Eight years ago, Meg Daly was walking along the concrete trail under the Metrorail to catch a train to her physical-therapy appointment. A bicycle accident had left her with two broken arms, unable to drive, and taking advantage of public transportation near her home.
Even in the midst of a torrid Miami summer, Daly found the shady path beneath the Metrorail barren of pedestrians. Inspired by New York City's High Line and the Atlanta BeltLine, she began to envision the underutilized dead space around her repurposed into an urban oasis of trails, greenery, public amenities, and community involvement.
Soon after, Daly founded Friends of the Underline, a nonprofit that would use private and public funds to develop the Underline, a ten-mile, 120-acre linear park that stretches from Brickell to Dadeland South. James Corner Field Operations, the landscape architecture and urban design firm that designed the High Line, was brought on to begin the ground plans.
What started as a far-fetched idea eight years ago is now Daly's vision brought to life, inaugurated with last month's Phase 1 opening in Brickell — dubbed Brickell Backyard — which begins at the edge of the Miami River and runs under the Brickell Loop Station through SW 13th Street.
The full stretch — including Phase 2, which runs past Vizcaya from SW 13th Street to SW 19th Avenue, and Phase 3, which continues parallel to South Dixie Highway all the way to the Dadeland South Metrorail Station — is set for completion in 2025 at an estimated cost of $143 million.
Locals are already enjoying the many amenities of the Brickell Backyard, including a basketball court, mini soccer park, outdoor gym, bike paths, Wi-Fi, domino tables, and gardens that feature native and low-maintenance plants inspired by the South Florida pine rocklands.
"At some point, we had over 200 butterflies just on one plant," Daly says of the vegetation. "We're not planting them. We're just putting the food source down, and then they come."
Through numerous public meetings, Friends of the Underline were able to define what to prioritize in the planning by listening to locals' feedback and concerns. Safety, nature, and art were among the most-cited issues.
Acknowledging that Miami is one of the most dangerous places to bike or walk in the nation, the Underline has taken extra precautions by increasing lighting along the paths, creating separate trails for bikers and pedestrians, widening crosswalks, and applying bright-green-striped crosswalks on heavy intersections to remind drivers of crossing pedestrians.
"Many people go, 'Oh, it's just going to be beautiful,' but we've done lots of input sessions, and the first concern is safety," Daly says.
Brickell Backyard features an "Oolite Room" — a section of the trails pocked with limestone boulders that serve as nature-inspired seating. Nearby, a large mural by local artist Edny Jean Joseph provides a colorful backdrop.
Brickell Backyard will host community programs such as yoga and music and art performances on the built-in stage, and activities for kids.
The project wasn't easy to get rolling. Developing a linear park through the Magic City was an expensive undertaking, one that required numerous permits, in-depth planning, and community support.
"When citizens are empowered to bring their vision into the public sector — and if they listen — you can find this collaboration that allows big, bold visions to be done," Daly says.
The grassroots effort has attracted over 800 passionate volunteers. Public funders included Miami-Dade County, the City of Miami, the Florida Department of Transportation, and the City of Coral Gables. Money also flowed in from private funders such as the Knight Foundation, Baptist Health South Florida, Swire Properties, and Florida Power & Light.
That said, Daly says her biggest supporter was her father, the late Parker Thomson, a Miami attorney and civic leader who spearheaded the construction of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
"The time that I felt I couldn't carry on was when my dad died," Daly says; Thomson died unexpectedly in 2017. "He was the first person who said to me, 'That's an amazing idea' — not just a crazy idea."
A park lover with a résumé in the marketing field but no prior experience running a nonprofit, Daly worked closely with her father to establish Friends of the Underline. She says the Underline marked the first time she was able to work with her father as a peer and partner.
"It was an incredible gift," she adds.
Having cut the ribbon on the first phase of the Underline, Daly and her team are already at work on the next steps.
"You never get anything right the first time, or ever, but we try to," she says.
The Underline's Brickell Backyard. Between Miami River Greenway at the Miami River and SW 13th Street, Miami; 305-603-9895; theunderline.org.
Correction: A previous version of this story indicated the first phase ran from the Miami River to SW Seventh Street. It actually runs until SW 13th Street. Also, it previously stated that the estimated cost of the completed project was $155 million. It's $143 million.