Urban upcycling: revitalizing cities in the Americas

By Pierre Herman

Check out these fine examples of urban space reuse strategies that have helped turn once unsightly urban eyesores including an abandoned Wal-Mart store, a former military base, a derelict car-parts factory and a dilapidated waterfront promenade into vibrant citizen life-enhancement spaces!

One of the visions of sustainable living and development is the transformation of cities into spaces that help fulfill multiple human goals at once: improving health, quality of life and life satisfaction, engendering a strong sense of community and local support, maintaining high levels of employment and creating vibrant, artistic and aesthetically pleasing living environments are just a few of the objectives this movement aspires to meeting. In the following four cities, old, abandoned or derelict sites have been reclaimed and turned into public spaces that enhance citizens’ lives in more ways than one.

New York, New York:

Here a former over-ground railway line was reclaimed and turned into a raised public park and promenade, making the city greener and more attractive and with little cost when compared to the alternative: demolishing what is evidently a very practical, leftover space.

New York City’s “High Line” being used by residents and tourists alike.

Pilot and photographer Alex MacLean captured this stunning image for his book Up on The Roof: New York’s Hidden Skyline Spaces.

A variety of vegetation is used along the park's length, creating an ecosystem within the city.

A variety of vegetation is used along the park’s length, creating an ecosystem within the city.

New York: End of the (high) line. A former railway line becomes an uncommericalized, elevated park enjoyed by millions to get around and stay in shape.

End of the (high) line: An abandoned railway line became an uncommericalized, elevated park enjoyed by millions to get around, stay in shape and get close to nature.

Toronto, Canada

On a former airport and Canadian military base, a mighty example of city re-greening and regeneration is being brought to fruition. Unapologetically uncommercialized, the park comes complete with an urban forest, a 3.6-hectare lake, ample space for urban farming and beekeeping, an apple orchard and over 377 acres dedicated to open space for recreational, cultural, community and educational uses.

Toronto, Canada: A new subway and overground station will link the park to the city centre

Guayaquil, Ecuador

Bottom right: the northern limit of the 2.5 kilometer Malecon 2000 waterfront redevelopment in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Arguably one of the finest examples of waterfront renewal in the world, a formerly dilapidated promenade was turned into a showpiece model for other cities. Named Malecón 2000, the redevelopment saw the addition of a thick tree barrier, ponds, several botanical gardens, playgrounds, sculptures and historical artefacts in addition to a museum, performance space, restaurants and a small shopping area all along a 2.5 km stretch of the Rio Guayas.


McAllen, Texas (USA)Big box retailers sap the life from our town centres, but we can fight back.  This abandoned Wal-Mart in McAllen, Texas was turned into an ultra-modern library which saw registration increase by 23% in the first month of opening.  It should be pointed out that it has been criticized for being far from the town centre, less accessible to the young or elderly who rely on public transport, and for leading to the closure of the city centre library and in turn driving cultural life to the fringes of the city. Still, a great example of how commercial spaces can be re-adapted when commercial or economic realities change.

This former Wal-Mart is now a city library

Brooklyn, New York (USA)

A group of entrepreneurs and urban-farming enthusiasts, with backgrounds as varied as finance, engineering and marketing, helped found and set up a now booming farm (named Brooklyn Grange) in the most unlikely of places: atop a derelict car-parts factory in Brooklyn, New York.  Selling their leafy produce to tenants, in markets and to restaurants exclusively within a 5-6 mile radius, this successful urban experiment has even embarked on educating the city’s youth about healthy eating and sustainable food production.

(More photos of revitalized New York City rooftops: click here

Toronto, Canada

On the city’s east side, more than 53,000 m² and 40 Victorian-era industrial buildings dating back to 1832 once made up the world’s largest whiskey distillery. The area was left to rot until being designated a National Historic Site in 1988. Following the global trend of turning former factories into lofts or museums (think of London’s Tate Modern Gallery), the area was painstakingly restored and finally opened to the public in 2003 as a mixed-use residential, commercial and entertainment area, featuring pedestrianized streets, open-air theatres, shops and restaurants, as well as apartment and office lofts.


The Distillery District, as its now known, is perhaps a good example of public-private partnership, the area having being sold to a private developer but under strict guidelines about how the area’s development could be shaped. Today it stands as beacon of Toronto’s glorious industrial past, with much of the city’s historic wealth having been destroyed in fires or modern-day demolition, and as a model of architectural upcycling and sustainable living.


Know any other cities with urban upcycling experiences? Leave a comment below!

Designs for the future: Vincent Callebaut’s living, breathing architecture


8 comments on “Urban upcycling: revitalizing cities in the Americas

  1. blinkpack
    October 10, 2012

    Josh here from the BlinkPack blog. I love the idea of reclaimed spaces. The linear park in NYC is on my travel wish list — I am an avid biker who loves to pedal in different cities. Wishing you all the best with your travels and blogging. Cheers!

    • Pierre A Herman
      October 22, 2012

      Thanks Josh for visiting my blog! Hope you make it to to the linear park in NYC soon, although it looks a bit too narrow to go biking on!!

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