Places I Remember with Lea Lane

Parks Of The World: Reinventing And Reclaiming Neglected Spaces -- For The 21st Century

July 19, 2022 Architectural historian Victoria Newhouse and landscape architect Alex Pisha discuss their book on the dynamic evolution of parks world-wide --respites for travelers. Season 1 Episode 63
Places I Remember with Lea Lane
Parks Of The World: Reinventing And Reclaiming Neglected Spaces -- For The 21st Century
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

We are in the midst of a worldwide golden age of park creation, and featured in this episode are powerful examples. This recent surge of park development offers us much to celebrate.  Parks are being designed as proactive, dynamic green spaces.

Our guests, Victoria Newhouse and Alex Pisha,  are the authors of Parks of the 21st century: Reinventing Landscapes, Reclaimed Territories.

They discuss how neglected places have become glorious public parkland. Parks are becoming reinvented and reclaimed from former railroad beds, highway caps, former airports, former industrial plants, former quarries, former strongholds.

Victoria and Alex discuss parks they especially love in China, the Netherlands and other countries, and the future of parks, including ways they will help combat climate change.

We end, as usual, with our guests' special travel memories.
Victoria Newhouse is an architectural historian and founder of the Architectural History Foundation. Alex Pisha is a senior landscape architect at Sawyer, Burson architecture and landscape architecture. They are the authors of Parks of the 21st century: Reinventing Landscapes, Reclaimed Territories, published by Rizzoli, New York.
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at, has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine books, including Places I Remember, and contributed to many guidebooks.

Contact Lea! 
@lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; on  Facebook, it's Places I Remember with Lea Lane. Website:

New episodes drop every other week, on Tuesdays. Please tell your friends, family and colleagues about us, and follow, rate and review this award-winning travel podcast!

*transcript edited for clarity

Lea Lane  0:06  
Hi, I'm Lea lane an award-winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world. 

Parks around the world provide mental and physical refuge: places to escape for fresh air, exercise and family fun. Parks are essential to our well being, and the recent surge of park development from reclaimed lands offers us much to celebrate. Parks are becoming proactive, dynamic green spaces. Renewed landscapes offer economic revitalization, large scale environmental improvement, and public places to seek out as travelers. Many are living landscapes using sustainable construction and maintenance. Innovative design helps counter climate change with wetlands that absorb floodwaters, and plants that heal land and water damaged by industry, as well as habitats where animal species are welcome and protected. In fact, landscape architects have been referred to as the 'first environmentalists.' 

Our guests are architectural historian and founder of the Architectural History Foundation, Victoria Newhouse, and Alex Pisha, a senior landscape architect at Sawyer, Burson architecture and landscape architecture. They are the authors of Parks of the 21st century: Reinventing Landscapes, Reclaimed Territories, published by Rizzoli, New York. Welcome to Places I Remember, Victoria and Alex.

Victoria Newhouse  1:42  
Thank you. Thank you so much. 

Lea Lane  1:45  
Well, your new book presents 52 parks in the United States, Mexico, Canada, Europe and China that have turned spoiled and polluted land, including former factories, railroads, and industrial waterfronts into beneficial landscapes. The book offers detailed history, 200 color photos and illustrations, and sitemaps. And you visited all the sites; tell us, how long did it take to compile and write the book?

Victoria Newhouse  2:12  
Well, we were working on it for about five years. 

Lea Lane  2:16  
And did you work on it constantly?

Victoria Newhouse  2:18  
It was constant. Yeah.

Lea Lane  2:20  
Was there a general theme you discovered among all those parks?

Victoria Newhouse  2:24  
Well, I think Alex can answer that better than I can. Because certainly, all of the parks we chose, and we chose them with this very much in mind, addressed aspects of climate change. So talk about some of the water control.

Alex Pisha  2:40  
Yeah, and also, all of the parks in the book are these sort of former brown or brownfield sites, these sort of polluted soiled sites. And so that's something that's really connecting them all. But yeah, as Victoria mentioned, almost all of the parks, address water pollution, habitat creation, things like this. And so really turning these despoiled areas into really vibrant ecological communities.

Lea Lane  3:08  
I noticed just in reading it that the parks extend through and around urban centers, they're like breathing spaces, that was a very interesting thing to see all through the world, the same need to find places to relax and find greenery in an urban center.

Victoria Newhouse  3:25  
I just want to mention Alex, that the all of the parks are in cities. So for someone interested in visiting any of them, these cities all have the attraction of very sophisticated cultural facilities, wonderful restaurants, entertainment, theater, concerts, that kind of thing. 

Lea Lane  3:45  
Besides the parks, you have the cities. So it's a total vacation, you have a green space to get to as well, or you're saying it's in the parks itself. There's entertainment within the parks complex.

Alex Pisha  3:54  
There in the parks, for sure, to their cafes. And, you know, a lot of the parks we visited in China have different events going on in the parks, of course, because a lot of these are, you know, former industrial sites. 

Lea Lane  4:08  
Well, in your book, you've covered 52 Parks worldwide, which you've divided into several categories. We'll talk about each category, and please choose one or two parks that best represent it. Let's start with railroad parks. They're connecting neighborhoods and providing public space. Maybe the most famous example is the Highline in New York, which was built and opened in 2009, and now attracts nearly 8 million visitors a year. It offers open space, and the renewed landscapes offer economic revitalization and large scale environmental improvement as well. So tell us more about this trend in other cities.

Victoria Newhouse  4:44  
Well, in Detroit, actually, there is a former railroad line that has been transformed into a park, and that particular park --it's called the Dequindre Cut -- was a very important inspiration for the book because we had heard about the planning of this park, which took place actually, at about the same time as the planning for the Highline, which is, of course, much more famou.  But the cut was a very, very important effort to do the same kind of thing. And in Detroit, which is a city, as we all know, that has had a lot of financial problems, the park was a connector between different neighborhoods, a great stimulus to the general effort to revive the city.

Lea Lane  5:34  
Well, in Episode 10, we talked with Meg Daly, founder of the Underline, which goes underneath the Metro for 10 miles in Miami, and the same thing is happening, it's very close to where I live, two miles are open right now. But eventually there'll be 10 miles all the way to South Miami, to Dadeland, and it's become a very popular place to just walk and relax. There are butterflies and artworks and it's just a wonderful addition to Miami. 

Alex Pisha  5:59  
Yeah, I was gonna say one of the great things about the Dequindre Cut is how it's become a venue for the display of urban art. And it's really wonderful to see the community kind of come together around this. And so as you walk along it, there's these amazing sort of graffiti murals on the former railroad bridges, and they do different exhibits and festivals throughout the year really showcase this, this culture. It's really fantastic.

Lea Lane  6:26  
Well, it's another kind of park land, highway cap, tell us what that is and how it's being turned into parkland.

Victoria Newhouse  6:32  
But I think more and more communities are losing patience with highways that cut through their neighborhoods, with noise and pollution. There is a tremendous trend now around the world to cover some of these highways. And one of the most interesting that we visited was in Holland, and the designers there created park-like very, very wide bridges over a very, very busy highway that did compromise the quality of a suburb outside of Utrecht.

Lea Lane  7:07  
We just spoke to someone about Holland, and they're so ahead of everyone in water improvement, you know, they're the ones we go to. So I'm sure that they are excellent in all areas of ecology, they're well ahead of the rest of the world in many ways. Let me ask you about airports and landscaping them because you want them to be pleasing from the sky as well as the ground because people are coming into them. Tell me about that. These were

Alex Pisha  7:31  
these were actually all former airports. So they're no longer in use. And one of the more interesting ones, I think that we visited is the altar flute plants outside of Frankfurt, Germany, and it's a former military base that the designers took a very sort of minimalist strategy, what they decided to do was break up the tarmac and to varying sizes, shards, really in an effort to allow self seeding plant species kind of take hold within these crevices and further change the physical environment, I would say. So it's an example of ruderal ecologies, the idea of plant communities going into areas of disturbance. So if you think of like a forest fire, for example, some of those first pioneer species to come through these are examples of ruderal ecologies. And so it's this really kind of fun design where the actual design concept is using these shards that's like breaking up of the topography, as the design mechanism as the mechanism for growth. And so yeah, so what what's been fascinating to see is how that site has evolved, where when it was first opened, you could still see quite a bit of the shards, the plant material, you know, was quite young, and then when Victoria and I went, these trees have grown to be 3040 feet tall. It's a little bit like you're in a cathedral with the birches and the poplars rising above you, spaces that I remember seeing photograph 10 years ago just don't exist anymore with nature has reclaimed it. It's

Victoria Newhouse  8:58  
just beautiful. I just like to add one thing, which is that it was there in this Frankfurt Park, that we first started to notice a trend, which is that many, many landscape architects are allowing self propagation instead of designing a lot of flowerbeds and lawns, all of which seems somewhat old fashioned now, they just let nature take over the result is really very attractive and very appealing.

Alex Pisha  9:25  
It's also a good example of like allowing a park or the design to have an indeterminate future are unprescribed, really by the designer where it's constantly evolving as opposed to projects like the High Line that have a very specific plant palette and strategy and if something dies, it's replaced in time. This allows for things to evolve naturally.

Lea Lane  9:45  
Well in Episode 39. We talked about Singapore's jewel Changi Airport, that's a different sort of beauty.

Victoria Newhouse  9:51  
Yes, Shanghai, which now has two huge airports, both designed by very famous architects, the way here, this little dinky airport was in Shanghai, which has become totally obsolete now with the growth of the city and the growth that's traveled into that city. They have created right in the city amongst the bicycle paths and the automobile paths, and they have created this really lovely park. That is very successful.

Alex Pisha  10:21  
True. Yeah. True. Queen runway Park. Yeah.

Lea Lane  10:24  
Wonderful. Yeah. Now, this waterside industry, the post industrial era has seen the demolition or relocation of factories around the world, many on river fronts, and they leave behind heavily polluted sites, rehabilitation into green spaces, makes Riversides accessible to the public for the first time in maybe 100 years. Tell us more about this.

Victoria Newhouse  10:44  
Do you want to talk about that, Alex? Yeah, I

Alex Pisha  10:47  
think you know, with a lot of you know, as with industry, a lot of industry was located along the river side as a result of needing to connect to transportation networks, shipping and things like that. So for a lot of cities, the US included waterfronts were totally cut off from the populations. They were sites of dirty dwarfs and things like that. So what we were looking at is the city's really saying, okay, these natural features are really assets and really shouldn't be cleaned up shouldn't really be celebrated worldwide, really. And so one of them for me anyway, one of the more interesting parts that's very simple, actually is the parka Angelique in Bordeaux, France, where the designers are not necessarily naive enough to say that this broad swath of land will always remain a park Rather, they are accounting for future development on what is very expensive land in Bordeaux, and setting up a park as a frame for future infrastructure to go in. I think other parks that we looked at Renaissance park that is a former refrigeration factory and has incredibly contaminated soils, adopted strategies and turning this back into riparian ecology. This is in Chattanooga, and it has this like amazing effect on the community and providing more public green space in a city that really lacks access to that.

Lea Lane  12:10  
How about a inland industry, some of the sites inland that are brown water and so forth that have been fixed?

Victoria Newhouse  12:16  
I'd like to just add one other thing about the Riverside parks, which is that both in Shanghai and New York, there are a series of parks along the riverside. So you have miles of parks with pedestrian areas, of course, but also bicycle paths. And they create kind of green chains along the river side, which is really interesting. I think that's going to happen more and more. But in terms of inland parks, one of the more interesting we saw was in Manchuria, northern China, in a city called Chang Chun, where a water ecology Park has been created on the site of a treatment plant or water treatment plants as the Japanese had built in the 1930s.

Lea Lane  13:04  
Interesting, I know I've been to a little town in North Central Florida called Gainesville and they have a park called depot Park. I don't know if you're familiar with that. But that was a rail road stopping and it was off limits for so many years. It's become the central park of the town. It's amazing how it's changed the town and that's taken maybe 10 years to get it done. Tell me about quarries hundreds of 1000s of quarries penetrate the earth and some date back over 2 million years. And you mined substances like marble and limestone and precious metals and building materials. But what are some qualities that have been reclaimed for Parkland,

Victoria Newhouse  13:40  
one of the most unusual we found were was it the Pacific

Alex Pisha  13:45  
garden quarry garden? Yes. Yeah, it's the Shanghai Botanic Garden. But I was

Victoria Newhouse  13:49  
thinking also in the US of the Pacific Northwest where Thomas whales you're telling us Wales Yeah, exactly, which is a tiny, tiny little park. But it's a wonderful example of how even a very very small area can be successful in terms of a green space. There had been unbelievably a I think it was a gravel quarry there which is surprising because it really is in the middle of the of the of the city and it became obsolete it ran out of material to be quarried. And they had the the excellent idea of creating a park there with the help of a local artist who designed these large umbrella like sculptures that dot the park so it really is kind of almost like a a fantastic work of art. We really enjoyed it.

Lea Lane  14:45  
I know travelers are familiar with Bouchard gardens in Victoria Island. Yes, yes Hoover, and I believe that was a quarry at one point from another century, but it's a fantastically popular garden. For world travelers, yes, yes. No, tell me about stronghold. I love the term it conjures up historic forts and defensive walls. And it's one of the oldest types of repurposed infrastructure for parks. What are a few of these in the 21st century that have been turned into parks?

Alex Pisha  15:15  
I think one of my favorites in the book actually is Laura shabby and Lorsch. Germany, that's a former monastic complex, was a church, monastery, and that sort of thing that was long destroyed, I think, by Napoleon. Right, Victoria? I think so. Yeah. And so the idea there was to sort of reveal the site's history without really affecting the sort of archaeological legacy of like, disturbing the ground plane too much. And so they create the indentations that suggest the former massing of the buildings and the walls through these subtle maneuvers of the lawns. So it's, it's the, you know, flat lawns of slope down slightly to reveal impressions of where these structures used to be. And then these really subtle paths, like let you go around the perimeter, and they recreated a medieval physic garden with it as well. And then you know, you have these 14th century walls surrounding you, it's really spectacular sight. It's such a very quiet park with very minimal, you know, planting and really elegantly executed. Yeah,

Lea Lane  16:25  
now you write the parks are never completed. And flexibility is a key note in design. So what do you see happening for the rest of this century, in regard to parks around the world,

Victoria Newhouse  16:36  
people often forget that it's not enough to create a park, you have to maintain it. So for the future, I think, for the survival, all of these parks maintenance is so important. We noticed in China, that in spite of the wealth of that country, and the enormous amount of money that has been spent on creating new parks that a number of these parks, even relatively new ones, were already beginning to show signs of deterioration, like some of the the wooden walkways were falling apart some of the little pavilions needed reparation. So I think that's one thing that is terribly important for the future. But I also think that climate change and as part of climate change, water control and other aspects of environmental sustainability are going to become more and more important elements in the design of parks in the future.

Alex Pisha  17:33  
Yeah, I think building on that, what we saw a lot is that these parks are really actively addressing climate change and natural disasters. So parks that we visited, like a New York Hunter's Point south, it's a beautiful space, but it's also really heavily engineered and designed to armor, the coastline and really protect the neighborhood from things like storm surge, which it was being built during Hurricane Sandy. And it worked exactly as designed protecting the entire area from mass flooding. So I think that that's what we're seeing, we're gonna be seeing a lot is that these parks are really being actively designed for climate change. Yeah,

Lea Lane  18:11  
very important. Well, the name of the podcast is places I remember. So Victoria and Alex, would you each give us a special memory from compiling this book. And we'll start with Victoria.

Victoria Newhouse  18:22  
One of my outstanding memories of the whole experience was in Chang Chang, which I mentioned earlier, the park in northern China, where we had an amazing food experience we had found in our travels that we really didn't have enough time to go into restaurants. So we started going to food markets and the food market that we went to in China was without a doubt, the most spectacular with all sorts of exotic foods dark that had been simmered in tea, and on and on with one thing more exotic than the next and it was very good food and a lot of fun to visit. Yeah, food and food

Lea Lane  19:06  
makes a great memory always. Okay, Alex, how about your special

Alex Pisha  19:10  
food was always amazing in China, but I remember part of the process, you know, we would of course interview the parks designers and things like that, but we'd also want to review park users. And for me, that was some of my you know, favorite memories was talking to them. And I remember in one park when we were in Tianjin, the wetland Park, we spoke with an elderly gentleman about his experiences and what he thought of the park and he was talking about how he remembers when it was the despoiled urban landfill and eyesore and now it's been transformed into this amazing space and that he actually takes a two hour long bus ride just to go to the park weekly. And it was it was really like kind of touching to hear and I think in that same visit, we met a grandmother with her granddaughter who was thrilled with the park love to go see the wildlife to geese and and she grabbed my hand and tried to drag me to see the geese. And like that's to me, she was really charming. Just getting to know the locals and talking with them and really understanding like what these spaces mean to them was really I think, like a highlight of these trips for me. Well, that's

Lea Lane  20:15  
wonderful about a park, you get to meet people. social spaces, absolutely. They can be quiet spaces, and they can be social spaces, but they're wonderful spaces. Well, we're in the midst of a worldwide golden age of power creation. And you've given us powerful transformations of former factories, railroads and industrial waterfronts turned into gorgeous landscapes, cherished by many millions. This gives us more reasons to travel and hope that we can still effectively combat climate change while enjoying the beauty of our world. So thank you again, Victoria new house and Alex Petia, authors of the illustrated parks of the 21st century reinventing landscapes, reclaim territories.

Victoria Newhouse  20:59  
Thank you. Thank you so much.

Lea Lane  21:02  
My book places I remember tales truth delight from 100 countries is available in print Kindle, and I read the audio version. You can follow me on where I write five travel posts a month. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. And I'd love to hear from you on any of my links in the episodes show notes or on my website places I remember Lea Until next time, make some travel memories

Intro of 21st-century parks around the world
Categories, starting with former railroad beds
Highway caps
Former airports
Former industial plants, waterside and inland
Former quarries
Former strongholds
The future of world parks, including means to combat climate change
Special memories of Victoria and Alex