Atlas Obscura is organizing trips! Join us on an adventure »
Today Only: 50% off Atlas Obscura books and calendars at Barnes & Noble »

The Second Lives of Aging Infrastructure

article-imageEnjoying the sunset on New York City’s High Line (photograph by Filipp Solovev)

Many obsolete industrial areas are having their urban infrastructure adapted from a place of work into a place of play. The best known of these projects is New York City’s High Line — a section of elevated railroad tracks in Manhattan that was turned into a vibrant green space floating above the city.  

But the High Line is just one of many similar projects. Cities all over the United States have been transforming pieces of themselves into new green and recreational spaces for rock climbers, BASE jumpers, and even trapeze artists. 

Pier 40
New York City, New York

article-image
Pier 40 (photograph by Alexander Baxevanis)

Not far from the High Line is Pier 40, once a busy cargo and passenger ship facility. Built in 1962, the pier was used primarily by the Holland-America line to board transatlantic passenger ships and offload cargo directly into Manhattan. But these uses were already in rapid decline when the pier was built. By the 1970s, it was mostly used as a neighborhood parking lot. 

In 1998, the Hudson River Park Trust was established to manage and develop the area. What was once 15 acres of bare concrete is now home to two busy soccer fields, a boathouse, and the Trapeze School New York. 

article-image
Trapeze School at Pier 40 (photograph by Santos Gonzalez)

The Atlanta BeltLine
Atlanta, Georgia

article-imageAtlanta BeltLine (photograph by ciambellina/Flickr user)

In its previous life, the Atlanta BeltLine was a 22-mile rail corridor encircling the city of Atlanta. Now, the former rail easement is being redeveloped into a connected network of parks and multi-use trails that will link many of the city’s outlying areas. The first section of the project opened to the public in 2008, and work is continuing to complete the circuit.  

article-imageHistoric Fourth Ward Park, a section of the Atlanta BeltLine (photograph by Timothy J. Carroll)

James River Park System
Richmond, Virginia

article-imageThe author at Pipeline Park on the James River (photograph by Jill Fox)

The James River Park System includes numerous greenspaces on the banks of the James, at least two of which incorporate aging infrastructure into riverfront recreation.  

article-imagePipeline Park (photograph by the author)

At Pipeline Park, a 1,500-foot drainage pipeline cuts across a section of the James River, with a catwalk on top for maintenance access. As more and more people began using the pipeline to get to the water, the city eventually added signage and made it an official part of the park system. Now, people can swim and fish from a large sandy beach, see kayakers tackling a popular section of whitewater, and watch a thriving population of Great Blue Herons hunt and raise their chicks — all just a few steps from downtown Richmond. 

At Manchester Wall, the remnants of an old railroad bridge have become one of the most popular sport climbing areas in central Virginia. Sixty feet high and built from rough-hewn blocks of granite, the wall and trestle towers have over 40 mapped climbing routes.

article-imageClimbing at Manchester Wall (photograph by Eli Christman)

Walkway Over the Hudson
Poughkeepsie, New York

article-imageWalkway Over the Hudson (photograph by Daniel Tobias)

The world’s longest elevated pedestrian bridge is built atop the remnants of an old railroad near Poughkeepsie, New York.

The Poughkeepsie-Highland railroad bridge was built in the late 1800s and carried passenger and freight traffic until 1974, when it was severely damaged in a fire. Today it forms the basis of a 1.3-mile long walkway that lets visitors stroll 200 feet above the Hudson River. The bridge brings together the two sections of Hudson State Historic Park, which are located on opposite banks. In June of this year, the bridge will try to add a second superlative, hosting an attempt to break the world record for the “longest handshake relay.”

article-imageThe 1.3 mile long walkway over the Hudson (photograph by Adam Jones)

Parklets and Urban Air
Throughout the United States

article-imageUrban Air project (via Kickstarter)

Not all of these adaptations are permanent. Communities around the country are installing pop-up green spaces called “parklets” in areas as small as a single parking spot. San Francisco helped kick off this trend in 2010 with their “Pavement to Parks” program, which has built 38 of these temporary spaces around the city, and the program has spread all over the world.   

In Los Angeles, an artist has developed a toolkit to turn old billboards into floating bamboo forests. Called “Urban Air,” Stephen Glassman’s project is designed to be more aesthetically pleasing than the advertisements it replaces, and also benefits the environment by filtering pollution from the air. The artist and a group of collaborators raised $100,000 on Kickstarter to develop a standardized kit that can be used to transform any billboard into an Urban Air bamboo forest.

article-imageA temporary “parklet” in San Francisco (photograph by Mark Hogan)

New River Gorge Bridge
Fayetteville, West Virginia

article-imageThe New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia (photograph by Jon Dawson)

While not technically an adaptive reuse, this last piece of infrastructure is too cool to leave out. For one day each year, the New River Gorge Bridge is transformed from a mundane highway into the epicenter of the American BASE jumping community.

When the 876-foot-high span opened in 1977, it was the highest automobile bridge in the world. This record has since been surpassed, but it is still an impressive sight. On “Bridge Day” each fall, hundreds of people come to jump from the bridge and parachute to the bottom of the gorge. Thousands more turn out to watch — from the bridge, from the shore, and from rafts, kayaks, and other boats on the New River below. See for yourself in this video from 2012: