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With the rapid development of transportation infrastructure in the 20th century, much of our urban land was shrouded in shadow. Overpasses and underpasses for highways, and towering concrete bridges for cars and trains, claimed thousands of miles of open space. As the human population continues to grow, those places are becoming more valuable. Around the world, formerly disused underpasses are being developed into parks, housing, soccer fields, and even horse paddocks.
Gisela Erlacher — Skies of Concrete, out now in English and German from Park Books and distributed by the University of Chicago Press, examines how such places are being adapted for practical purposes in China, Austria, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. Austrian photographer Gisela Erlacher focuses in particular on everyday life beneath the overpasses, rarely showing the elevated traffic, and sometimes even cutting off the frame so all you get is a huge concrete leg stabbing into the ground, suggesting the monolith above.
“A large proportion of the Skies of Concrete series shows various attempts at making the unfriendly friendly, at making unlivable places livable, or at least usable, at making the inhospitable welcoming,” art historian Peter Lodermeyer writes in his Skies of Concrete essay. “In their robust pragmatism these attempts appear, depending on the specific conditions and mentalities depicted, as surprising, touching, tragic, comical, disconcerting, and at times surreal.”
An empty jungle gym is captured in one image from Shanghai, and a skate park in another from London, while under a railway bridge in the Austrian Alps, a line of suspended ropes, chains, and pieces of wood represent an unconventional ropes course. These “under-spaces,” as landscape architect Lilli Licka calls them in her essay, can be as mundane as bicycles stored beneath an Amsterdam bridge, or as unexpected as a serene outdoor tea house in Yuzhong, China. Licka writes that “the photographs unequivocally prove that we are dealing with useful spaces even if they cannot be assigned to any category of open space of the kind that a prudent policy of urban and landscape planning aspires to make available.”
Erlacher photographed a small portion of the world, and these “under-spaces” are an issue in every urban environment, where they’ve mostly, if anything, been characterized by illegal trash dumping or makeshift homeless shelters. Last summer, the Design Trust for Public Space with New York City’s Department of Transportation (DOT) published Under the Elevated: Reclaiming Space, Connecting Communities, evaluating two years of research on New York City’s over 700 miles of undeveloped “under-space.” Their report stated that the “millions of square feet of these sites, nearly four times the size of Central Park, arguably encompass one of the most blighting influences on the city’s neighborhoods, yet also constitute one of the last development frontiers.”
With pop-up projects like the “Boogie Down Booth” on the Bronx’s Southern Boulevard, set up under the elevated tracks with music playing in a seating area, and the proposed El-Space Program to find new strategies for these spaces, the DOT and Design Trust for Public Space are now looking ahead to the launch of the first pilot project in Sunset Park below the Gowanus Expressway. As they state on their Under the Elevated: Phase II site, this pilot “will test urban design strategies, replicable lighting and green infrastructure, and inform a future NYC DOT capital project at the site, and other under the elevated locations citywide.” Through more attention to the land beneath bridges and highways, these transportation links can foster connections for the communities below.