Written by: Samantha Miller
Edited by: Richard Perron
Throughout North America and Europe, industrial landscapes once defined cities and neighbourhoods, with factories, warehouses and smokestacks. Now, parks, museums, new housing, and office buildings define great cities. Industries have been searching for more efficient and cheaper places to produce goods, sending developments out of metropolitan areas. Planners, architects, and landscape architects are now tasked and challenged with dealing with the crumbling land that has been left behind (Berens, 2011, pp.ix). These spaces are most often located near city centres or along waterfronts where they would have been most advantageous at the time. These post-industrial landscapes are often a challenge to reintegrate into the surrounding communities because of their impaired environmental resources (Loures, 2015). Through the use of design, we can tell the story of reinvention and memory. There are many projects across Europe and North America that highlight the powerful force that is design, and how it can renew urban cores, address environmental concerns, and preserve history - all of which help to redefine the post-industrial city (Loures, 2015).
One of the earliest precedents of a post-industrial landscape is Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in Paris. The project was initiated by Napoléon III, who wished to clean up the slums and bring “green lungs” to produce healthy air for the city and improve the aesthetics and image of Paris. Designer Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand transformed the site of an old refuse dump and quarry site within the new industrial area of the 19th arrondissement, into Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (Komara, 2013). The design of the park engaged new construction techniques and new materials, such as irrigation systems, hydraulic pumps, tree-planting machinery, new uses of concrete, and more. Alphand played along with the theme of the Exposition Universelle, which was Industry, in the idea that some things found in nature look artificial, but what’s new looks organic (Komara, 2013).
After World War II, the industrial city shifted after the invention of multi-lane highways. This invention allowed industrial developments to move outward towards rural areas and suburbs while ensuring employees would still have easy transportation to work. After industries began leaving metropolitan areas, they left behind ruins within the cityscape, such as abandoned, rundown buildings, rotting piers, and bleak grounds. These spaces stifle growth, often have failed projects, and develop a stigma that leads to the area being ‘off-limits’ amidst the city (Berens, 2011, pp.x). Slowly, the post-industrial city was being redefined after residents had enough of increased crime rates and an evident lack of finances in cities. New York’s neighbourhood of SoHo was one of the first areas to be successfully rescued and finally appreciated for its cast-iron factories, and it became a new approach to economic development for the government. After SoHo came, more projects like this such as Vancouver’s Granville Island, where the post-industrial landscape became a place of art, shopping, and industry that people wanted to come to visit rather than avoid (Berens, 2011, pp.x).
A great example of industrial landscapes is Emscher Park in Germany, which was an ecological regeneration project that hoped to improve the economy of the area. This section of Ruhr, Germany, was one of the most economically depressed regions of former West Germany and was negatively impacting the population of 2.5 million people. Coal mines and steel mills began closing in the 1980s, and the government decided that if they fixed the environment, the economy would include. The project included an ecological regeneration of 350km of the River Emscher, the creation of Emscher Park, upgrading 3,000 homes and building 3,000 new homes, job creations, and re-thinking industrial buildings and landmarks. Amongst these projects was the design of Landschafts Park (Holden & Liversedge, 2014). Landschaftspark in Duisburg-Nord, Germany, designed by Peter Latz, is one of the most well-known industrial landscape projects. It was designed around an abandoned Thyssen iron mill and is now one of the most important public park projects in the past few decades. The design fuses the remnants of the former plant with innovative landscape design, which reappropriates the terrain that was once controlled by industry. The site is located on about 570 acres of ground, housing the iron mill until 1985. After the plant was closed, the area became somewhat of a no-man’s-land, devoid of function and meaning. Latz refused to ignore the previous use of the land, and wish to reintegrate the industrial structures into the new design. Latz emphasizes the concept of the sublime within the industrial ruins by affirming rather than contesting the destructive ideas of industrial production (Hemmings & Kagel, 2010).
One of the most amazing things about redeveloped industrial spaces is how designers see possibility and beauty in places that other people would see only hopelessness and deterioration. “Indeed, the fact that these landscapes, originally viewed as threats, became increasingly recognized as opportunities, not only because of their location, proximity with infrastructure, uniqueness in form and configuration, but also because they became often the only lands available for redevelopment in urban areas, enabled the emergence of new approaches and perspectives towards landscape, especially previously developed and abandoned ones” (Loures, 2015).
In the mid-1990s, several projects acted as pilots in industrial redevelopment, where cleanup initiatives were extremely important to governments, this even included volunteer cleanup projects. This wave of action was one of the first significant milestones in the age of redevelopment of industrial sites; the second milestone was the rise in green building techniques (Berens, 2011, pp.xi). The introduction of the LEED certification system was essential because it emphasized the redevelopment of existing sites as a great way to promote reuse and recycle in building design. However, these project did not necessarily help cities maintain their population, rid the city of stigma, or create a well-rounded city identity. It wasn’t until the rise of mixed-use and parks projects that cities saw a potentially profitable market in redeveloping industrial sites. Governments soon realized that the new urban lifestyle was focused on active outdoor activities such as water sports, cycling, outdoor walking and shopping, hanging out in parks or outdoor cafes and rooftops (Berens, 2011, pp.xiii).
Post-industrial landscapes are often viewed as disordered or diffused spaces that do not have clear foci amongst the large network of the city. “They are accumulations of a series of decisions taken over time, each rational in its own right, which led to the current stage of urbanization. Nevertheless, taken as a whole the impression they convey is largely irrational and fragmented” (Braae, 2015, pp. 20). They are most often located near huge monuments that were created in the industrial revolution such as airports, motorways, animal tracks, and shopping centres, while also mixed in with leftover space. The issue with these leftover spaces is that they lack identity and any aesthetic quality. However, it is critical that planners and designers thoroughly understand the forces that define these areas, so that they can decide how to proceed with the proper methods of redevelopment (Braae, 2015, pp. 21).
In the book Beauty Redeemed: Recycling Post-Industrial Landscapes, author Ellen Braae provides three different ways that designers and planners approach the redevelopment of post-industrial landscapes. The first perspective is that of preserving cultural history, the second is from the perspective of sustainability, and the third is from the perspective of spatial and landscape organization. All three of these ideas form a broader framework that helps designers understand how to work with post-industrial landscapes to respond to a new type of cultural heritage (Braae, 2015, pp.68). The first perspective of preserving cultural history, means that one of the first tasks that designers are faced with is deciding what do we keep, what do we remove, what do we retain, and what do we re-imagine? Evidence of history in a site has been historically unimportant, causing developers to completely erase remnants of a site to make way for new design ideas. However, the ability to convey the heritage and history of a site requires great skill on the designers part; there is a fine line between designing a site that accurately and tastefully conveys the past, and designing a project that appears false or too instructive (Berens, 2011, pp. 245-246).
From the second perspective of sustainability, there are plenty of opportunities that lie below abandoned industrial sites. Industrial sites were once the economic backbone of their surrounding communities, but come the 19th, and 20th centuries the spaces were unapproachable, separated and ugly. Now, these sites occupy some of the best urban design projects, along waterfronts or in other critical areas. “Changing attitudes and procedures— from avoidance to treatment— have been critical to the redevelopment of industrial sites” (Berens, 2011, pp.115). One of the huge players in raising awareness was Rachel Carson and her book Silent Spring in 1963, which talked about the unintentional harmful byproducts of industrial progress and chemicals. Within a few years of the book's release, the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, and the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 (Berens, 2011, pp.116). There became a massive surge and global movement in which people were no longer going to let the planet continue in its destructive path. With the invention of ‘smart growth’ initiatives and sustainability rating systems such as LEED, the desire to redevelop industrial sites has been more prominent than ever. Since industrial sites sprawled out of city centres, the government has placed emphasis and has introduced ‘smart growth’ initiatives as ways to encourage the redevelopment of sites that are close to public transit. All of these new projects and initiatives are trying to respond to community concerns about creating a more livable community (with walkable neighbourhoods, mixed-use developments, and open green spaces) and that encourages economic growth (Berens, 2011, pp.121).
Lastly, the perspective of spatial and landscape organization involves the understanding of what the community needs and doing projects that help provide new housing, offices, retail space, and general economic benefits. No matter the size of the project, they have the potential to change the character of the community, especially those that involve waterfront redevelopment. Waterfront development projects are incredibly complicated and challenging, but they can change the focus of the city, which can sometimes become an issue of the city’s relationships between the old and new (Berens, 2011, pp.183). After New York’s Central Park was created, urban parks have become a necessity in a city rather than a novelty. Urban parks serve as locations of civic pride and refuge amongst congested areas. Public open space was mostly town squares before the mid-1800s since the countryside was nearby and easily accessible. Now, urban parks are often responses to harmful effects post-industrialization and the mass movement of people into cities from rural areas (Berens, 2011, pp. 229). All of these perspectives work in partnership with each other; for example, many industrial sites have been converted to public parks that aim to tell the history of the previous state of the site.
There are many different approaches to redeveloping industrial landscapes; in the book Reimagining Industrial Sites by Catherine Heatherington, she highlights three main approaches. The first is through the use of materials and process to symbolically or metaphorically make references to the past. The second approach is the use of historic layers that ultimately are built up to create a new space- she calls it the ‘palimpsest approach’. And lastly, the last approach is when designers strategically change the landscape and draw attention to those specific changes in the new relationship created between the individual and the site (Heatherington, 2018, pp. 59). Ultimately, the different approaches in combination with engineering and science advances, the potentials for these sites are endless. Designers have the power to change the way that people engage with new landscapes, with their experiences varying depending on the references made in design or the prior knowledge people may or may not have (Heatherington, 2018, pp. 184-185). Everything goes back to the relationship of people to place and how important it is to understand the context of the area and how the site may have impacted the community, to move forward to improve the lives of communities.
Berens, C. (2011). Redeveloping industrial sites : a guide for architects, planners and developers. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley & Sons.
Braae, E. (2015). Beauty redeemed : recycling post-industrial landscapes . Risskov: IKAROS Press.
Emscher Park, Ruhr Valley, Germany. (2014). In R. Holden, & J. Liversedge, Landscape architecture: An introduction. London, UK: Laurence King. Retrieved from
Heatherington, C. (2018). Reimagining industrial sites : changing histories and landscapes. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Hemmings, S., & Kagel, M. (2010). Memory Gardens: Aesthetic Education and Political Emancipation in the “Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord.” German Studies Review, 33(2), 243–261.
Komara, A. (2004). Concrete and the Engineered Picturesque: The Parc des Buttes Chaumont (Paris, 1867). Journal of Architectural Education, 58(1), 5–12. https://doi.org/10.1162/1046488041578158
Loures, L. (2015). Post-industrial landscapes as drivers for urban redevelopment: Public versus expert perspectives towards the benefits and barriers of the reuse of post-industrial sites in urban areas. Habitat International, 45(2), 72–81.