Something Old, Something New

As big cities become denser, all open areas have to contribute to the vitality of the public realm, including ones long deemed not just marginal but also inaccessible, such as the abandoned Manhattan rail spur that became the High Line. “Walking [it] felt like a remarkable experience to be enjoyed when visiting New York City,” observes filmmaker Ian Garrick Mason, “but at the same time raised questions about what a “park” actually is and what we should expect it to do or offer.”

Ian Garrick Mason’s short film features Toronto’s Bentway, New York’s High Line, and urban planner Jennifer Keesmaat et al.
Ian Garrick Mason’s short film features Toronto’s Bentway, New York’s High Line, and urban planner Jennifer Keesmaat et al.

The question prompted him to make his newly released documentary short, entitled Something New from Something Old: How cities are making parks that work in places almost everyone forgot, a thirteen-minute film that stars a series of transformed spaces long considered derelict and disposable. In dense modern cities, as Toronto urban planner Jennifer Keesmaat observes in the film, “No space is frivolous.”

It’s a hot topic right now: how to create public spaces in dense urban cores where there is little opportunity left to build traditional parks. While architects and designers have been repurposing industrial buildings like power plants and factories for decades, they are now making similar conversions to abandoned infrastructure, including decommissioned wharves and elevated expressways. Mason plans to send the film to leading urban designers and architectural schools in Canada and elsewhere. “The idea is simply to spread its ideas and lessons as widely as possible.”

Absent affordable property for landscaped parks, Joshua Laird, the New York Harbour National Parks commissioner, tells Mason, “what is out there are these residual spaces.” In the film, New York planning consultant Jamie Torres Springer offers a vivid analogy: they’re left over as the industrial glacier recedes. The energy invested in recent years is producing 
a remarkable legacy of amenities. Mason’s camera shows the buzz of activity drawn 
to Brooklyn Bridge Park, a series of open areas constructed on long abandoned piers jutting into the East River. The financial model underwriting these spaces is also very different than the traditional city park. With The Bentway, the linear park beneath Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway (see p. 17 of this issue), the resources come from philanthropists and are managed by a conservancy. As for the High Line, we hear Brooklyn Bridge Park president Eric Landau calling the vaunted New York elevated park “the ultimate private public partnership.”

Mason gleaned that those involved in managing these new public amenities understand the risk of allowing private funders to determine their usage, and have sought ways to ensure universal access. “Wrapping the influence 
of money in a web of other influences,” says Mason, “is a realistic way to make and sustain parks where the public’s purse is constrained.” Indeed, wide-spread attention, including from films like Something Old, Something New are helping to put more eyes on these public spaces, and therefore ensure that they become the great urban parks of the 21st century.