For decades, the overpass of a railroad line in Greensboro, North Carolina, had formed a barrier between its city center and its historically underserved neighborhoods to the south. When a plan was conceived for a four-mile, multi-use greenway that would encircle and define its downtown, Action Greensboro, a local nonprofit focused on economic, educational, and cultural development in the city, saw an opportunity to use public art along the pedestrian route as a way to transform its urban landscape and re-establish connections within the community.
Like so many American cities, Greensboro, North Carolina, is in the midst of reconsidering its downtown area. As a central business district, not only does Greensboro’s city center serve as an engine of employment but, along with several historic sites, cultural destinations, and museums like the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, the Greensboro Cultural Center, the Weatherspoon Art Museum, and the planned Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, it is also increasingly becoming an important cultural destination. Downtown Greensboro is ringed by numerous diverse neighborhoods, each with unique character. To the south lie Ole Asheboro and Warnersville, the first African American communities established in the city following the Civil War, now cut off from the area by rail lines and roads.
The city of over 277,000 people is more racially diverse (56% white and 33% African American) and slightly younger (a median age of 36) than many other cities in North Carolina. While it tends to be well integrated by car, pedestrian networks are less developed, particularly between the downtown and areas to the south. This lack of connections has been problematic not only because of the disjuncture itself but also because it reinforces social and racial divisions. In particular, physical barriers created by the rail lines of the North Carolina Railroad and the four-lane road that runs parallel to it divide the downtown area from the predominantly African American neighborhoods to its south.
In 2000, in response to a faltering economy and concern about the decline of traditional industries, six Greensboro foundations engaged the management consultant firm McKinsey & Company to study Greensboro's economic future (Action Greensboro was formed in response to their November 2000 study). The McKinsey Report addressed the areas of greatest concern and identified potential projects that could spur economic development and re-define Greensboro. The Downtown Greenway project was conceived as a way to define and revitalize Greensboro’s city center, as well as a way to create better connections to and between the diverse neighborhoods that surround it, while at the same time encouraging a healthier lifestyle. For decades, the transportation infrastructure along the proposed Greenway and south of the downtown created a material, social, and psychological barrier that needed to be overcome for the project to succeed. An underpass, abandoned since the 1970s, also needed to be renovated in order to provide safe passage beneath the still active North Carolina Railroad. The challenge was not only to make the underpass accessible but also to create an exciting and inviting environment that would allow neighborhood residents to the south to use it as a new connector to the downtown and encourage the greater community to view it as a unique destination.
From the beginning, the Downtown Greenway was to be a signature project for Greensboro, identifying and defining the downtown by providing a safe, but aesthetically pleasing, non-vehicular way to connect with the city center. Encouraging the use of alternative means of transportation, promoting health and wellness by encouraging physical activity, and facilitating community dialogue were important to the overall vision for the project. Public art, in particular, was identified as key to creating the kind of welcoming and engaging environment that Greenway planners envisioned. Art installations planned at key sites— the underpass among them—had the potential to animate the Greenway and encourage residents to use it while also enhancing the relationships between neighborhoods and businesses. The transformation of the abandoned underpass into a public art destination would be called Under.Over.Pass., signaling the transformation of the railway overpass from a barrier to a point of connectivity.
The lead organization, Action Greensboro, was formed in 2001 in response to Greensboro’s changing economy, and Downtown Greenway was created as an limited liability corporation to manage the greenway project under the supervision of the Action Greensboro organization and management team. As a true public/private partnership project, the two organizations were able to work closely with numerous city government agencies, including Parks & Recreation, and the Planning, Police, and Transportation Departments, as well as to begin bringing in support from local foundations and corporate supporters.
The Greenway was a major infrastructure project with public and private sector funding support. Of the $30 million total construction budget, current funding commitments include $8.5 million in private funds, $7 million City of Greensboro Street Improvement Bond funding approved by local voters, and over $3 million in federal transportation funds.
The Downtown Greenway Art Selection Panel, consisting of community stakeholders, elected officials, and city staff, was formed to select artists for Greenway public art commissions. Local sculptor Jim Gallucci, a nationally recognized artist whose work has often involved the theme of doors and gateways, was identified by the panel early in the process as an artist whose skills and local ties would be key to a successful installation. The panel also commissioned lighting designer Scott Richardson, who used the element of light to tie together the art and infrastructure. To ensure community outreach, the project team reached out to the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress to help organize citizens and to hold public meetings in schools, churches, and community centers. The artists were then able to use input gathered from these community meetings to inform their design. In tandem, the artists created eight sculptural iron gates, backlit by colorful motion sensitive lighting, turning the once impassable underpass into a point of connectivity. Recognizing the fact that maintenance is often a challenge with public art projects because funding is not often available for it, project managers worked to create an endowment that could assist with the maintenance of all public art installations on the Greenway.
The railroad underpass, once an obstacle that served as a division between the downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods, has been transformed into a visually exciting and popular public art installation. Under.Over.Pass. now encourages non-vehicular entry into and around the downtown, which project planners are hoping will promote economic development as well. As a link to the Morehead Park section of the Greenway, the underpass also serves as a new connection that allows visitors to enjoy four other art installations along its length. Trail counters monitored by Greensboro’s Parks & Recreation Department track trail use, and analysis of the data indicates higher pathway use on this section than on others in the citywide system. Numbers and time-of-day usage also indicate that Under.Over.Pass. is being used as an alternate route into and out of the city and not just for recreational purposes. The economic impact of the Greenway has exceeded expectations. With $6.5 million spent to date on construction, Greensboro has secured over $200 million in completed and planned investment. A $33-million college student apartment complex is currently under construction on land directly to the south of Under.Over.Pass., a project that should significantly increase usage of the Greenway upon completion.
Even though public health was a stated objective for the Downtown Greenway, an unanticipated level of enthusiasm has sprung up around using the area for organized fitness events. “Tuesdays at the Trailhead,” for example, has become a popular free weekly fitness opportunity for the community. As Dabney Sanders, Project Manager for the Downtown Greenway says, “Under.Over.Pass. is unlike anything that has been done before in Greensboro, and the interactive aspect of the installation has been particularly well received.” This particular project and the support it received from the NEA, she notes, spurred interest and reinforced the opportunity for public art to redefine and revitalize Greensboro. “The success of this project has fueled interest in public art and what is possible when disparate groups come together with a common vision.”