Search results for drosscapes

As 2017 year comes to a close, the AHBE LAB contributors are taking time to look back at our year’s worth of posts. We are each identifying the most memorable post and sharing what we found interesting, informative, and inspiring. Enjoy the flashback, and let us know which post you thought was most memorable.

As an avid fan of all things transportation related, including the highly popular High Line in New York City and also our local transportation systems, I particularly remember Cristhian Barajas’, Drosscapes: Railroad Bridges as Community Vantage Points as the most memorable AHBE LAB post this year.

Cristhian’s post is not only an exploration of the history of LA’s train infrastructure, it also investigates and promotes the lines as a potential and prime candidates for re-use as non-vehicular transportation corridors across Los Angeles. Though he notes the challenges designers would likely face in designing for these conditions, I find the possibilities for making these non-vehicular links between communities an inspiring challenge worth undertaking! I would love for AHBE to one day be awarded a rail retrofit project to make Cristhian’s observations a reality.

The original post here: Drosscapes: Railroad Bridges as Community Vantage Points

A spread from "Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America"

A spread from “Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America”

The concept of ‘drosscapes’ was coined by Alan Berger in 2006 in his book, Drosscape: Wasting Land in Urban America. In his preface, he addresses landscape architecture as a discipline blind to the opportunities that drosscapes represented, an blindspot that still affects us today. Academic programs should adopt and be adapted to other outside-the-box philosophies. For example, the first time I heard about Resilient Urbanism was during the UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia. Planners, architects, landscape architects, interior designers, industrial designers, engineers, and other disciplines are coming up with theoretical models as an alternative to challenge our current system and to develop ideas from concept to the object.

Berger’s framework is one of those models encouraging landscape architects to achieve a more holistic, forward-looking planning. A drosscape as Berger defines it is “the creation of a new condition in which vast, wasted, or wasteful land surfaces are modeled in accordance with new programs or new sets of values that remove or replace real or perceived wasteful aspects of geographical space (i.e., redevelopment, toxic waste removal, tax revenues, etc.)”. As a verb, he sees the ‘drosscaping’ as the practice incorporating social programs and activities into the transformed waste landscape. One must not commit the mistake to call an abandoned train station by itself a drosscape, for example. In this instance, a drosscape would be the integration of new horizons onto the unused site, which by itself it is only dross.

In an attempt to understand these urban wastelands according to their perception, Berger proposed classifying a differentiation between waste landscapes (places that store, manage or process urban or industrial waste), wasted landscapes (polluted or abandoned sites), and wasteful landscapes (huge extensions of developed land with virtually no use for the community).

Fashion Island and its surroundings in Newport Beach, CA. Newport center, its parking lots and its surrounding golf clubs may be a good example of a combination of wasteful landscapes. As Berger comments on golf courses, these spaces are the most representative Waste Landscapes of Dwelling (LODs). The city of Newport Beach has around 6 golf courses inland and in its coast, surpassing by far the total acreage by local neighborhood parks and even the Bay Nature Reserve. Besides the beach, there are no urban parks capable of housing big masses recreational activities, most of the recreation areas are located in these residential ‘voids’. Creative Commons Photo by WPPilot

Fashion Island and its surroundings in Newport Beach, CA. Newport center, its parking lots and its surrounding golf clubs may be a good example of a combination of wasteful landscapes. As Berger comments on golf courses, these spaces are the most representative Waste Landscapes of Dwelling (LODs). The city of Newport Beach has around 6 golf courses inland and in its coast, surpassing by far the total acreage by local neighborhood parks and even the Bay Nature Reserve. Besides the beach, there are no urban parks capable of housing big masses recreational activities, most of the recreation areas are located in these residential ‘voids’. Creative Commons Photo by WPPilot

In terms of use, Berger suggests the following classification for these wastelands:

  • Waste Landscapes of Dwelling (LODs).
    In this category we can find amenities that serve nearby residents of housing developments, like trail networks and private golf courses, either open to the public or private facilities. Landscape vegetation areas which serve as reserves or transitions between the infrastructure are also included in this category.
  • Waste Landscapes of Transition (LOTs)
    Here we have those spaces that are victims of real-estate speculation, designed as interstitial land uses: “staging areas, storage yards, parking surfaces, transfer stations, etc.”. One can even say that some of these waste spaces are product of past investment trends, like self-storage facilities, for instance.
  • Waste Landscapes of Infrastructure (LINs)
    In this list we have “easements, setbacks and rights-of-way associated with transportation, electric transmissions, oil and gas pipelines, waterways and railways”. Some of these ROWs have been already explore in the past AHBE Lab posts.
  • Waste Landscapes of Obsolescence (LOOs)
    Places that are built specifically to allocate waste, such as landfills, salvage yards, wastewater treatment facilities and reclamation plants.
  • Waste Landscapes of Exchange (LEXs)
    This category encloses semi-active or non-active urban developments such as decaying shopping centers and vacant regional malls. Supercenters also enter in this category, big individual stores that for one reason or another end up closing to the public.
  • Wasted Landscapes of Contamination (LOCOs)
    Sites here vary a lot more in comparison to the previous categories, since it includes “airports, military bases, ammunition depots and training grounds, and sites used for mining, petroleum and chemical operations”. It entails all those abandoned facilities that are polluted. Most of the sites targeted by the NPL belong to this category.

Have you identified potential sites around you that could be drosscaped? What type of projects would you envision in such places? What would be the impact for the community?


Post-industrial landscapes have caught the attention of the public by providing a great mix of experiences and reflections. All over the world these abandoned places that could only be used for recreation in the UrbEX context are now accessible to the community. Reclaiming sites have become a statement of post-modernity, where nature and community coexists with rusty machines and metal structures.

In postmodernism, ‘memory’ constitutes a concept that characterize these landscape interventions as unique and informative, endorsing it with a higher and deeper level of experiences. Bright minds like Sebastien Marot, Frances Yates, Robert Smithson and Peter Latz associate memory as an important aspect of design.

Having previously participated in a project where industrial infrastructure and landscape had to be connected, AHBE Lab explores worldwide a specific type of post-industrial intervention of derelict facilities: production plants. In this category we can find old mining stations, power and water stations, coal mines, steel mills, construction factories, assembly yards, etc. Here are some of the best examples:

Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord / Latz + Partner
A public park in Germany born from an abandoned coal and steel production plant. The site remained heavily contaminated after these activities and the actual landscaping is an attempt to heal and to communicate the industrial past of the site. The existing infrastructure like concrete bunkers, old gas tanks, concrete walls and the courtyard of the factory were reused to bring forth a unique program, rich of experiences.


LUX Stahlhof Belval-Ouest / AllesWirdGut Architektur
This famous promenade-square is located in a steelyard which was once populated by pioneer plants such as moss and birch. The island incorporates sitting areas and vegetation, leaving plenty of open spaces as restorative landscapes. The project incorporates natural looking materials that are able to portray an atemporal aesthetic, such as concrete, wood, and untreated steel.


C-Mine Square / Hosper
This public square is located on a former coal mine in Belgium. It is the central space of the new cultural center of the city of Genk. Not only is the square reclaimed, but a lot of the program elements are located in the surrounding buildings, which used to be mining buildings. The project incorporates a theater, a cinema, restaurants, and a design academy.


Fonderies Garden / Doazan-Hirschberger
Stored under the canopy of the former Atlantic Foundries, this garden located in the island of Nantes, France, houses exotic species like rhododendrons, azaleas, hydrangeas, magnolias, camellias, etc. The whole site is covered by a polycarbonate crystal canopy and pre-existing steel roofing. The garden is divided in two parts: the ‘furnace garden’ and the ‘voyage garden’.


Sustainable Evergreen Headquarters / Diamond Schmitt Architects + du Toit Architects Ltd
Once a brick factory in Toronto, Canada, this new space has become a community environmental center; the site plays host to commercial, educational, and cultural activities. The Evergreen Brick Works project is accredited as LEED-Platinum in sustainability.


MFO-Park / Burckhardt + Partner & Raderschallpartner
Located in Zurich, Switzerland, the Manschinefabrik Oerlikon Park is housed under a steel trellis that used to be part of a factory belonging to the same company. Vertical green columns, a set of terraces and viewpoints, a large semi-covered central space and a fun play of lights versus shadows have already granted this project seven awards.


Levitt Pavilion, SteelStacks, Bethlehem Works, Sands Bethworks and the Arts Quest Center / Wallace Roberts and Todd, SWA Group, Spillman Farmer Architects.
This site’s program is comprehensive, starting with the conversion of an old steel mill into a venue for concerts, performance, and cultural activities known as the SteelStack Arts and Cultural Campus. The Levitt Pavilion is a unique architectural centerpiece and refuge for these events. Across the street, the ArtsQuest Center is edified in the heart of the industrial park for indoor events like festivals, visual arts, education and outreach, and other performing arts. Less than a mile to the east, a thrilling landscape design furnishes the main intersections of the road networks in the area.

Gas Works Park / Richard Haag
Opened in 1975, this reclaimed urban park contains part of the infrastructure of the former coal gasification plant. A part of the old plant now functions as a children’s play barn. It has become an icon for peace rallies, concerts, anti-war protests, and a civic symbol as well, hosting Fourth of July fireworks events for the city and becoming a landmark for local cyclists.


Fundidora Park / Grimshaw Architects
By far one of the most successful projects in Mexico showcasing the re-adaptation of existing industrial architecture for civic use. The project’s ‘Horno3’ used to be a steel mill and is now a steel museum which adds a restaurant and terraces. This urban-scale park is the core for recreation and social life in the city of Monterrey, hosting world-class events such as the UN and OEA summits, the Champ Car World Series Grand Prix, the A1 Grand Prix race series, and the 2007 Universal Forum of Cultures. The urban park incorporates as icons other elements, such as the Monterrey Arena, the Sesame Plaza playgrounds, an artificial lake, and the Santa Lucia Riverwalk.


Burbank Water and Power EcoCampus / AHBE Landscape Architects
Being included as one of the original Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) pilot program, the BWP’s EcoCampus reclaims a substation, turning the structure into a giant metal trellis for the new Centennial Park. This repurposed canopy is covered with vines that turn the original structure into a real green habitat. Sustainable techniques such as rooftop gardens, water reclamation and filtration systems and solar power are present all over the site, making the project worthy of three awards in the last 4 years.

More and more often, designers and developers are choosing to reclaim abandoned industrial infrastructure to become an active heart of community life. Large-scale projects such as the Battersea Power Station Redevelopment – carried out by Gehry and Foster in London – demonstrate that industrial zones, brownfields, and other once undesirable spots in the city are no longer taboos for developers, planners, architects and landscape architects to work with. The hope is these once neglected spaces will be adopted once more by the community, no longer as centers for industrial production, but for social productivity.

Smithson thought that memory recalls the past, but in a way that applies it to new things. In this matter, Mark Twain wrote once:  “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes”. What can we learn from the past of these sites, and how are we applying this knowledge to our present?

Washington & Old Dominion Trail. Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0 by Emw.

Washington & Old Dominion Trail. Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0 by Emw.

Though not very attractive, transmission lines offer many opportunities for creating linear outdoor spaces for recreation and mobility. In 2014, Houston city officials declared the importance of utilizing transmission lines as recreational spaces for the community. The ROWs have been used to provide walking and biking trails to nearby residents.

All over the nation, linear parks have become favorite destinations for hikers, bikers, and families seeking outdoor space. Here are only some of the most famous “transmission lines” trails in the U.S. (for a more comprehensive list visit here and here):

  • The Arizona Cross Cut Canal in Scottsdale, Arizona
  • Centennial Trail, Lake Stevens, Washington
  • Cherry Creek Trail, Denver, Colorado
  • Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, Ocala, Florida
  • Springwater Corridor Trail in Portland, Oregon
  • The Power Line Trail in Horsham Township, Pennsylvania
  • Katy Trail in Dallas, Texas
  • The Washington & Old Dominion Trail in Falls Church, Virginia

California is following the same steps, slowly turning its attention to transmission lines sites. According to the California Energy Commission, the state of California has about 200,000 miles of overhead transmission and distribution lines, and an additional 70,000 miles of underground lines. In some cities, the rights-of-way have been turned into trails or neighborhood parks.

LA Transmission Lines graphic by the California Energy Commission

LA Transmission Lines graphic by the California Energy Commission

The LADWP and Southern California Edison offer a guide for designers and stakeholders to refer to, in the hopes of ensuring a proper blend of their future use with the functionality required by the existing electrical infrastructure. Among the design considerations include:

  • Include drought tolerant vegetation
  • Avoid surfaces, materials and elements that can become obstacles
  • Vegetation shall be spaced from 2’ to 12’
  • Only 20% maximum of landscape can be occupied by plants
  • Water-efficient irrigation fixtures are encouraged
  • Plants must be easy to be removed, 3’ high and 5’ across maximum for groundcovers; other plants can be 15’ tall maximum and all must be slow growing
  • 15 gal trees and shade structures shall be 10’ tall and located outside the power lines. Site canopies shall not be flammable (i.e. wood) and must be easy to be disassembled
  • All metal structures shall be electrically grounded
  • No removal of existing soil
  • Plants shall not be closer than 100’ from the electrical infrastructure
  • Water lines must be buried 24” minimum and sprinklers shall be directed away from structures
  • Decomposed granite shall be no closer than 10’ from the structures
  • Include and integrate a 20’ patrol road with a gate-controlled access at the center of the right-of-way for maintenance purposes. Such trail shall be clear at all times and preferably separated from the existing trails in the site
  • Do not use boulders, benches or other fixed ornamental structures / urban furniture
  • No unleashed animals (6’ maximum leash)
  • No wetlands or other sensitive natural habitat

One particular case representing equal parts glory and shame in the matter of a few miles is the power lines corridor in the city of Irvine. Along a section of Barranca Way the corridor appears way out of context, but a few miles further on the Harvard Side Path, the corridor is perfectly integrated.

03-power-pylons-along-barranca-way 04-power-pylons-along-harvard-side-path

As Walter Rogers correctly appoints, one of the duties and competences of a landscape architect is to provide assessment and solutions for new power line corridors. But in my experience, sometimes I feel the profession only roughly touches upon these issues, wrongfully prescribing to the myth that “only engineers can do this, and only them alone”. Or that “it is impossible to do projects in these kinds of locations”.

The Land of Giants. Photo by CHOI + SHINE ARCHITECTS

The Land of Giants. Photo by CHOI + SHINE Architects

English landscape architect Sylvia Crowe devoted her entire life to study and provide aesthetical and planning solutions to the unappealing visual of the electrical infrastructure. In her work The Landscape of Power she portrayed the present challenges of her time regarding these metal giants using sketches and photographs. But as the Landscape Institute in the UK very properly denotes, these challenges could also be applied today. Crowe believed that buildings belonging to the emerging energy, transportation, and communication industries needed to be properly incorporated into the landscape, redesigning “the entire surface-cover of the land into one flowing comprehensive pattern.

Similarly, CHOI+SHINE Architects ‘Land of Giants’ proposal for Landsnet, Iceland attempted to turn the existing transmission towers into a true artistic masterpiece: power lines in the shape of giant human figures scattered across the landscape. Arphenotype, Bystrup Architecture Design Engineering, and other firms have additionally come up with more aesthetical appealing solutions for power pylons, all easier for the human eye to accept and for the landscape to embrace.

The Straw’ Power Pylon by BYSTRUP

The Straw’ Power Pylon by BYSTRUP

Perhaps if energy companies incorporated these solutions into their infrastructures, we wouldn’t be seeing cases like the one in City of Chino Hills a few years ago, where residents successfully opposed the installation of monstrous pylons in their backyards. Two aspects shall always be considered when dealing with these sites: 1. the perception of the utilities infrastructure,  and 2. the negative perception toward electromagnetic fields (EMFs). Studies conducted on this matter point to inconsistent and contradictory results. The National Trails Training Partnership recommends to leave those fears behind and to “avoid the numbing ‘everything-causes-cancer’ mindset, which can distract you from taking the steps that are known to protect your health“.

South Gate, CA. Photo by Cristhian Barajas

South Gate, CA. Photo by Cristhian Barajas

Railroad bridges offer outstanding opportunities for the creation of viewpoints and for connecting pedestrian and non-motorized trails in the urban environment. The inherent layout of the majority of these structures favor the appreciation of natural and artificial scenery, such as canyons and water bodies. In locations where conventional pedestrian or vehicular crossings are far or non-extant, railroad bridges may become an informal connection for non-motorized mobility.

Most railroad bridges in the L.A. area experienced a transformation from wood to iron during the flood periods, which questioned the integrity of wooden structures and posed a larger threat to the population once the structures collapsed; thus, playing a major role during these type of disasters (Gumprecht 2001). Since then, uniform iron structures are standing across the urban riverscapes, some of them still remain. Such is the case of the Santa Fe Arroyo Seco Railroad Bridge, the oldest, tallest and longest extant railroad bridge in the City of LA, built by Santa Fe Railroad (Masters 2012), it became part of the Metro Gold Line in 2003 (Fisher 2010). These artificial landmarks were built and operated by the major companies of their time: Union Pacific Railroad, Southern Pacific, ATSF, BNSF, Amtrak and other modern commuter rail services.

According to a study conducted by the California Department of Transportation, there are over 7,635 miles of railroad lines in California. Along these, about 200 locations of railroad infrastructure in the state are considered obsolete. Some of these are old train stations, bridges, yards and even entire railroad branches.

Of the major railroad branches in the LA County, five are out-of-operation and six of them are in state of abandonment (Caltrans 2005). There are records of about 250 railroad bridges statewide, 31 of them are abandoned, closed to all traffic, derelict or in a state of disrepair. Out of all the railroad bridges in the state owned by railroad companies, only two of them are open to pedestrian traffic: the Juniata Cooke Greenbelt Trail/UP Overpass in Orange County; and the SC&MB – Aptos Creek Bridge in Santa Cruz County (Bridge Hunter 2016). It is imperative to expand and update the inventory of these bridges statewide.

The Government acknowledges the need to “identify abandoned rail corridors that have potential for use by non-motorized transportation and as links to improve access to public transit” (Caltrans 2005). As mentioned before, more and more often railroad crossings in a state of disrepair are being used as informal pedestrian crossings by the neighboring users, such as the case of the train track bridge in Santa Cruz, CA; which is part of an active railroad line connecting the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and Murray St over the San Lorenzo River (video below).

The rails-to-trails conversion is the drosscape practice of reclaiming the right-of-way of train corridors which are abandoned or out-of-operation. Ongoing and recent projects of this type in the LA County are: the San Fernando Valley east-west bicycle path, the Whittier Greenway Trail, the San Fernando Road MetroLink bike path, the Long Beach Greenbelt Bike/Ped Path and the Exposition corridor. These projects range from 1.2 to 11 miles and have received funding from $1.1 to $6 million dollars.

For the case of active railroads, Caltrans (2005) suggests the incorporation of multi-use programs for in-operation rail corridors, which means they can accommodate for pedestrian and non-motorized transportation while also allowing for conventional railroad transit.

Some interesting pedestrian/biking bridges in the U.S. that used to be railroad bridges:

  • Junction Bridge Pedestrian Walkway, Arkansas.
  • Union Street Railroad Pedestrian & Bicycle Bridge, Oregon.
  • John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, Tennessee.
  • Big Four Bridge, Kentucky & Indiana.
  • Newport South Bank Bridge, Kentucky & Ohio.
  • Walkway Over Hudson Bridge, New York.
  • Depot Avenue Trail Pedestrian Bridge, Florida.
  • High Line, New York.


The John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge. Creative Commons photo by Craig G.

The John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge. Creative Commons photo by Craig G.

Opportunities for designers and planners increase when some of these potential pedestrian crossings share a similar design, layout, and structural behavior. According to the site Bridge Hunter, the through truss railroad design is featured 95 times across 250 recorded bridges in the state, giving a clear chance to develop prototypes for rails-to-trails scenarios or multi-use programs. At the moment, 52 of the 95 bridges are owned by railroad companies.

Offering good structural integrity, the adjacency to trail networks and proper safety measures could be kick-start qualifications to make a bridge candidate for these type of interventions. The character of the iron structures in most railroad bridges has already certain architectural appeal thanks to the contemporary marvels of civil engineering. Residents could immediately recognize these spaces as community landmarks.

For designers, however, the challenge arises when it comes to the development of secondary uses in these right-of-way sites. Ownership, liability issues, permits, and restrictions posed by design guidelines often conflict and end up driving out the idea of reclaiming the site for the nearby communities, unless there is a strong public interest in developing the zone.

For public agencies, the challenge might be more related to the proper maintenance and operation of the infrastructure. Railroad bridges offer a unique view of the cityscape. But if not surveilled properly, these spots usually have also the potential for becoming a hotspot associated with criminal activities, and as refuge for the homeless in the urban environment. This is translated into a negative perception of the site and unsafe transit conditions.

South Gate, CA. Photo by Cristhian Barajas

South Gate, CA. Photo by Cristhian Barajas

The panorama looks positive, with more often public and private agencies recognizing the importance of providing new pedestrian/biking connections to communities as encouragement for recreational activities and an aid in fighting poverty. Four components are key to make these projects happen: land owners, public agencies, designers, and community.

From the environmental justice perspective, some of the best views of the city from the urban environment are located in such inaccessible places like railroad and vehicular bridges, when in fact it should be the opposite. Non-motorized and green transportation should be rewarded with the best views of the city.