Healthier connections for Florida cities
My favorite place to visit in New York City these days is the High Line Park, which was created on a 1.5-mile stretch of elevated railroad track on Manhattan’s west side along 10th Avenue. From 1940-80, freight trains used the track to bring food and other goods directly to factories, warehouses and stores that backed up to the tracks. After truck deliveries made the line obsolete, it sat abandoned until a group of local residents reimagined it as a public space. They formed a non-profit that helped the city turn it into a greenway, with landscaping, benches and other amenities — all 30 feet above the city’s streets.
The linear walkway-in-the-air, open since 2009, is probably the only place in Manhattan outside Central Park where you see New Yorkers walking and smiling at the same time. The High Line is an inspired creation, good for the city and its people — you feel more relaxed there after walking just a few feet. Meanwhile, new investment has poured into the streets along the corridor, and businesses along the High Line route have thrived.
Miami is taking a page from High Line’s example with a project called the Underline Park. During the next decade, a 10-mile, spaghetti-like stretch of land underneath the Metrorail tracks from downtown Miami’s Brickell Station all the way to the Dadeland South station will be transformed into a combination of linear park and trail. The design will feature lighting, seating, landscaping and paths for both bicyclists and pedestrians — and eventually a rotating public arts program. Scattered along the way are large “destination” parks with amenities including basketball courts and picnic areas.
The Underline is the brainchild of Meg Daly, a Miami native and veteran marketing executive. Four years ago, she broke both her arms in a bike accident. Unable to drive to the appointment with her physical therapist, she took the Metrorail. In the course of walking to and from the Metrorail stop, she was struck by how much unused land there was under the tracks — and by its potential. “It led me to consider a whole new set of options,” she says.
What has evolved is a sophisticated public-private partnership where both sectors have collaborated creatively. Financing has come from the state; the county, which for the first time is using road impact fee funds for a park; the city, which will assess park impact fees on future buildings constructed within 500 feet of the corridor; and private sector developers, who are funding one mile of the first four. Meanwhile, the Friends of the Underline non-profit, which Daly founded, has raised funds for an endowment to pay to maintain the Underline; she’s gotten big donations from the Knight Foundation and private companies, including Swire Properties. Private attorneys from several firms have worked on the project pro bono.
James Corner Field Operations — the firm that designed the High Line — has nearly finished design work on the northernmost four-mile leg of the project; construction may start by year’s end. The trail’s $10-million-a-mile cost is a fraction of the $200 million it took to realize the 1.5 miles of High Line.
One notable aspect of the project was the decision to commission a “health impact assessment” as part of the planning process. Part of the vision for the trail is to provide citizens with a way to be more active — and with a safe alternative to using their cars. Florida, Daly points out, is home to nine of the 11 most dangerous cities for pedestrians. The health study for the Underline looked at the project’s potential health effects and suggested design elements to make it safer and better for health. “There’s nothing small about this,” says Daly. “It’s a big-vision project.”
There’s a trend here. Health considerations, and health impact assessments, are becoming part of the planning process in more and more civic and business contexts: In road and highway planning, for example, where the route and type of road can affect the health of residents nearby. Meanwhile, the state DOT has embraced the “Complete Streets” approach to road design, meant to encourage walking, bicycling and safer driving.
Architects, for their part, are beginning to build more health considerations into the buildings they design. And local health departments are moving out of their silos to better integrate their services with those of other agencies. In St. Petersburg, for example, the local health department partnered with the local police department on a resource bus project that transports both police officers and health department workers into neighborhoods to answer law enforcement and health-service related questions. Volunteers do blood pressure screenings and connect residents to resources.
Projects like the Underline and the partnership in St. Pete are great examples of how health considerations are — appropriately — carrying more weight in how cities operate. One of the great things the Millennial generation has brought to the civic table is a preference for a better, healthier integration of work, recreation and living — most don’t want a lifestyle that involves getting into an automobile to get to work, or every time they want to shop or socialize.
What Daly says of Miami holds true for most Floridians: “We tend to experience our city from behind the windows of a car.” The ultimate benefit of projects like the Underline, as she points out, is giving residents of a city a new — and healthier — way of connecting with the places where they live.
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