城市设计   Urban Space Design   Espace Urban   Stadtgestaltung

Unnatural Nature

2014-05-15 16:37 F.Thomas


SWA Group masterminded and designed the Buffalo Bayou Promenade, in Houston, converting a trash-lined eyesore into a 20-acre, 3,000-foot-long urban park.  Courtesy Bill Tatham

Urban nature isn’t a phenomenon unique to the twenty-first century, but as city supermarkets add rooftop farms and downtown hotels incorporate bee colonies, the distinctions between urban and rural have become somewhat blurred. Sure, there have been lots of planned encounters between city and country in the past. Most notably, there was Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision of the city park as a pastoral retreat: “We want a ground to which people may easily go after their day’s work is done,” he wrote in an 1870 essay, Public Parks and the Enlargement of  Towns, “and where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets, where they shall, in effect, find the city put far away from them.”  

What’s happening today is different. Twenty-first century metropolitan nature is about embracing the city, not fleeing it. “Central Park was meant to be an escape,” says Robert Hammond, one of the activists who conjured the High Line into being. “On the High Line, you’re in nature, but you can hear the traffic; you can see the Empire State Building.”

This is the aspect of the High Line that’s most worth emulating. Every city doesn’t need an elevated linear park, nor should every old railroad viaduct be converted for recreational use. But there are features of our cities that we commonly regard as eyesores that should instead be valued as part of our unnatural natural environment. We can find ways to immerse ourselves in these oddities as if they were the uncanny rock formations of a canyon. Even the most obstructive, no-man’s-land-generating form of urban infrastructure—the elevated expressway—can, with skill and imagination, be incorporated into metropolitan nature. 


The natural channel and the soil along the bayou were stabilized by gabions and the anchoring of 14,000 tons of rock and recycled concrete. Courtesy Tom Fox

Perhaps the best example of this trick turns up in Houston. The photos of that city’s Buffalo Bayou Promenade show a network of bike and pedestrian trails running alongside a river (long regarded as a dumping ground) beneath a spaghetti weave of highway overpasses and interchanges. The images make the concrete columns supporting the highways look strangely elegant, like a futuristic colonnade. 
 


Projects like the Buffalo Bayou repurpose otherwise wasted city space for recreational and cultural uses. Courtesy Tom Fox

While early attempts had been made to set aside the land alongside Buffalo Bayou for a city park, the postwar highway-building boom overwhelmed good intentions. The riverfront provided an open space in which new roadways could be easily inserted. And so they clobbered the poor bayou with freeway overpasses and interchanges. Since the 1980s, citizen groups have emerged and tried to clean up the bayou and turn the area around the historic riverfront landing into a park. That effort spawned a linear stretch of green, scheduled for completion next year, which has become a beloved conduit for bikers and pedestrians. The trails along the bayou will eventually be the centerpiece of a 150-mile, $200 million network of trails along the city’s various bayous, which most Houstonians had been accustomed to thinking of as drainage ditches. “People are realizing that we don’t have infinite amounts of money for infrastructure and we don’t have infinite amounts of land in these urban areas, so you’ve got to be creative about finding joint uses,” Kevin Shanley, the CEO of SWA Group, the landscape design firm that masterminded the revival of the Buffalo Bayou, says.
 


 

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