The Wasteland Grows Up

Landscape architecture blends boundaries between the built and natural world, through a fusion of art and science. Emerging as a profession following the industrial revolution, landscape architects designed spaces to connect people with the beauty and processes of nature, and restore exploited environments.

Technological advances propelled development of ports, factories, railways and freeways, often generating landscapes void of plant-life, with greenery an afterthought for these functional spaces. Recently, however, across North America, many environmentally degraded and uninhabited terrains have been re-envisaged, with nature rejuvenating and beautifying post-industrial wastelands, and demonstrating the capacity to change landscapes and bring places back to life.

Butchart Gardens, Vancouver Island, Canada

Industrialisation commodified nature, depleting landscapes through timber and mineral exploitation, as well as the disposal of waste. In the early 1900s, Jennie Butchart, began to transform the limestone quarry and cement factory she owned with her husband on Vancouver Island, Canada, into a 55-acre garden. For years, she redesigned the exhausted quarry, filling the abandoned pit with fresh soil to create a sunken garden, a feature of her acclaimed Butchart Gardens.

Butchart Gardens is a restored limestone quarry in Vancouver Island, Canada.

Gas Works Park & Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle, USA

In Seattle, when the gasification plant that powered the city for fifty years closed in 1956, the opportunity for transforming the site into parkland was recognised. The City of Seattle purchased the land on the north shore of Lake Union in 1962, engaging visionary landscape architect Richard Haag. Instead of removing contaminated soil, Haag pioneered the rehabilitation of the 20.5-acre site, uniquely treating it in-situ. Through a process called bio-phytoremediation, he mixed the toxic soil to introduce oxygen, water and sunlight below the surface, adding sewage and biomass. Visitors walk atop undulating hills with dramatic views of the city, mostly unaware of the treated soil beneath, which Haag formed into a mound and capped with clay. This topography ensures rainwater does not filter through the layers, flowing quickly and cleanly into the lake.

Since opening in 1975, the park has reconnected people with the shoreline and local history by preserving the industrial relics. ‘Gas Works’, as it’s known, also became a precedent for repairing an oil storage and transfer facility operated by Unocal on the nearby Elliott Bay waterfront until the 1970s. In 1999 the Seattle Art Museum and Trust for Public Land purchased the site, creating the Olympic Sculpture Park, which opened in 2007. The park features a Z-shaped platform descending from the city to the waterfront, over a railway and wide arterial. People wander through landscapes designed to echo the forest and shorelines of the Pacific Northwest, with the city a backdrop for public sculptures.

Gas Works Park in Seattle, designed to rehabilitate contaminated soil.
Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park in on the site of a former oil storage and transfer facility.

Hinge Park, Vancouver, Canada

The decline of ports and industrial waterfronts created opportunities for the restoration of government land. False Creek in Vancouver was historically dominated by industry, but with its decline in the 1960s, vacated land was put up for redevelopment. From the 1970s, mixed residential and commercial precincts were planned, integrating several new open spaces on the waterfront. Hinge Park was one of these, created in Southeast False Creek. A prominent feature within it is Habitat Island, an artificial island built using 60,000 cubic metres of rock and gravel from the construction of a nearby Olympic Village. The area has created an urban sanctuary for birds and animals, and facilitates the treatment of stormwater.

Habitat Island in Hinge Park is one of many new parks revitalising former industrial land along False Creek, Vancouver.

Parc Lineaire de la Commune, Montreal, Canada

Visions for redeveloping the abandoned piers and warehouses of Montreal’s Old Port commenced at a similar time, when port activities were relocated downstream. In 1992, the old port was transformed into a 50-acre green promenade, encompassing heritage elements to reinterpret the harbour’s significance as the founding site of French colonists in 1642 and a former important trade route.

Parc Lineaire de la Commune is a waterfront promenade in place of the old port of Montreal.

Brooklyn Bridge Park, New York, USA

In a similar manner to both Hinge Park and Montreal’s Old Port, Brooklyn Bridge Park revitalized two kilometres of disused shipping and storage facilities on the historic industrial waterfront of the East River, New York. Once the largest private freight terminal in the world, the presence of industry restricted waterfront access in Brooklyn. With the closure of the port facilities, the piers were to be sold for commercial development, however with a lack of local open space, the community advocated for a new park from the 1980s. Two decades later, a government agreement required at least 80% of the area be developed as a self-sustaining park.

Opening in stages from 2003, the park is an urban oasis, offering a rare space in the city where people have contact with the water, through beaches, marshes and ramps for wading and boats.

Brooklyn Bridge Park is the largest new park in NYC for decades, and the first new park in Brooklyn for 100 years, transforming a former port and providing uninhibited views of Lower Manhattan.

Georgetown Waterfront Park, Washington D.C, USA

It took almost half a century for the Georgetown Waterfront Park to transform a former port and industrial area, on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. In the 1960s, the area was condemned for a proposed highway, which never developed. As the site lay abandoned for years, citizens campaigned for it to become a park in the 1970s. Completed in 2011, the design of the National Park celebrates the river’s signature sport of rowing.

Georgetown Waterfront Park on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C

Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Portland, USA

A symbol of progress, railways and freeways consumed and dissected vast amounts of land across North America, and while traditionally overlooked as places for nature, several examples have reintegrated greenery. The Tom McCall Waterfront Park in Portland is one of the first examples in the United States of a freeway being demolished to create public space. In the 1940s, Harbor Drive was constructed, isolating people from the west bank of the Willamette River. The opening of the Eastbank Freeway, made Harbor Drive less critical, and in 1968 Governor Tom McCall investigated opportunities to develop a park in its place. In 1974 Harbor Drive was demolished, with a 2.4 kilometre stretch of riverside parkland opened in 1978. In Boston, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway also forms a 2.4 kilometre series of parks, on land made available by the removal of a freeway. The “Big Dig”, one of the most controversial and expensive projects in US history, replaced the John F. Fitzgerald Expressway with a tunnel. The community and leaders sought to create parkland in its place. In the early 1990s, the state required that 75% of the vacated land be developed as public open space.

Today, a string of linear green spaces extend from the North End to Chinatown, enlivening the streetscape with tree-lined promenades, flowerbeds, and fountains that reunify the neighbourhoods once dissected by the freeway. The civic spaces have unique character, reflecting the architecture and culture of surrounding neighbourhoods.

A freeway was demolished for the creation of the Tom McCall Waterfront Park, often described as Portland’s living room.

The High Line is surely one of the most vivid North American examples of re-imagining abandoned railway infrastructure as a destination garden. The West Side Line operated from 1934, serving New York’s Meatpacking District and declining from the 1960s. After the last train in 1980, the elevated railway stood neglected for 25 years, with nature reclaiming the ruins. In the 1990s, many called for its demolition to support the renewal of the Chelsea neighbourhood. A chance encounter between Robert Hammond and Joshua David at a community meeting about the future of the line in 1999 changed its destiny. The pair formed the Friends of the High Line and were inspired to preserve the elevated structure and transform it into a unique park after observing it covered in wildflowers and weeds. In 2003, their ideas competition attracted hundreds of entries, and leaders offered support for development of the High Line. The first section opened in 2009, quickly becoming one of the city’s primary attractions.

Wildflowers, weeds, shrubs and trees grow between artistically placed tracks along the promenade, with many of the wild, self-seeded plants that had taken over the line, incorporated into the park.

These examples extend the notion of parks as simply green refuges from civilisation, highlighting their capacity to change physically damaged lands. Serving as catalysts for the revitalisation of other neglected sites, and surrounding areas, these projects have enabled landscapes to be re-inhabited by nature and people, offering benefits to the environment and local economy through tourism and development. Innovative approaches for re-envisaging degraded places with greenery are reflective of changes in thinking by the community, leaders and designers alike.

The High Line in New York offers a unique greenspace.
The High Line in New York