Elevated tracks for the JMZ train run above Broadway and Flushing Avenue. © Krisanne Johnson for the Design Trust for Public Space

A new report from the Design Trust for Public Space outlines how.

The High Line gave new hope to abandoned elevated structures across the United States, to the point that more or less every city wants something like it. But the public spaces beneath active elevated road and rail beds remain at best largely underused, and at worst dark and dusty corridors of neglect. These areas are hardly scarce: there are some 700 miles of elevated transport structures in New York City alone, and ten times that in all America.

Today the New York-based Design Trust for Public Space, which jumpstarted interest in the High Line with a 2002 report, has released a massive new mission paper called Under the Elevated, which hopes to do the same for the areas beneath road and rail infrastructure across the city. The report, done in partnership with the NYC Department of Transportation, is the result of a two-year study into these spaces. It calls them “el-spaces.”

There are some 700 miles of elevated transport structures in New York City alone. (Rendering courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space)

Here’s the gist of the problem, as captured by the report:

In a dense city like New York, the residual space beneath the nearly 700 miles of elevated transportation infrastructure can no longer be an afterthought. The millions of square feet of these sites, nearly four times the size of Central Park, arguably encompass one of the most blighting influences on the city’s neighborhoods, yet also constitute one of the last development frontiers. This substantial inventory—cataloged for the first
 time by the Under the Elevated study—represents an untapped public asset that has the potential to radically transform New York’s urban fabric.

Under the Elevated goes on to outline some 130 pages worth of design ideas for reclaiming these “untapped” public assets. Some reflect on the success of actual pop-up installations; others remain in the very conceptual phases. The Design Trust and DOT say they’re actively developing several of the projects. We’ve highlighted six cases for New York and other cities with elevated corridors to consider.

Division Street (Manhattan)

A pop-up installation beneath the Manhattan Bridge created a community calendar for local residents. (Neil Donnelly / Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space)

The area beneath the Manhattan Bridge at Division Street, in Chinatown, is described by Under the Elevated as “dark and dirty from vehicle emissions and bridge runoff, and noisy due to trains running on the bridge above.” Not a terribly pleasant place. But it became at least an engaging one in April 2014, when the Design Trust and DOT installed a pop-up community calendar and red LED lighting.

The thinking behind the calendar was that the strip of Division Street under the elevated was a place that many Chinatown locals passed by, but few stopped at. The installation gave them a chance to post weekly events happening in the community: training classes, exercise programs, job or housing notices, and so on. If nothing else, according to the report, the calendar “showed that people are willing to stop and linger in a space that does not fit the traditional mold of a public space.”

Future ideas for the site include additional lighting installations that vary based on how the sun slips beneath the elevated structure, and turning the wall of the structure into green infrastructure that collects rainwater from the bridge.

Southern Boulevard (The Bronx)

The “Boogie Down Booth” along Southern Boulevard in the Bronx played music by local artists. (William Michael Fredericks / Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space)

Noise from the 2 and 5 trains that travel along elevated tracks above Southern Boulevard, in the Bronx, create what Under the Elevated calls “inhospitable conditions for pedestrians.” So project coordinators tried to counteract those unpleasant sounds with far more appealing ones in a July 2014 pop-up installation they called the “Boogie Down Booth.”

The booth played music from Bronx artists—from Thelonius Monk to the Chantels to Grandmaster Flash—all day and night through solar-powered speakers. It attracted some 1,500 passers-by per week during its pilot run. “The one request that many people voiced was to turn the music up,” according to the report.

A longer-term vision for Southern Boulevard would focus on creating an “acoustic barrier” along the sides of the elevated train tracks. The idea would be to trap and contain the noise up top so that it didn’t interfere as much with life down below. The Design Trust suggests having the barrier itself alternate between a solid structure and green walls.

Queensboro Bridge (Manhattan and Queens)

A possible design for the Queensboro Bridge would place electric vehicle charging stations below the elevated structure. (Susannah C. Drake / Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space)

There are some attractive areas beneath the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, in Manhattan and Queens, though most are on the Manhattan side—including an enclosed tennis court and a TJ Maxx. On the Queens side the space beneath the bridge is “much more underutilized, with mostly vacant lots, storage spaces, and parking,” according to the report.

One idea for that space (shown here) is to create charging hubs for electric cars and (if the city ever came around to converting its fleet) cabs. A rest station for drivers could be situated there, too, giving something to do while they waited. The Design Trust sees several sites beneath the bridge that could function as charging hubs in a broader city network.

Broadway Junction (Brooklyn)

One idea for reinventing Broadway Junction involves community spaces separated by color schemes. (Susannah C. Drake / Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space)

Five subway lines converge at Broadway Junction in Brooklyn, creating what Under the Elevated calls a “tangle of elevated structures.” Aside from some street vendors, there’s little activity going on in the el-space; much of it’s become parking. But a lot of light does shine through the tracks, “creating a lush landscape of opportunistic vegetation throughout the infrastructure maze.”

The Design Trust envisions a wayfinding system that consists of painting the elevated beams various colors. These colors could help section the area into various community uses, including parks and farmers markets and street fairs. Plans for Broadway Junction are already in motion: the city planning department was awarded a HUD grand to begin developing some ideas for the space.

Queens Plaza (Queens)

The Dutch Kills Green, under the elevated train at Queens Plaza, swapped commuter parking for a pedestrian and cyclist park. (Courtesy of Linda Pollak and the Design Trust for Public Space)

Some of the ideas in Under the Elevated have already seen the light of day (so to speak). One example of a completed overhaul is the Dutch Kills Green, in Queens, placed near the elevated train tracks that head through Long Island City. The permanent el-space project swapped out commuter parking for walking and biking paths through the park space.

Here’s the project’s landscape architect, Margie Ruddick, explaining to Urban Omnibus in 2009 how the Queens Plaza redesign “challenges the notion of an urban park because its surroundings are so inhospitable”:

Five or seven years ago, architects and everybody who saw our plans for Queens Plaza thought it was incongruous to have such a lush landscape on that kind of site.

Rockaway Freeway (Queens)

The Rockaway Waterfront Alliance launched Project Underway to reimagine the el-space beneath the Rockaway Freeway as a corridor for walkers and bike riders. (Rendering by Zoë Piccolo with permission from Rockaway Waterfront Alliance / Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space)

The Rockaway Freeway is a 50-foot-wide street running beneath a stretch of the elevated A train in Queens. Much of the road is no longer active, and a non-profit called the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance launched a program called Project Underway to reimagine the el-space as a five-mile corridor for walkers and bike riders, as well as street artists and pop-up markets. Design workshops are ongoing—with at least two on the calendar for later this month.

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