The Economics Behind Reclaiming Outdated Infrastructure for Public Places

Long Live the Lowline! As of the end of February, the Kickstarter-project-turned-urban-design-experiment known as the Lowline Lab has shut down. The exhibit originally opened to the public in October 2015 in an abandoned market building (pictured above) in New York City, intended as a proof-of-concept for what an underground park could look like. Using a series of novel remote skylights that channel sunlight from rooftops on the surface to underground, the Lab showed off a potential future for green space development. The Lab’s closing marks the next phase in what will ultimately become the Lowline, a fully-realized underground park complete with plants, trails, and both natural and artificial sunlight. When it opens in 2021, it will be the first underground park in the world.

This urban redevelopment project is the latest in what Travel+Leisure journalist Justin Davidson calls “a Golden Age of Urban Green Spaces.” It is a rising trend of creative urban redevelopment projects intended to leverage the existing industrial infrastructure of a city to incorporate unique public green spaces. In promoting and developing these projects, cities can reclaim precious real estate in a way that improves the beauty and walkability of a city or town. Urban renewal in this form is one of the most popular economic development trends in the past few decades. 

Central Park, the first landscaped park in an American city, was completed just under a century after American Independence in 1873, at roughly the same time the city reached a population of 1 million. The Park's modern successors fight for relevance in a far more competitive arena, as real estate is sold, bought, and redeveloped to attract the next generation of workers and residents. Because of this, it can be easy to overlook the vital role that parks have in economic development, both in new revenues and cost savings as well as health, welfare, and environmental improvements, for example:

  • Because open recreational areas do not often need significant infrastructure investment beyond lighting and water supply and can be built on top of existing developments, the municipal costs of owning and operating an open green space is often lower than most alternative uses.  Parks that are built over existing development, while slightly more expensive to construct, also allow towns and cities to "double dip" on real estate without noticeably hindering existing industrial usage.
  • These benefits are doubled by parks’ abilities to abate air pollution, filter pollutants out of rainwater, and shore up flood-prone areas.
  • Parks provide a destination for non-local visitors, who either are looking for attractions in the area or are traveling specifically for the park of their choice. A 2015 study estimated an additional $140 billion in increased economic activity and 1 million jobs in the US are thanks to the spending that local and regional parks drive.
  • Multiple studies have shown that property values adjacent to parks appreciate quickly relative to others in the immediate area. One study estimated that property within 500 feet of a park will see its value increase by a minimum of 5% more than those further away.
  • In addition to economic benefits, parks provide an immeasurable boost through mental health benefits and stronger residential sense of place.

At an increasing rate cities are beginning to reexamine the urban ecosystem, in the hopes of repurposing their infrastructure into a more resident-friendly cityscape. The economic and cultural impact of urban green space is unmistakable, but the forms these spaces can take vary substantially. In this article, we will look at how some towns and cities are taking novel approaches to reclaim space and carve out unique and open paradises out of the industrial landscape. 


Walkway Over the Hudson

The Walkway over the Hudson was at one point part of the Maybrook Railroad Line, accommodating trains traveling across the Hudson River between the towns of Lloyd and Poughkeepsie. The 212-foot-tall cantilever bridge was in operation from 1888 and 1974, when it was rendered unusable by a fire. Nearly a decade and a half later, the bridge was taken under new management and the process to build a public access bridge began. The first two of four development phases totaled $38.8 million in costs.

When it opened in 2009, the Walkway over the Hudson was the longest footbridge in the world. While the bridge itself is not green like most other parks in this list, it represents a major industrial reclamation as part of a greater push to blend public green spaces with historic infrastructure. In 2012, Camoin Associates performed an economic impact study which found that the Walkway promoted nearly 500,000 new tourists per year to both Lloyd and Poughkeepsie, whose spending results in an annual $24 million in new sales and nearly 400 total new jobs throughout  Dutchess and Ulster counties. From this new economic activity, these counties receive nearly $800,000 in additional tax revenue a year.


The Highline

The High Line viaduct, at the time a portion of the New York Central Railroad’s West Side Line, opened in 1934 to connect trains to warehouses without disrupting automobile traffic. Less than 30 years later the line was underutilized due to the nationwide rise in trucking, and within half a century the line closed and was abandoned. For nearly 30 years the High Line viaduct would go unused, until the nonprofit organization Friends of the High Line campaigned to develop a pedestrian walkway along the remaining 1.5 miles of existing rail. The design was based on La Promenade Plantée, a park in Paris similarly built on the skeleton of an old rail line. The site received funding in 2004, and the park was completed in its entirety in 2011 at a total cost of $290 million.

A 2014 report by Greenplay LLC estimated that the High Line accommodates nearly 4 million tourists a year, ten times the quantity estimated when the park was first built. These tourists spent roughly $2 billion in additional purchases in five years after the park opened, representing $180 million additional net new annual revenue to the city. Many people have credited the High Line’s development for the revitalization of the Chelsea Neighborhood of New York City, a result that Zillow’s StreetEasy Blog referred to as a “Halo Effect” that has caused real estate in close proximity to the park to sell for double the median real estate price of the surrounding area.


The Park Over the Highway

The Gateway Arch is an iconic piece of Americana, a 630-foot-tall structure rising out into the St. Louis skyline. It is a feat of engineering that attracts over four million visitors each year. There’s only one problem: the arch itself and the park that surrounds it were previously cut off from most of the city by the I-44 freeway. Pedestrians hoping to visit the city were forced to travel along a bridge or path to get from the Old Courthouse on the west side of the freeway to the Arch on the east. This has changed with the completion of the one of the many projects under CityArchRiver.

CityArchRiver is the umbrella project that encompasses a $380 million series of redevelopments to the gardens and buildings surrounding the Arch on the St. Louis waterfront. Its most ambitious undertaking has been The Park Over the Highway, a plan to redevelop the area around and over the still-functioning freeway into a unified green space. The project was completed in Fall 2015, and all the CityArchRiver projects are anticipated to be complete by Summer 2017. The project’s website currently boasts that “if out-of-town visitors spend just half a day longer in the region and the number of visitors to the Arch returns to average levels before 2006, the economic impact would be the equivalent of a second Cardinals baseball season each year...”


Freeway Park

Freeway Park opened to the public in July of 1976 and, in doing so, may have single-handedly sparked a new era in urban green space. Potentially the oldest and most unique development discussed in this article, the 5.5-acre park is built out of a series of interconnected plazas that mingle above Interstate 5 and below 8th Avenue in downtown Seattle. Most of the park is built in the Brutalist architectural style out of poured concrete slabs and broadleaf greenery, creating an environment that is both jarring in its contrast and seemingly natural amidst the roads and skyscrapers. The park connects the Washington State Convention and Trade Center to the neighborhoods and medical facilities on First Hill.

Unfortunately, the potential economic impact of the park has not been directly measured. Before 2005 the area suffered controversy after the park’s aging design, poor facilities, and underutilization by residents made it ideal for crime. As of 2005, however, a revitalization effort has been in place to install better lighting, remove and redesign some of the space, and add additional amenities for exercise.


Buffalo Bayou Promenade

Completed in 2006, the 23-acre Buffalo Bayou Promenade (also called the Sabine-to-Bagby Promenade) sits upon the former site of industrial urban blight under the shadow of multiple crisscrossing highway overpasses. The $15 million project introduced flood-resistant native landscaping, new walkways and biking trails with state-of-the-art lunar lighting, a boat launch, and public event space, 40% of which shares vertical space with existing highway infrastructure. The new paths and trails include a footbridge, which for the first time provides pedestrians with walking access between both banks of the Bayou.

The effects of the new green space were measured by the University of Texas in 2013. The study found several economic, social, and environmental benefits. The 641 newly-planted trees contribute to the yearly sequestration of nearly 30 tons of CO2 emissions per year, equivalent to nearly 80,000 miles of travel emissions from a single car. The landscaping also increased the floodwater capacity of the Bayou, allowing the area to withstand four times more floodwater during storms and potentially preventing future weather-related damage to the surrounding neighborhoods. Finally, a survey of park attendees in the area found that 99% of respondents noted reduced mental stress and 84% of respondents felt a greater sense of local identity as a result of the park.

Looking Forward

Green space reclamation is one of the greatest ways to bring new life to aging properties. In the years between the closing of the High Line viaduct and the opening of the High Line Park, for example, the vacant rail had grown for itself an abundance of hardy plant life in the presence of space and absence of traffic. Taking this foothold of nature from a derelict hotspot for urban explorers to a downtown landmark was a logical next step forward. The cities and towns mentioned were able to leverage already existing infrastructure to build green spaces and, as a result, they were able to build new focal points for community development and culture in a way that harnesses and complements their unique geographic and developmental identities. These parks represent a step forward in economic development planning, and the role that parks and green space represent in the evolving landscape of America's cities and towns.

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