Three times dilapidated sites were transformed into vibrant public spaces

  •   27 November 2017

According to the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), urban designs can be labeled sustainable if they respond to the environment and actively contribute to the development of healthy communities. Holistic landscape projects not only sequester carbon, increase energy efficiency and restore habitats, they also create socio-economic benefits. We examine three case studies in the United States that tick all these boxes while creating vibrant public communities from neglected spaces.


The Steel Yard by Klopfer Martin



Olneyville in Providence is one of Rhode Island’s oldest and poorest neighbourhoods. Populated by abandoned industrial buildings that were once full of workers during the city’s industry heyday, Olneyville is now home to informal artist ‘squatters’.

In 2002, an organisation committed to cultivating an environment of experimentation and creative networks purchased a vacant steel and fabrication facility in the area. They believed the property had not yet “outlived its purpose”, and sought to reimagine it as The Steel Yard, an arts-based, not-for-profit community space. However, this brought about significant challenges associated with an expensive and comprehensive brownfield cleanup.

“The Steel Yard and Klopfer Martin Design Group (KMDF) had to negotiate environmental requirements while also leveraging limited funds to meet programmatic needs and leave room for the organisation’s future growth,” the team at KMDG explain.

Instead of completely removing the contaminated soil on the property, KMDG added clean fill or permeable pavement, capped at 12 inches, over the existing grade. This meant the contaminated soil could remain on-site in landforms.



Photography by Christian Phillips Photography and Annali Kiers. Source: Klopfer Martin

At the heart of the design is a paved plane – dubbed ‘the carpet’ – that is woven with heavy- and light-duty pavements consisting of impermeable and pervious materials. The margins beyond this pavement act as ‘stormwater moats’ that manage runoff throughout the site. Meanwhile, native pioneer and volunteer species were introduced to help preserve the abandoned structure’s existing look and feel.

What results is a project that meets preservation standards and stays true to its roots, while setting new benchmarks in passive, on-site stormwater management.


Burbank Water & Power EcoCampus by ABHE



The brief was to transform the main campus of Californian utility company, Burbank Water and Power (BWP), from an industrial relic into a sustainable model for the rest of the United States.

The solution? An ambitious masterplan for a regenerative green space, featuring an unprecedented number of integrated sustainable landscape technologies.

BWP had served Burbank for over 100 years, but with age came high operating costs (which were passed on to residents) and a lack of green spaces. Many of its facilities were furthermore no longer useful to the power plant.

The landscape architecture practice AHBE introduced one of the longest green streets in Southern California into the project. Featuring five different types of sustainable water infiltration technologies – infiltration, flow-through, detention, tree root cells, and rainwater capture – the green street acts as a filter before runoff enters the stormwater system.

This combination of innovations allowed the campus to mitigate a full inch of rainfall, far exceeding the first three-quarter inches of rainfall that local laws dictate projects must mitigate. Once completed, the project will be a zero-runoff site.

Other ESD initiatives include the installation of roof gardens, which are covered with recycled glass pavers that depict a meandering stream and native plants. According to the ASLA, these three green roofs save the campus over $14,000 annually in energy costs – no small sum indeed.



Photography by Heliphoto-135. Source: Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES)

Perhaps the most striking feature of the new campus is the Centennial Courtyard, a “green space located within the footprint of a decommissioned electrical substation”. A portion of the industrial structure still stands, a “super trellis” that juxtaposes industry with nature.

“Part of the industrial structure still stands, serving as a giant super trellis and creating a poignant juxtaposition [between] industry and nature,” says AHBE.

“All of the landscape serves a dual purpose:  aesthetically, providing green space for employees and the public; functionally, hiding extensive sustainable landscape technologies and making the entire campus function as a water filtration system, cleaning water and removing toxins before the water returns to the watershed.”


Gas Works Park by Richard Haag


Photography by Liesl Matthies. CC BY-SA 3.0

Gas Works Park in Seattle, Washington may not be the newest adaptive urban design reuse project in the United States, but it is one of the country’s most well-known and widely loved.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013, Gas Works Park is a former toxic industrial site that was re-imagined as a public park by prominent landscape architect Richard Haag. When Haag first released his proposal in the early 1970s, his design met with controversy because it incorporated existing structures from the Seattle Gas Light Company’s coal gasification plant. He called them Seattle’s ‘Iron Stonehenge’.

Described by author Thaisa Way as “one of the first post-industrial landscapes to be transformed into a public place”, Gas Works Park opened to the public in 1975. It quickly became recognised for its use of bioremediation to detoxify the topsoil on site, and was later awarded the ASLA Presidential Award for Design Excellence.


Gas-Works-2-002.jpgPhotography by WikiPedant. CC BY-SA 4.0

Today, the 19-acre park features a sundial and a great earth mount – a hill afforded with breathtaking views of the Seattle skyline constructed from on-site excavated material. The plant’s former boiler house was transformed into a picnic shelter, complete with tables and fire grills, while the former exhauster-compressor building has been converted into an open-air play barn.


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