There is a growing need to revamp and rebuild areas that contain industrial waste and other toxins, infrastructure that is no longer in use, structures devastated by war, natural disaster, or disuse. Despite the negative impact that these neglected pieces of land and buildings have on the environment and surrounding community, they are often an integral part of our history and cultural heritage. To highlight the importance of these areas, and the creative potential that they hold to be reconstructed into something more than a blight, RTF has gathered up a list of adaptive reuse projects that highlight how architects have taken the implausible and created opportunities thus transforming shabby landscapes into spectacular areas—while retaining their originality and, historic and cultural significance. This article lists several creative approaches taken by global city governments, preservationists, developers, and the architecture community to convert marginalized areas into healthy, meaningful, fun environments.

Gas Works Park in Seattle

Richard Haag’s Gas Works Park sits on a plot that housed a coal gasification plant in 1965. The stunning picnic spot complete with tables and fire grills was born out of a former boiler unit. A ruined exhauster-compressor structure was turned into an open-air play barn that holds a maze of brightly colored playing equipment for kids. This revolutionary adaptive reuse project has been celebrated for its ability to garner local support and positively impact and alter the general perceptions of post-industrial landscapes. The reclamation of the polluted soil bed employing the natural processes of bioremediation is what makes it a groundbreaking construction.

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The Gasification Plant_©By WikiPedant – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
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The Gas Works Plant in 2011_©By Liesl Matthies Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Latz Partners Landscape Park Duisburg Nord, Germany 

Rather than looking at the complex site conditions of a 570-acre site of a former steel plant as nuisances that should be removed, Latz + Partners worked carefully to rebuild them for their creative potential. The transformed plot repurposes existing buildings and features several amenities that promote reuse and reclamation, including a rock-climbing wall, a deep swimming pool, picnicking areas, and hiking trails—all woven together to conceive a tapestry of memorable spaces. The aim was to reuse the industrial landscape to pay homage to the city’s history with minimal intervention, recycling, reuse, and renewing decaying construction elements.

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The Gas Works Plant in 2011_©By Liesl Matthies

Alumnae Valley, Wellesley College

A partnership between Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Wellesley College led to the revitalization of the toxic brownfield of Alumnae Valley, a site where the college’s power plant previously stood alongside industrialized gas pumping stations and a 175-capacity parking lot. Managing the bad soil required several techniques: removing the toxins, capping and collecting the contaminated soil, and then finding a method to reuse it efficiently in building the landscape. The plot was originally shaped by Ice Age glaciers; the mounds along the paths mimic the original sculpting of the land. The integration of topography, hydrology, and campus life makes Alumnae Valley a spectacular example of adaptive reuse.

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Alumnae Valley, Wellesley College_©

James Corner Operations Fresh Kills Park

Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island has become a benchmark for landfill reclamation around the globe, having been transformed into a sea of green. The plot is big enough to support many activities, sports, and programs that are otherwise unusual in the city, including horseback riding, mountain biking, nature trails, kayaking, and large-scale public art. Demonstrating how to tackle the problem of rising water levels, the Fresh Kills project absorbed a critical portion of the storm surge during Hurricane Sandy. Aided by the advanced landfill gas collection systems, methane gas is actively produced from the decomposing waste, generating enough gas to heat 22,000 homes. The revamp of what was formerly the world’s biggest landfill into a productive cultural destination demonstrates how adaptive reuse landscape architecture can restore balance to landscape.  

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James Corner Operations Fresh Kills Park_©ArchDaily

The Red Ribbon 

Located along an inaccessible beach in Tanghe River Park, the original site was used as a garbage dump. The plot housed slums and irrigation systems. The aim of this Chinese adaptive reuse landscape architectural project was to protect as much of the natural river corridor as possible, conserving the lush, diverse, natural vegetation. So, instead of paving over the riverbank with walkways and planting ornamental flower beds, the design introduces a “red ribbon” steel structure scaling 500 meters along the riverfront. The Red Ribbon provides facilities for recreational activities, jogging, fishing, and diving, without negatively impacting the landscape.

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The Red Ribbon_©

Urban Farm Viet Village, New Orleans

Viet Village Urban Farm is an urban adaptive reuse project located in New Orleans East, an area devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Before the destruction by the hurricane, there were over 30 acres of community-farmed land producing traditional Vietnamese fruits and vegetables. Mossop + Michaels’ redesign for 28-acre farmland sits in the middle of a dense urban environment, continuing the urban farming tradition of Vietnamese immigrants that began in the 1970s.

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Urban Farm Viet Village, New Orleans_©

Sowmya is an architectural journalist and writer. In this column, Sowmya takes you through stories on eco-architecture, biophilic design, and green buildings from across the globe.