I just happened to be in New York City in June 2009, when everybody was buzzing about the High Line opening. Living in Oregon, where we have vast forests and high deserts, pointy volcanic mountains and fields of wildflowers, I was a little confused. Sure, it was nice, but why were people going nuts for a narrow strip of garden overlooking Manhattan’s skyscrapers?

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Of course, now that I’m more than a decade older and wiser, I understand more about people’s need for parks — especially in giant cities where green space is in short supply. Published in September 2021 by Rizzoli International Publications, Parks of the 21st Century: Reinvented Landscapes, Reclaimed Territories is all about places like the High Line. Authors Victoria Newhouse and Alex Pisha examine 52 recently created parks in the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Europe and China, gaining insights into how these spaces help both people and our planet.

Related: Washington, D.C. ranks as the best parks in the US

Cover of the book with a park and purple sunrise or sunset

A textbook for green urban planners?

The book starts with a quote from Psalm 118:22 in the Bible: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” It threw me for a minute, wondering if I had stumbled into a religious book about parks. But no, the point of the quote is about turning the rejected into something new and wonderful. The authors find interest in places where people have repurposed old, no longer used industrial sites, quarries, airports, highways and railways (such as the High Line) into parks.

“As I began my research, I became intrigued by public parks built on top of existing infrastructure, whether a Texas freeway or a thousand-year-old abbey,” Newhouse says. She and Pisha collaborated on choosing which parks to include and on describing the landscapes. Newhouse mentioned that they were limited by time and other practicalities, so they weren’t able to include many places they would have liked to, such as parks in Japan, the Middle East and Australia.

Parks of the 21st Century has the heft and feel of a textbook. Indeed, I suspect many future urban planning students will read it in classes. The authors traveled to each of the 52 parks included in the book. They shared whatever details they have of date of the project, size, cost and designers. Each entry includes a detailed explanation of how the project came about, its design elements and what it is trying to accomplish ecologically or to mitigate climate change. The authors also include their own experiences and impressions of each park, and sometimes interview designers or other people involved with the projects.

The textbook feeling continues with the 200 color photos, illustrations and site maps of the parks. While you could proudly display Parks of the 21st Century in your living room, it feels much more educational than your average coffee table book.

Modern parks for the 21st century

Three conditions worldwide provide the impetus for today’s new parks, say Newhouse and Pisha. The confluence of the environmental movement, the post-industrial age and the rapid erosion of public space led to an upswell of parks on reclaimed land. By post-industrial, the authors are referring to many wealthier countries that turned from manufacturing to service societies.

“Overnight, countless factories, together with the associated storage, moving and shipping facilities, became obsolete, leaving once-beautiful natural shorelines scarred and contaminated and major urban sites empty and inaccessible to the public,” the authors write.

And so armchair travelers can visit Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon Park in Zurich. The park was a 2002 project that turned the former factory site that once manufactured tanks and munitions (What? I thought Switzerland wasn’t into war!) into a park with a vast, vine and plant-filled structure. Or Zhenshan Park in Suzhou, China, where an old quarry is now a 106-acre green space within a high-tech development zone.

If you enjoy makeovers, you’ll love reading about how these unlovable old industrial sites are now full of people strolling, skateboarding, planting community gardens and throwing birthday parties.

Meet the authors

Victoria Newhouse is an architectural historian, independent scholar and founder of the Architectural History Foundation, a nonprofit publisher of scholarly books. She’s written about museums, art and architecture for many years, both in books and as a contributor to architectural publications. As a landscape architect, Alex Pisha brings his knowledge and expertise to the collaboration.

In the future, I suspect the authors’ take on modern parks will pop up in my mind every time I encounter a repurposed green space — which is quite often, as I love to be outside. Readers will gain a greater appreciation for all the things designers consider when planning a park, especially climate-critical aspects like water usage.

Whether you find yourself riding your bike beside miles of graffiti art on Detroit’s Dequindre Cut, a former Grand Trunk Western Railroad line, or strolling on a terraced lawn at a former fort in Luxembourg, you’ll be benefiting from designers who saw possibilities for modern folks to enjoy something old and unused. And no, I will never again second guess the value of New York’s High Line.

Header image via Pexels, body image courtesy of Rizzoli