By Object Territories, international design firm & winner of the elevating erie ideas competition 'bridge' category
Historically, New York State has had a strong tradition of innovative infrastructural works that perform as public amenity. Infrastructural projects upstate include Niagara Power Plant and the Erie Canal; downstate includes the New York City subway and the system of reservoirs and aqueducts serving the city from points north. These projects, while providing necessary infrastructure double their benefit to the community as destinations for public use.
New York created the country’s first State Park in 1885 at Niagara Falls. The Adirondack Park remains the largest state park in the country, eclipsing the state of Massachusetts in size– quite a statement given the North East is one of the most urbanized regions in the United States. Downstate parks range in size and character across time to include Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s brilliant plans for Central Park and Prospect Park, shoreline access such as Jones Beach, to more recent urban landscape reinventions such as the Highline, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Governor's Island, and the soon-to-be completed Fresh Kills Park.
The Erie Canal itself was an example of publicly invested infrastructure that spurred economic development and population growth across areas of the state along its route. In its current state, gaps that have either been filled or paved over along the original canal route disrupt an otherwise continuous linear park and trail system across the state. The opportunities a linear park 360 miles long could provide in the region are unprecedented. A public, multimodal, multiuse park of this length would provide an armature for economic regeneration and habitat creation for communities along its route. A vision with focused public policy and grass-roots support coupled with innovative design and engineering provides a compelling recipe for growth.
The Highline Park phenomenon on the west side of Manhattan is but one example of how derelict infrastructure from another era can be reconceptualized as a public amenity. Since opening, this linear park has become more successful than imagined, providing a connective tissue between neighborhoods, and sparking a real-estate boom on the lower west side of Manhattan. The highline has become a global phenomenon, with cities from Edmonton to Singapore developing their own regenerative linear park networks.
The High Bridge, crossing the Harlem River in New York City and completed in 1848 as part of the Croton Aqueduct, originally served as the conduit for the New York City water system, linking Manhattan to sources north of the city. Closed in the 1970s, it was recently refurbished and although it no longer carries water, the walkway on top once again facilitates pedestrian and bicycle connection between two boroughs. Built to convey water, now it is part of the New York City park system and is spurring adjacent development.
In Buffalo, the state worked with local agencies via the Empire State Development Corporation, the state’s economic development agency, to redevelop and strengthen the connection between the downtown and Erie Lake at the Erie Canal Harbor area. ESDC’s stated goals were to revitalize the waterfront and bring economic development to Buffalo. Like most ESDC sponsored projects, a mix of public and private investment was orchestrated to bring the project to fruition, using its authority to consolidate players and push the project through a challenging approvals process.
So what of Erie Canal Trail corridor? For most of the route of the canal, an impressive park system has been developed running east-west across the state. But, just as infrastructural links do not work when incomplete, this park system remains so – the significant gaps prevent connectivity and the opportunity for growth that would be enabled by a completed linear park as a new destination upstate.
This potential redevelopment project has support from government officials in DeWitt and Syracuse, but perhaps more importantly, it has the attention of the state which can bring considerable resources to the table. It could easily be a national example and prototype for other such projects in the country as well. However, New York State has a significant advantage: the remains of the canal itself and the existing segments that still remain. The Erie Canal as an infrastructural project is a part of our heritage and it has potential to do much more than what it is doing now or even has done in the past. Based on the recent exhibition at the Erie Canal Museum and numerous events that already occur along the Erie Canal Park, significant public interest and enthusiasm exists for filling the few remaining gaps, providing an economic catalyst for the area, and creating a safe public corridor for families and generations to come.
At 360 miles, the Erie Canal Park will be one of a kind, maybe even the longest such linear park in the world. Aside from the impressive scale, the more important potential is what it can do now – economically, socially, and ecologically for the region? One cannot place a price on the intangible benefits available to the community with the completion of such a project.