to tearing down the Sheridan Expressway, a mile-and-a-quarter-long gash in the South Bronx connecting the Bruckner and Cross Bronx Expressways, perhaps to replace it with homes, commercial spaces, playgrounds, swimming pools and soccer fields arrayed along the Bronx River.

But Madrid Río is a project whose audacity and scale, following the urban renewal successes of Barcelona, Spain’s civic trendsetter, can bring to a New Yorker’s mind the legacy of the street-grid plan, which this year celebrates its 200th anniversary. That’s because the park belongs to a larger transformation that includes the construction of dozens of new metro and light-rail stations that link far-flung, disconnected and often poor districts on Madrid’s outskirts to downtown.
One note from one who lives here - the Park East development has never lived up to its full potential. Nevertheless, the city functions fine without the freeway. Earlier we looked at a similar proposal for Mexico City.
WOULD it be unpatriotic to assert that the Big Dig in Boston was small potatoes compared with Madrid Rio? The pharaonically scaled waterfront revitalization that opened on April 15 is rapidly shifting Madrid’s recreational axis from Retiro Park to the once-forgotten western edge.

Who knew Madrid even had a river? Unlike Seville or Bilbao, whose early fortunes were inextricably linked to their waterways, Madrid began as a hilltop fortress that conveniently had a little river, the Manzanares, winding lazily through the plain below (to the west of the Royal Palace, which stands on the site of the fortress). But for decades, not even the royal family could claim a water view, as the river was choked by two ribbons of the M-30 freeway, which rings the city.

It took just seven years for the Madrid Rio project to go from conception to inauguration. Four miles of the six- to eight-lane M-30 were tunneled underground and the land above was reborn as a picturesque 300-acre riverside park. It cost 400 million euros (about $574 million), required the planting of 33,000 trees and 470,000 shrubs and plants, and took a lot of wrangling with environmental and neighborhood advocacy groups to create a sprawling esplanade that now runs through six municipal districts. Where traffic used to snake and snarl, people now stroll, jog, bike and splash.
The Madrid Waterfront: Who Knew? (New York Times)

Anyway, there seems to be a trend of transforming the post-industrial urban centers of Western cities into various eco-projects (the High-Line park in New York is one prominent example, formerly a railroad). My only problem with this is that it assumes we'll forever be shipping in all our manufactured goods from China. Either that, or we've permanently abandoned the industrial project altogether. Still, it's nice to see nature finally being integrated into urban planning in a deep way. Here's another proposal for Paris:

In 1929, Louis Renault set up shop on the Ile Seguin, a small island in the Seine River just southwest of Paris. At the end of the century, what was once the largest factory in France lay abandoned, its automobile production moved elsewhere. But if all goes according to plan, by 2017, the Ile Seguin will have been transformed into a near-utopian cultural hub, where the arts, business and residential life mix and sustainability is at the forefront.
Turning an Abandoned Industrial Island into a Green Cultural Center in Paris (Treehugger)

Something similar is planned for the Autobahn in Germany:
Germany's longest motorway is about to get one huge make-over; it will soon become a giant public park. When it is all said and done, the A7 will sport a 10-foot-thick canopy starting with Hamburg's Schnelsen district, down to Stellingen and ending in Bahrenfeld. This is no simple task considering the cover will need to be over a 100-feet wide in some areas.

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