Mexico City Makes Smart Use of Its Underpasses

Mexico City, one of the world’s biggest metropolises, is getting creative about using the leftover spaces under its bridges. After the success of a pilot program called Bajo Puentes (or Under Bridges), which turned four previously trash-strewn, vacant underpass spaces into vibrant shopping plazas, playgrounds, and cafes, the city is expanding the program, adding another five and targeting 30 more as candidates.

Earlier this summer, The Washington Post reported that urban planners in Mexico City “have found a way to add thousands of square feet of new commercial and recreational space. And it isn’t costing local government a cent.” This new private-public sector model for reusing underpasses is a smart one: Get local developers to pay for the construction and upkeep of the spaces.

This is how it works: the city government’s department of housing and urban development (SEDUVI) asks business owners and developers to take on leases for these places at below-market rates, but also asks them to pay for the clean-up, construction, and upkeep of the sites. Local businesses have to leave 50 percent of the area as public space, but 30 percent can be used for commercial purposes, and 20 percent for new parking.

In The Washington Post, one local owner of a “Hawaiian-themed salad bar” who has taken up residence under an expressway, said: “This used to be a dark, dirty place where vagrants slept, and now look at it.” Her brand-new food court was apparently packed, in large part because of her tacos, but also because it was cooler under the underpass and “there was no discernible noise from the heavy traffic overhead.”

Eduardo Aguilar, an urban planner for the Mexico City government who helped design the program, said: “These were spaces that generated no benefit and had been illegally appropriated as dumping grounds for trash or as homeless campsites. They were spaces that cost the city to maintain and were a drain on resources.”

He also told Azure magazine, that these place are “well-lit at night” and “they attract a lot of people.” With the addition of pedestrian walkways, these are actually safe place to be in.

One of the existing Under Bridges even has outdoor exercise equipment, which is a local draw in itself. As one woman said, “not everyone can afford gym membership.”

Mexico City admits it’s not a trend-setter here and has actually copied this model from other cities. Indeed, many densely-packed Asian cities have long maximized spaces under their expressways. But this demonstrates how underpasses are increasingly being viewed as assets everywhere. See how Toronto is revitalizing an underpass with a new park.

See more images of Under Bridges.

Image credits: (1-2) Tico Times, (3) Texarkana Gazette

The Fantastic Jupiter Artland

About 15 years ago, Robert and Nicky Wilson bought Bonnington House, a Jacobean manor outside Edinburgh, Scotland, and decided it was the perfect spot for a sculpture park. Over the years, the couple have created Jupiter Artland, a fantastic playground for contemporary art and nature lovers.

Commissioning works from some of the leading land artists, sculptors, and landscape designers, they have clearly thought hard about the locations of the artworks within the landscape. Pieces have been added slowly. The team have even paused at certain points to let “the land heal itself” and let the art works “naturally sit in the woods.” They write: “It’s over time that we are learning the benefits of getting to know the work well.”

The team recently celebrated the completion of landscape architect Charles Jenck’s Cells of Life landform (see image above and below). In this awe-inspiring piece, eight landforms and a connecting causeway surround lakes and a flat area designed for sculpture exhibits.

They write: “The theme is the life of the cell, cells as the basic units of life, and the way one cell divides into two in stages called mitosis.”

See larger images along with a brief video with Jencks that explains his design process:

There is clearly much more to see. As the couple explain, the park is a place for true exploration. “Visitors to Jupiter Artland are given a map indicating the location of the artworks within the grounds. But there’s no set route. Clockwise or anticlockwise is your choice. As is a left turn here or a right turn there; or the retracing of steps for a second look. The artworks are land marks, events, confrontations on a journey of discovery; an open-ended journey.”

Of the many works scattered throughout, one highlight is Patterns by Sara Parker, a Glasgow-based artist. The sculpture is a delicate piece that “echoes architectural forms.” The work is made up of inter-connecting pieces of glass, brass, and aluminium set on a base of concrete, materials that richly contrast with the natural setting.

Another art work also has a dialogue with its natural context. In A Forest, artist Jim Lambie used “tessellated panels of spray painted chrome peeled back” to reveal flashes of color and reflections of the surrounding nature.

And then there’s the wild Firmanent by Antony Gormley. Constructed from 1,019 steel balls held up by 1,770 steel bands welded together, this polygonal structure brings to “mind an assembled matrix of volumes that map a celestial constellation, while also implying the form of a body lost within it. Not a celestial body, but a real one made by scanning the artist’s own body.”

Lastly, Anish Kapoor, famous in the U.S. for his popular “bean” sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park, created Suck, a spookier addition to his portfolio. This piece is “surrounded by a 17 feet square cage which enables the viewer to glimpse the smooth curves of the void sinking into the earth. The void descends to an infinite depth into which one is drawn. It engenders a sense of dislocation and a fear of being pulled into the abyss.”

Explore Jupiter Artland

Also, for those in the U.S., check out a great new guide book by Francesca Pigola called Art Parks, which covers a number of sculpture parks and gardens across America.

Image credit: (1-3) Jupiter Artland / Allan Pollok-Morris, (4) Patterns / Keith Hunter. Courtesy Jupiter Artland, (5) A Forest / Keith Hunter. Courtesy Jupiter Artland, (6) Firmanent / Ray Cox. Courtesy Jupiter Artland, (7) Courtesy of Jupiter Artland

New Yorkers Luck Out with New Waterfront Park

In Long Island City, Queens, Mayor Michael Bloomberg just unveiled the first phase of Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park, a 5-acre park in a part of New York City without much green space. While the park is clearly a stunner, it is also highly resilient and designed to adapt to climate change. The park will eventually total 11 acres in a 30-acre development that includes affordable housing, a new school, and retail space. Designed by landscape architects Thomas Balsley Associates and architects Weiss/Manfredi, the park itself, along with the nearby infrastructure and roadways, cost $66 million, which was primarily paid for by the city’s department of housing preservation and development.

Resiliency is integral to the design. According to the designers, “Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park will become a new model of urban ecology and a laboratory for innovative sustainable design. The integrated design weaves together infrastructure, landscape, and architecture to transform this previously underutilized site into new ecological corridors that anticipate the inevitable patterns of flooding and rising water levels along the East River.”

The centerpiece of the new space is a 1.25-acre “recreation oval” with artificial turf designed for sports. Around this shape, there’s natural grass for those who want to lay out and catch some sun. The oval centers a playground, dog run, and urban beach with actual sand.

In a crescent shape at the edge of the oval visitors can find Weiss/Manfredi’s corrugated metal pavilion canopy, which was designed to “evoke the site’s industrial past.” The pavilion, which hosts a cafe, restrooms, and park offices, has achieved net-zero power consumption through the use of  64 solar panels, which meet about 50 percent of the park’s energy needs. The roof is designed so that enough extra panels could be added to meet 100 percent. It also steers runoff to nearby bioswales. Pretty clever.

In contrast to all the curved organic forms with the oval center, crescent pavilion, and blob-shaped dog park, the park’s rain garden is rectilinear, with meandering stepped paths breaking up the grid. The designers write that the garden “revisits the area’s distant past as a wetland ecosystem.” But it also reflects the recent past: Balsley built the garden over old railroad tracks, leaving them exposed in the new landscape.

This park truly makes great use of the waterfront, too. You can tell some of these views were lined up to awe.

And there are tons of places to sit and enjoy those amazing views, including one section that actually cantilevers out 30-feet over the edge of the water.

Hunter’s Point Park is just one piece of a bigger project transforming 30 acres of waterfront, turning a legacy of industrial development into a green magnet. The development will be home to the largest affordable housing development since the 1970s. Out of 5,000 residential units, some 60 percent will be “permanently affordable.” The development also includes a new public school ready to open for this school year.

Image credits: (1-5) Albert Večerka/Esto