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How NYC could transform its disused underpasses into public space

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The Design Trust for Public Space and DOT are partnering on a pilot program for underpasses

Courtesy Design Trust for Public Space

Space is forever at a premium in New York City, which can lead to ingenious solutions for creating engaging public spaces in unlikely or inhospitable places—see the New York Transit Museum, located in a former subway station, or, most famously, the High Line, situated on a disused elevated railway.

In that spirit, for the past few years, the Design Trust for Public Space has been exploring the possibility of activating one of New York’s largest pieces of underutilized space: the underpasses beneath highways, elevated trains, and bridges, or what it calls “el space.”

According to the group, more than 70 million square feet of such space exists throughout the five boroughs, and they believe it could be transformed—into pocket parks, safer walkways and crossings, and other pedestrian-friendly areas. Similar projects in Boston and in Toronto have provided inspiration, and there are already some activations in place; the area below the Manhattan Bridge in Dumbo, for example, regularly hosts events.

Now, the Design Trust has partnered with the city’s DOT to create an El-Space pilot, which is situated beneath the Gowanus Expressway at 36th Street in Sunset Park. Though it’s small, it provides a glimpse at what the Design Trust has in mind for these spaces; there are planters, new lights—crucial in these often dark and underpopulated areas—and walkways.

According to the Design Trust, the goal of this pilot is to “connect residents to the waterfront, increase environmental health, and enhance pedestrian safety for residents of Sunset Park and workers at Industry City and adjacent sites.”

The two organizations have also partnered on an El-Space Toolkit, which they expect to roll out later this year; it would provide community groups and other relevant agencies with information on activating underpasses in their neighborhoods, as well as options for those spaces. (Jazzed-up walkways are only one option; others include seating or movable spaces that could be used by retailers or restaurants.) The DOT already has plans to roll out El-Spaces in other neighborhoods, including under Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, as part of that neighborhood’s broader rezoning effort.

Though there’s a long way to go before el-spaces are rolled out citywide, the Sunset Park pilot is an encouraging glimpse at the possibilities for these often inhospitable spaces. (And hey, if Toronto can put an ice-skating rink below an overpass, think of what New York City could do.)