How Cities Can Revitalize Their Public Spaces

  • 2016-04-26
  • The Wall Street Journal

A city is a lot more than a collection of tall buildings on the skyline.

What makes a city a great place to live and visit are the shared spaces in between—the sidewalks, the plazas, the parks, the waterfront, says landscape architect James Corner,the lead designer of New York’s High Line, a much-acclaimed park built on an obsolete elevated railroad spur that winds through portions of Manhattan below 34th Street.

Mr. Corner is part of a new wave of muscular landscape architects who say their work is about more than planting trees and grass: It is about reshaping the identity of a place and how the people who live there see themselves. As cities compete for high-tech industry, skilled workers and tourism, that is becoming more important, he says.

“Part of the pleasure of being in the city is to be in these public places and just sit and watch the world go by,” says Mr. Corner, who currently is working on waterfront projects in Seattle and Hong Kong, and redoing part of Chicago’s historic Navy Pier. “It is partly what makes New York livable and cool and gives it an edge so that it has an identity. Chicago is trying to do the same thing.”

Here are some of Mr. Corner’s principles for breathing new life into dead or dying urban spaces:

Dare to be different

Too many cities have followed the same playbook in reinventing their postindustrial landscapes, becoming more alike in the process, Mr. Corner says.

“The Asian cities are a classic case in point,” he says. “They are just looking at whatever the biggest and best is in another city and they are doing it themselves. It is just producing a frightening sort of level of sameness,” when the goal, he says, should be to create urban spaces that reflect a city’s own unique energy and buzz.

When creating a master plan for a Chinese city of 2.5 million to be built on reclaimed land in a waterfront district in Shenzhen, China, Mr. Corner homed in on the area’s natural feature: water.

The city he designed is divided into districts by five channels of water that flow through it. The channels are shaped to create parks, open spaces and wetland terraces that will naturally process polluted runoff, storing and cleansing it before it reaches the harbor.