By Grace Mitchell Tada, ASLA
On our heterogeneous planet, finding an overarching commonality between new parks around the world seems daunting. Yet author and architectural historian Victoria Newhouse, along with Alex Pisha, argue in the new book Parks of the 21st Century: Reinvented Landscapes, Reclaimed Territories that there is one: the drive to create parks on post-industrial, degraded, or otherwise rejected land.
Think of the High Line, perhaps the park of greatest celebrity in this genre, which transformed an unused rail line into a highly visited destination in Manhattan. With this success in mind, Newhouse and Pisha turn their attention to inventorying abandoned sites around the world—from closed highways to decommissioned airports, former industrial sites to defunct quarries—that now constitute the flourishing parks.
Making parks in underused, depleted, or contaminated land is not new. To name but two 19th-century examples: Paris’ Parc des Buttes Chaumont was once a quarry, and Boston’s Emerald Necklace a sewage-filled swamp. However, Newhouse maintains that the emergence of the environmental movement, the rise of a newly post-industrial society, and the depletion of public space accelerated this trend. And unlike parks of earlier centuries that sought to create sanctuary distinctly delineated from their city, all of the volume’s selected parks merge with their urban environments.
Parks of the 21st Century is organized by site history, with chapters titles such as “Highway Caps,” “Waterside Industry: Parks,” “Inland Industry,” and “Strongholds.” The book’s structure juxtaposes sites of the same type, presenting different variations of site understanding and approach that may vary by culture or local circumstances. Park descriptions include contexts, histories, design processes, and site elements, described by Newhouse in the first person based upon her visits with Pisha.
In the chapter describing parks on former airport land, two German parks exemplify divergent approaches. In Berlin, Tempelhofer Feld exists largely as it was when the airport closed, in 2008. The public opposed any changes, including a proposal from GROSS.MAX. Today, all site amenities, from toilets to community gardens to signage, are temporary. It is, according to Westhouse, a “huge void.”
In contrast to Tempelhofer, Alter Flugplatz, the empty site of relocated airport in Bonames, Germany, offers an argument for intervention—a strikingly minimal one. Instead of trying to replicate nature, GTL Landschaftsarchitektur sought to create a space that would allow it to self-propagate. Their design entailed breaking up the site’s asphalt and concrete, and this “human manipulation of the surface provided the necessary armature for the ‘wild’ to emerge.” The park exists as a continually changing landscape, and one with inherently little maintenance.
Waterfront parks comprise a significant number of parks in the book–according to the authors, the most parks have been constructed atop former industrial sites along waterfronts than anywhere else. The authors note that the similarities and differences between parks in China and those in the West—in design approach, remediation efforts, construction timelines, implementation—are particularly apparent.
Ambitious park system projects underway in Shanghai and New York City both reimagine former industrial sites as green public amenities. In New York City, Hunter’s Point South, designed by SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi, and Brooklyn Bridge Park, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates implement a soft edge made possible by marshes, bridges, and raised walkways that make space for the inevitable flux of water. But most of the Shanghai parks remain, at the government’s direction, lined by the city’s flood wall. In their design of the Shanghai Shipyard Riverside Park, Design Land Collaborative overcame government-established design limitations including the flood wall, as well as work with too-shallow soil depth that were a result of the remediation efforts in which they had no role. Yet despite the constraints, the authors were impressed with the results—the allure of its human scale, the lush planting.
While the glamour of waterfront sites attracts much attention, Newhouse and Pisha share parks on inland industrial sites that are just as captivating. Parque Bicentenario, designed by Grupo di Diseño Urbano, is one of them, representing the only Mexican park in the volume. Built atop a former oil refinery, the park and botanical garden serve simultaneously as a public green space and educational site, its eight scaled-down biomes displaying the diversity across Mexico.
Not all of the book’s spurned sites result from modern technologies, such as those parks in “Quarries” and the “Strongholds” chapters. Both types of parks are globally widespread, but take on different forms. The vast 570-acre Huadu Lake Park by Palm Design in Guangzhou, China, employs local Cantonese garden aesthetics, offering a simplicity that “delighted” the authors.
On the small scale, 1.3-acre Thomas C. Wales Park in Seattle, Washington by Site Workshop impressed them its outsized effect: the magic bestowed by the vegetation, the “fairy-tale quality” granted by Adam Kuby’s Quarry Rings sculpture.
Each of the sites in Parks of the 21st Century are included only because of the narratives we understand about them. Topotek 1’s founder Martin-Rein-Cano articulates further: he is “convinced that the perception of landscape is highly dependent on the stories that are told about it.” In his firm’s work at Germany’s Lorsch Abbey, a monastic community founded in 764 whose buildings were largely destroyed in war in the 17th century, the task was to respond to those stories by creating a park connected to the abbey site. Newhouse resonated with the design, experiencing it “as the abstraction of a lost history,” and as a “design [that] ingeniously renders the invisible visible.”
Newhouse admits to one of the book’s shortcomings—that while global in reach, it is not comprehensively so. The parks included are all in North America, Europe, and China.
Yet the fact that the book includes only parks Newhouse and Pisha personally visited also imbues the book with a personal touch. The authors’ many and far-flung travels to the sites and their thorough descriptions are altogether quite a feat. Newhouse notes the weather on a given day, conversations with park users, observations about who is coming to a park at a certain time, and insightful commentary from the park designers who sometimes toured her and Pisha through the site.
One of the other limitations of the volume is, of course, that we are only 22 years into the 21st century. We don’t know how new parks of the next three-quarters of the century will evolve, though some of the designers in the “Future” chapter offer prescient thoughts. In this chapter, the authors examine four parks currently in progress, two of which are immense projects that foremost involve rehabilitation: Freshkills Park on Staten Island, New York, and the Los Angeles River project in California.
Of Freshkills, landscape architect James Corner, FASLA, declared it was not a design project. “It is not about a conclusion, but about adaptive management,” he said. According to him, it needs not a definitive plan, but a strategy—not unlike that of a farmer working the land. OLIN’s Jessica Henson, ASLA, echoes the sentiment, describing her work on the Los Angeles River project as a “‘long-term adaptation framework that looks eighty years into the future.’”
These are hopeful expressions of landscape architecture’s direction, ones that suggest an acceptance of flux in the work the discipline produces. Given the state of the world, the penchant to reinvent and reclaim landscapes seems likely to continue in the coming decades. As designers continue to work in these landscapes, Parks of the 21st Century offers a valuable guide for them: a detailed compendium of successes (and sometimes misses), and a hint at how the uncertain future needs to be met.