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Public Works: Finding New Uses for Old Infrastructure

A proposal to turn an out-of-use airport in Minsk into a mixed-use community echoes Downsview Park.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

A rendering of Runway Park in Minsk’s Forest City. Courtesy of Sasaki Associates.

Urban infrastructure is made to last. Our roads, parking lots, bridges, and ports may crack a little, may lose a bit of sheen, but they’ll never rot to nothing, or ever totally fade away. And, when we’re still making use of them, that’s a very good thing. Who wants to drive on a road that’s in atrophy? But what are we to do with large-scale infrastructure when we no longer want it? Do we bury it, blow it up, move away, and leave it behind? U.S.-based designers Sasaki Associates are working on another alternative. They have created an innovative master plan for the city of Minsk, Belarus, that, if implemented, would transform a disused airport into a a residential, commercial, cultural, and ecological hot spot.

Commissioned by a Russian consulting firm to conjure up a vision for what used to be Minsk-1 Airport, Sasaki has come up with “Forest City,” a 3.2-square km mixed-use district in the middle of the Belarusian capital, where museums, homes, businesses, and, yes, forests lie side by side. It’s still just the stuff of renderings and project descriptions, but whether or not the City of Minsk bites, Forest City is garnering a fair amount of buzz on architecture and urban design blogs from around the world.

Under the Forest City plan, structures that once served the airport would be updated and integrated into what Sasaki calls “a 24/7 vibrant, diverse, and balanced mixed-use program.” In a nod to the area’s history of aviation, the original terminal would be transformed into an air museum. Meanwhile, the old airstrip has been reimagined as “Runway Park,” a long strip of green space, in which vegetation grows through holes cut into the tarmac.

In fact, Forest City would be veined with a whole connected system of parks, woodland, and waterways winding their way toward a natural tributary south of the district. With space earmarked for everything from canoeing, to ice skating, to art galleries and community centres, Forest City would be just what its name suggests: rural and urban, all at once.

To Torontonian ears, this Forest City thing sounds a lot like Downsview Park—a derelict airfield due to come back from the dead as a mixed-use community where urban housing abuts parkland. Could Toronto offer a real-world model for Sasaki’s master plan? Perhaps not. Downsview Park has been a divisive, ever-changing, sometimes ignored initiative since it was announced in 1999 by the Jean Chrétien government. Originally planned as a National Park in an urban setting, it was handed over in 2012 to Canada Lands Company, the guys who sell off government property for profit. Last November, builders Mattamy Homes struck a deal to construct 1,000 residential units on the park’s lands. In fact, you can already stake your claim to one. To some, the Mattamy deal is the first step in developing a planned community of city homes in pastoral surroundings right by the subway line. For others, it’s sparked worry that the National Park vision is dead and that Downsview will one day be a Mississauga-style housing development.

Whatever ends up happening, in Minsk, or Downsview or anywhere else, finding uses for derelict infrastructure is imperative. Airports and roads and parking lots and bridges are designed to last. But population growth and urban growth aren’t going anywhere either.

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