The Infra-Space Initiative
Mending the rifts in the urban fabric throughout all of Massachusetts, the Infra-Space Initiative addresses the state’s most overlooked spaces: the landscapes beneath elevated highway viaducts. Transforming these inaccessible and foreboding spaces through clever programming, placemaking, and lighting, the initiative is helping to ameliorate the negative impacts of highways on cities with the added environmental benefit of treating significant amounts of stormwater runoff.
The initiative is a study and pilot project for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), which emerged in 2009 from the fusion of two other state agencies with an emphasis on statewide multimodal transportation. While it is required to allocate funds for the construction and maintenance of public roads and transit infrastructure, MassDOT cannot simply build parks. To that end, the initiative cleverly reorganizes and repurposes infrastructure materials to shape a more beneficial public realm. It also proposes an innovative financing model that allows the agency to be reimbursed over time for the initial capital costs for the improvements.
Situated below I-93 in Boston is Infra-Space 1, an 8-acre pilot demonstration that boasts a waterfront promenade along with recreation and event spaces. Historically an industrial zone, the neighborhood was deeply underserved by parks and open space, and the space below the viaduct was afflicted by crime and pedestrian traffic fatalities. Now Infra-Space 1 serves as a model for another eight sites, all of which are in the design concept phase. The pilot’s financial model includes commercial parking to generate revenue, but it did not add any net new parking spots to the area.
By using a careful soil cutting and filling strategy, the team was able to establish a responsible model for dealing with contaminated soil at Infra-Space 1. The resulting undulating landscape allows for stormwater management in the low-lying areas and groves of trees on along the higher hills. The drain leaders that connected the viaduct to subterranean drainage pipes were rerouted into the landscape and filled with plantings hearty enough to withstand high levels of salts and minerals. Other strategies such as stone dissipation basins reduce the velocity of the water cascading down from the highway—often as high as 70 feet above ground—and trap solid waste for proper disposal. The filtration landscape at Infra-Space 1 alone diverts 3.5 million gallons of contaminated water from making its way into the Atlantic Ocean.