Innovative ways to reuse the empty space beneath overpasses

Elevated freeways slice through cities all over the world. At their best, they make getting into and around cities incredibly easy; at their worst, they segregate and isolate communities. Somewhere in between those two poles is a ton of potential. The spaces beneath those overpasses are often underutilized – or utilized in ways illegal or undesirable. Cities are beginning to take advantage of these dead spaces as usable parts of the public realm. These projects highlight some of the ways cities and communities are taking advantage of the space beneath freeways.

1. Underpass Park, Toronto
The most notable development in this trend is Underpass Park, a new 2.5-acre public park now under construction in Toronto. The park re-uses the dead space beneath and around two freeway overpasses near the city’s downtown and right next to the Don River. The formerly derelict site will be reborn as a more inviting public space, with tree plantings, seating areas and walking paths. It’s part of a broader plan to develop the West Don Lands precinct into a new mixed-use neighborhood. Underpass Park will be the first major element of that plan, and its first phase is expected to complete construction by the end of the year.

2. Burnside Skatepark, Portland
Many spaces beneath freeway overpasses have been co-opted by skateboarders. Burnside Skatepark, like many under-freeway skateparks, was illegally constructed by groups of skateboarders over time. Eventually, this park, like some other skateparks, won the favor of the city and became officially sanctioned.

3. I-5 Colonnade Mountain Bike Park, Seattle
A volunteer-built mountain biking park constructed on 2 acres beneath Interstate 5 in Seattle, this space is part of a larger 7.5-acre park that began construction in 2005. More than one mile of ramps and wooden pathways were built under the guidance of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, and also received funding from the city of Seattle. The park is now part of the Seattle Parks and Recreation park system.

4. SEART Park, Mount Wellington, New Zealand
This simple park and colorful design adds interest to an otherwise dark and dank under freeway area. Designed by landscape architecture firm Isthmus, the project creates a new walking path with seating next to a huge shopping mall in this suburb of Auckland.

5. Animal pathways, Worldwide
Transportation and infrastructure officials all over the world are taking animal populations into account by creating freeway animal crossings either above or beneath freeways. These natural crossings maintain the natural habitat over or under the freeway to prevent the fragmentation of habitats and to reduce the amount of animals killed in roadway accidents. These types of projects are popular in France, the Netherlands and Canada, and the U.S. Federal Highway Administration has released its own set of guidelines for planning infrastructure with a reduced impact on animal species.

6. Under the Freeway Flea Market, Wallace, ID
The small town of Wallace, Idaho (population 784) recently hosted its 7th annual “Under the Freeway Flea Market”. More than 80 vendors were on hand, selling antiques, firearms, and “everything from A to Z”.

7. Jose Marti Park, Miami
Right where I-95 crosses the Miami River, a group of park spaces fills in, around and under the overpass. Jose Marti Park’s under overpass sections include these basketball courts and painted walking areas amid the interstate’s supporting columns.

8. Stanica Cultural Centre, Zilina, Slovakia
This auditorium and theater space was constructed beneath a freeway as part of the Stanica Cultural Centre in Slovakia’s fourth largest city. It was constructed by volunteers and built out of plastic beer crates and hay bales beginning in 2009.

9. Street Children Home, Caracas, Venezuela
A homeless shelter for the street children of Caracas, Venezuela was designed to fit in unused space beneath one of the city’s main highways. Designed by Urban Think-Tank, this project was completed in 2001 and has room for about 30 children. Its roof does double duty as a play area. There’s also a small garden plot and a woodworking workshop.

About the Author

Nate Berg

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.

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