SAN FRANCISCO — Michael Boland gestured toward the Golden Gate Bridge and listed the obstructions that were previously in the way of this incomparable view.
In addition to the post office, the parking lot, and the Burger King, “there was a wall of traffic,” said Boland, chief park officer of The Presidio Trust, which oversees this decommissioned military base. “It was impenetrable. The freeway was right there.”
Now, after 20 years of work, US 101 connecting San Francisco with the bridge has been covered over and the resulting land developed into one of the nation’s newest parks, Presidio Tunnel Tops, which opened in July.
It’s the latest example of such spaces being reclaimed from rusting infrastructure, industrial ruins, highway underpasses, dilapidated piers, and other urban blight — a trend that began with New York City’s wildly popular High Line converted elevated railway.
“Cities are built up. They’re increasingly dense. There’s not a lot of space left to build a new Central Park or Boston Common,” said James Corner, lead designer of the High Line and Presidio Tunnel Tops. “But what you do have is a lot of post-industrial land and particularly waterfront land. Those have freed up.”
Meanwhile, Corner said — especially since the COVID-19 pandemic — “there’s an extraordinary desire for people to be outdoors. So any time there’s a new open space, it immediately becomes attractive to people.”
Even on a weekday, Presidio Tunnel Tops teemed with visitors. Families with kids and millennials with coffee strolled along the contoured paths that have been landscaped with 200,000 plants selected to draw butterflies and bees. Boardwalks lead to the water, past benches hewn from local cypress trees and a sprawling playground called the Outpost in which children scamper over fanciful structures that are also made of wood.
One of the purposes of Presidio Tunnel Tops is to connect adults and kids alike with nature, Boland said. In San Francisco, however, “the barrier we kept hitting was the limited amount of nature that we had. The demands on the existing park infrastructure are going up.”
That’s been one of the drivers of these High Line-style projects. Among the others: an increasing urban population.
“We’re running out of space, frankly,” said María Bellalta, dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at the Boston Architectural College, who once proposed that Boston preserve a section of the elevated Central Artery with hanging gardens as a park and gateway to the North End. “So we’re pushing the envelope a little bit more.”
An unused former rail yard in Milan has been transformed into the new Parco Romano and parks have been fashioned out of an abandoned dairy in Atlanta, a covered-over highway and some parking lots in Dallas, a former gravel pit along a river in Calgary, Alberta, and a defunct truck-loading facility in Tulsa, Okla.
“They’re fabulous spaces,” said Candace Damon, vice chair of the consulting firm HR&A Advisors and a jury member for the Urban Land Institute’s Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. “They take advantage of some of the best sites that exist in cities, on waterfronts, in the core of downtowns, in the connections between neighborhoods and downtowns.”
There’s a High Line-style park being built on an old railroad viaduct in London’s Camden section and parks are being created or are planned in the largely unused spaces underneath the elevated MetroRail in Miami and Gardiner Expressway in Toronto.
“It was sort of a forgotten corner of the city,” said Dave Carey, co-executive director of that Toronto project, called the Bentway after the names of the supports that hold up the road. “People expect it to be dark, like the underpass of a bridge. But it’s so open and so airy that visitors are surprised.”
Much of this aging infrastructure divided communities that are being knitted back together by parks like these.
The Gardiner “left this scar through the middle of our city,” said Carey. Now it’s been enthusiastically reclaimed by the 100,000 people who live within a 10-minute walk, joined by visitors from out of town.
“Places that were forgotten about, the in-between spaces, I think those are what make cities so interesting — the quirks and the oddities,” Carey said. “You can almost touch the skeleton of the city, and it’s beautiful. And every city has its own space like that.”
In Philadelphia, the forgotten spaces included decaying piers, which are also being rebuilt into parks and becoming “more than the afterthoughts of our economic development,” said Lizzie Woods, vice president of planning and capital programs at the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation.
Highways, rail lines, factories, and warehouses often wall off neighborhoods from features such as waterfronts. That was the case in Seattle, for example, whose Elliott Bay became a dumping place for construction debris, and was separated from the rest of the city by a hulking highway. Now the highway has been rebuilt underground and the waterfront is being transformed into a park with trails and views of Puget Sound and Mount Rainier.
Some 90,000 people have moved into the booming downtown in the last decade, said Marshall Foster, director of Seattle’s Office of the Waterfront and Civic Projects. And “the demand to find public space to support that population is driving a level of creativity and innovation.”
Some of that innovation is in the way such projects are being paid for and maintained. Most are public-private partnerships. Of Presidio Tunnel Tops’ $118 million cost, $98 million came from private sources. Seattle’s waterfront makeover was funded by a $160 million assessment on the downtown real estate whose value it will almost certainly boost.
That’s been a growing subject of concern for some advocates of these new parks: They’re so successful they trigger gentrification and displacement in long-neglected, often low-income neighborhoods.
The High Line Network, a new coalition of projects like these, is pushing equitable development plans for the neighborhoods around them.
“A lot of our members are focused on communities that have traditionally not had access to community green space or have been torn apart by infrastructure projects in the past,” said Asima Jansveld, the network’s managing director. She said planners now are focused on “righting the wrongs of what we’ve been calling infrastructural racism.”
In the meantime, more such parks are turning long-forsaken spots into buzzing destinations.
Most host busy calendars of performances, art exhibitions, and food. “Often times these places marry a sort of traditional public park passivity with a more active and programmed type of activities,” said Woods.
Parks designed in the 19th and early 20th centuries “are picturesque, based on the idea that nature is like a painting — that it’s a beautiful thing to observe,” said Boland, at the Presidio, which has periodic entertainment, food carts, and a fire pit for ranger talks. But visitors today “want to be active and they want to be engaged.”
All of this has created a moment for unconventional projects like the High Line and Presidio Tunnel Tops.
“They’re not generic parks that you can typically find anywhere. There’s a lot of novelty that’s very appealing to people. It opens their imaginations,” Corner, the designer, said.
“People get a kick out of experiences that feel unique, authentic, and peculiar to a place.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at email@example.com.