Underlining a need for more park space

The proposed Underline would run along the southern leg of Metrorail.
The proposed Underline would run along the southern leg of Metrorail. theunderline.org

If you have been to New York recently, you may have visited High Line Park, A 1.45-mile linear space that once was part of an elevated section of railroad. It is often cited as one of the best urban projects in recent history and an example of how to address urban blight in sustainable ways.

Here in Miami, we may not have starchitects with enormous ambitions for public spaces and philanthropic plutocrats who can write eight-figure checks to fund glitzy new parks, but we do have a constituency that cares deeply about what public parks should look like and are pushing to make their dreams reality.

Among the most ambitious and untraditional public-park plan is the Underline, a project that seeks to transform a 10-mile strip of underused land under the southern leg of Metrorail into a linear park and urban trail. While local governments in the past would have balked at considering a public-park project created by a private group, the proposal’s ingenious use of underutilized government-owned land has attracted support from the county and city. Although a park underneath an above-ground rail system sounds like far from ideal park space, so did creating a park on the former tracks themselves, as was the case with the wildly successful High Line.

While Miami’s urban core has exploded in recent years, there has not been a similar increase in public space. And what little parkland exists today is constantly threatened. This has been particularly true in the city center, where public green space is extraordinarily scarce yet existing spaces such Museum Park and Allen Morris Park have been eyed as locations for stadiums or skyscrapers (although neither appears to be going anywhere just yet). Blue-sky proposals like the Underline are using ingenious solutions to turn neglected areas into much-needed public space.

Elsewhere, park advocates have recently clamored at hearings to persuade elected officials to protect a 6.2-mile stretch of abandoned railroad tracks, the Ludlam Trail, from rezoning to allow developers to build residential properties. Many in the community hope the trail will be transformed into a park that would benefit the neighborhoods that the parcel cuts through. Supporters’ zeal shows that the fate of public spaces has galvanized many, a rare feat in a community filled with jaded and dissatisfied constituents.

While the Underline has drawn universal support, the issue of the Ludlam Trail development has been much more contentious. The space represents one of the last tracts of undeveloped land in the area, and tensions have risen as advocates worry that the developers are prioritizing profit over the greater good of the community. With so little available land left, the concerns of groups such as Friends of the Ludlam Trail are justified because elected officials have a history of choosing development over park space; David Beckham’s proposal to build in Museum Park sticks out as a glaring example. But it appears that the public is no longer sitting idle. People are making their voices heard and holding elected officials and developers accountable.

The surging interest in Miami’s parks and public spaces is far from a fringe movement. Major institutions like the Miami Foundation and the Knight Foundation have sought to crowdsource ideas on how to improve our community and have backed projects that improve the city’s parks and public spaces (the former through its Public Space Challenge and the latter through a number of its programs, including the Knight Cities Challenge).

The movement to improve greater Miami’s public spaces in innovative ways has been peaking, and we must not allow this momentum to die down. For too long, short-term gain rather than long-term thinking has driven much of the city’s development. This has resulted in communities such as Brickell, which have rapidly transformed into a dense array of skyscrapers but that are severely lacking green space and walkability.

But it appears that community leaders, city planners and local residents for once have reached consensus when it comes to addressing the need to right past wrongs by finding solutions big and small to make our city a more livable one.

No longer is Miami just a tourist destination, a part-time home for snowbirds or where seniors come to retire. It’s a city that’s rapidly growing, filled with millions of people who live here year-round but still lacking the truly outstanding public spaces of other cities, such as Millennium Park in Chicago or Central Park in Manhattan. We cannot carve these spaces out of thin air, so our community needs to improve existing public spaces and create new spaces that can connect communities and improve quality of life.

If we all sit back and wait for someone else to improve our city, who else will create the city we deserve?

Ricardo Mor is operations and programs coordinator for the Miami Center for Architecture & Design.