Crowds take in a concert on the newly redesigned grounds of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
A lot of money is pouring into public spaces created by famous designers these days. More often than not, it's worth it. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Private funding and high-impact design were recurring themes of parks that opened in 2018. So was the hope that parks can unite, repair, and invigorate cities.

Perhaps the loudest sign of an urban trend comes from its least inspiring example. Along the Hudson River in Manhattan, construction has begun on Pier 55, a fantastical floating park and performance venue dreamed up by the British designer Thomas Heatherwick. With a $250 million price tag—being paid entirely by the entertainment mogul Barry Diller and his wife, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg—Diller Island (as it’s been nicknamed) will provide something special, for a public that didn’t ask for it, in a neighborhood that doesn’t need it.

Pier 55 feeds off of the success of the nearby High Line, which has a similar but more benevolent origin story. It was initiated in the early 2000s by a private entity, the Friends of the High Line, which wanted to turn a piece of decaying infrastructure (a disused elevated railway) into a romantic, modern icon. The group envisioned the High Line as a public space unlike any other in the world, serving the misfit artists and public-housing residents who defined the neighborhood of Chelsea. But the project ended up accelerating the gentrification of the surrounding area under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and became a symbol of 2010s Manhattan at its worst: an Instagram pit stop for tourists and a fashion accessory for luxury development. Diller Island, having survived an onslaught of well-financed opposition before ground broke, will fit in quite nicely with its surroundings when it opens in 2021.

The increasing role of private philanthropy in urban parks raises the question of who is best served by these projects, and whether private funding on this scale will erode public-sector initiative in creating green space. There is a brighter side to the money pouring into today’s stunning public spaces, however. Many of these new or revitalized parks focus on social integration, public health, biodiversity, and climate resilience, resulting in broadly appealing and accessible escapes from the worst aspects of modern life.

Below, CityLab staffers look back at the big park-related stories of 2018 and share why they think these places point to something (mostly) positive.

A true gateway

The arch and its newly restored grounds stand between downtown St. Louis and the Mississippi River. (Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates)

St. Louis’s Gateway Arch is undoubtedly an icon, symbolizing that city in the eyes of people the world over. But for decades, the silvery landmark designed by architect Eero Saarinen was a non-place within the city itself. It had, as Zach Mortice wrote in CityLab in March, “a 1,200-car parking garage on one side and a freeway gulch on the other.” People would drive up, park, snap a photo or two, and then leave.

In July, the arch grounds reopened after an extensive makeover by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, or MVVA. (This coincided with the reopening of the newly-expanded museum sunken under the arch.) At a cost of $380 million, with $221 million in private funding, the project was the largest-ever public-private partnership investment in a U.S. National Park. MVVA removed the parking garage on the northern end of the arch grounds and sympathetically renovated the original landscape around the arch (designed by famed mid-century landscape architect Dan Kiley). To the west, the designers unfurled a new stretch of parkland and play space over three blocks, creating an axis between downtown St. Louis, the arch, and the Mississippi River.

The idea is to invite locals and tourists alike—but especially locals—to spend more time on the riverfront, for hikes, picnics, and outdoor concerts. “We have an opportunity to bring St. Louisans down here every week, or once a month, or once every two months,” Eric Moraczewski, executive director of the Gateway Arch Park Foundation, told CityLab. “That’s something that wasn’t happening before.”

-Amanda Kolson Hurley

The High Line’s gritty reboot?

The Rail Park certainly has the look of an amenity that will usher in coffee shops and property-tax hikes. The city has work to do to ensure that residents who currently live in these neighborhoods can stay. (Mark Byrnes)

When the first segment of Philadelphia’s Rail Park opened in June, some residents may have felt they were walking into a trap. That’s no knock against the project, which has seen a chunk of the abandoned Reading Viaduct transformed into an elevated path above Philly’s Callowhill neighborhood. Even before it launched, the Rail Park was drawing comparisons to New York’s Insta-famous High Line. And that’s the problem: For people who are concerned that the park will exacerbate the change already coming to the neighborhood, the Rail Park might seem aimed at newcomers rather than current residents. 

In fact, the story of Philly’s new Rail Park may be more complicated than all that. The first segment, designed by the local landscape architects of Studio Bryan Hanes and just 1,300 feet long, feels like a proof of concept, and a costly one: It took more than six years and $10.3 million to build. When completed, the Rail Park will eventually wind from Chinatown to Brewerytown, cutting a long arc around the northern rim of Philadelphia’s Center City. But for that to happen, the city will need to acquire parts of the viaduct that it does not currently own for the segment east of Broad Street, and hope that developers do not block the path along the longer run to the west. Finishing the project will cost more than $100 million—not exactly pocket change.

If the development surrounding the Rail Park speeds up, it may outpace the development of the park itself. And it could be the wrong kind of development for central Philly. As Inga Saffron has reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the city’s powerful Zoning Board of Adjustment overruled the objections of area residents to approve a towering self-storage facility at Broad and Spring Garden Streets, just a few blocks from the Rail Park. The city is appealing its own agency’s decision. Which is to say: If the Rail Park is part of a broader plan to transform Callowhill and Spring Garden, it’s not going very well.

From the Cor-Ten steel porch swings to the ‘grammable Shepard Fairey mural, the Rail Park certainly has the look of an amenity that will usher in third-wave coffee shops and sweeping property-tax hikes. The city has work to do to ensure that residents who currently live in these neighborhoods can stay. But given the hurdles ahead for the Rail Park and the unique kinds of land-use approvals in Philadelphia, the city could miss the mile by a longshot.

-Kriston Capps

Big private money for a big public space

The 66.5-acre Gathering Place aspires to be a park for all Tulsans. (Shane Bevel)

Tulsa’s Gathering Place opened in September, after receiving the largest private donation to a public park in U.S. history ($465 million, from the George Kaiser Family Foundation along with other foundations and businesses). The park sits beside the Arkansas River, near the city’s Maple Ridge neighborhood. Its first phase comprises 66.5 acres; Gathering Place will span 100 acres when the second and third phases of construction are finished.

The designers at MVVA focused on inclusivity. There are 21 points to enter and exit the park, and long ramps allow children who use wheelchairs to access the lower levels of towers in the playground area. Other features include a sensory garden, a skate park, sports courts, various dining options, playgrounds for different age groups, and a boathouse where visitors can check out paddle boats, kayaks, and canoes.

-Nicole Javorsky

Calm, quiet resiliency

The nautical-themed park promises uninterrupted views of the Manhattan skyline, and a rare oasis in a part of New York that will only bustle more with Amazon’s incoming half-headquarters. (Vecerka/Esto, courtesy of SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi)

When the tide rolls in at Hunters Point South, the Long Island City park, designed by SWA/Balsley with Weiss/Manfredi, will soak it up like a sponge. Replete with native grasses and water-positive design, the park was built to withstand a storm—and it’s been tested already. In 2012, when the first phase of the park was still under construction, Hurricane Sandy and her four-foot storm surge inundated the entire thing. And then, calmly and with great precision, the water drained right back out into the river at a pace the sewer system could handle, leaving the park intact. Construction resumed just days later.

Phase Two, which opened in July, promises a similar and exciting form of resilient design. But that’s not the park’s only benefit. The 13-acre riverside expanse, built on formerly industrial land, will primarily serve the residents of planned low- and middle-income housing to be built right next to it. And the nautical-themed park, anchored by a ship-like scenic overlook, promises uninterrupted views of the Manhattan skyline, and a rare oasis of serenity amid a city that will only bustle more with Amazon’s incoming half-headquarters.

“Finding a spot like this on the other side? Impossible,” Ruben Camacho told CityLab in September, gesturing toward Midtown.

-Karim Doumar

Fighting off a tech “town square” for a real one

Fearing private, commercial encroachment on a beloved public green space, not a single person came forward in Apple’s favor during a public consultation on the fate of Stockholm’s Kungsträdgården. (Bob Strong/Reuters)

Stockholm struck a blow against Apple earlier this year when, following public protest, the city barred the tech company from opening a new store in a downtown park. The decision, which cancelled Apple’s plans to develop a prime site in the city’s Kungsträdgården, isn’t quite as cut and dried as it might sound. The site in question is currently home to (believe it or not) a TGI Fridays, permitted because local zoning rules allow catering establishments that supposedly serve park-goers. The idea of Apple taking over for a straight retail store, and possibly extending a little into the park, was still too much for Stockholmers. Fearing private, commercial encroachment on a beloved public green space, not a single person came forward in Apple’s favor during a public consultation.

The resulting rejection is a blow for Apple. Recently it has promoted its stores as latter-day “town squares,” performing some of the function that marketplaces, art galleries, and public gardens did in the past. As the backlash against Apple’s Stockholm park plan makes clear, many people are perfectly happy with the old-school idea of the town square or garden, and see no reason to let a tech giant muscle into an existing one for its own profit.

-Feargus O’Sullivan

New delights under an old, loathed expressway

The land around the Gardiner remained mostly industrial until a major residential boom in the 2000s. The influx of people has increased demand for public spaces and emphasized the extent to which the highway acts as an urban barrier. (Public Work)

Since January 2018, Torontonians have been able to enjoy at least one section of the maligned Gardiner Expressway. A new linear park beneath it known as the Bentway, initiated by retired city planner and philanthropist Judy Matthews and urban designer Ken Greenberg, has provided an unconventional oasis in a city whose high-rise growth bumps up against the Gardiner. “We see the city struggling with this huge explosion of people coming into the downtown and the need for public open space and civic amenities,” said Matthews (who, along with her husband, gave $25 million to the park). “And if we can help nurture and expand that common ground, the places that we all share, we would like to do that.”

Landscape-architecture firm Public Work is responsible for the flexible new space. As described by Chris Bateman earlier this year, the Bentway has gigantic concrete pylons—“bents,” in engineering terms—dividing the space into 55 sections that can be programmed individually or in groups. Greenberg told Bateman that the opportunity to tear down this particular part of the Gardiner “had long passed.” So instead, it’s a chance to rethink what life can be like underneath such dead spaces.

“The people who have been questioning why you would want to do something underneath the Gardiner Expressway have had a bit of an ‘ah-ha’ moment,” said Greenberg. “It has really captured people’s imagination, they’re beginning to [ask]: ‘What’s next?’”

-Mark Byrnes

Two riverfront parks, two segregated cities, one design firm

Both riverfront sites sit just off the edge of their respective downtowns, and have immense potential to connect with adjacent neighborhoods cut off by physical and socioeconomic barriers. (MMVA)

High-quality public spaces by MVVA will appear along Detroit’s and Buffalo’s riverfronts in the near future, thanks to the philanthropic organization formed in memory of Detroit resident and Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr. Announced this fall on what would have been Wilson’s 100th birthday, gifts of $100 million will go to both cities for substantial, signature parks, which will both be named Ralph Wilson Jr. Centennial Park.

Wilson’s estate sold the National Football League’s Bills for $1.4 billion after his death in 2014, with the proceeds from the sale going to his foundation. Formed in 2015, the foundation focuses on charitable causes with maximal impact in Detroit and Buffalo before sunsetting in 2035. Dave Enger, its president, says the Wilson Foundation wanted to support signature parks and connected trail systems for the deeply segregated regions in order to promote the physical and economic health of their most vulnerable residents.

Both riverfront sites sit just off the edge of their respective downtowns, and have immense potential to connect with adjacent neighborhoods cut off by physical and socioeconomic barriers. MVVA brings—as this roundup proves—design authority and great experience, but design is only one component of a great park. “If it’s done by the greatest designer in world without community input it won’t be used by the community,” Enger told CityLab.

-Mark Byrnes

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo of a full parking lot with a double rainbow over it
    Transportation

    Parking Reform Will Save the City

    Cities that require builders to provide off-street parking trigger more traffic, sprawl, and housing unaffordability. But we can break the vicious cycle.   

  2. A young refugee from Kosovo stands in front of a map of Hungary with her teacher.
    Maps

    Who Maps the World?

    Too often, men. And money. But a team of OpenStreetMap users is working to draw new cartographic lines, making maps that more accurately—and equitably—reflect our space.

  3. A woman looks straight at camera with others people and trees in background.
    Equity

    Why Pittsburgh Is the Worst City for Black Women, in 6 Charts

    Pittsburgh is the worst place for black women to live in for just about every indicator of livability, says the city’s Gender Equity Commission.

  4. a map comparing the sizes of several cities
    Maps

    The Commuting Principle That Shaped Urban History

    From ancient Rome to modern Atlanta, the shape of cities has been defined by the technologies that allow commuters to get to work in about 30 minutes.

  5. New Yorkers riding the subway.
    Transportation

    The Great Divide in How Americans Commute to Work

    We are cleaving into two nations—one where daily life revolves around the car, and the other where the car is receding in favor of walking, biking, and transit.

×