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Inspired by New York’s High Line, if not always copying it

By Grace Chua

New York City’s High Line, a park built atop an abandoned elevated rail line, was such a success with the public — as well as real estate developers who built near it — that it’s inspired park projects around the world. Every month, it seems, another city announces plans for what inevitably gets marketed as its “version of the High Line.”

Editors note: This article first appeared in Citiscope.org and is reprinted with permission.

Citiscope.org as an independent, nonprofit media startup, focused on finding innovations in cities around the world and spreading the word about them through independent, quality journalism. Its storytellers are local writers, people who understand the context and culture where urban ideas are born and can track the progress of those ideas. Citiscope is supported by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations.

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In truth, many of these projects are quite different from their model. Many aren’t “high” at all, such as Singapore’s plan to turn an at-grade railway into a series of public spaces. Others, such as Washington, D. C.’s plans for a park-on-a-bridge over the Potomac River, basically represent new construction — a long way from the High Line’s high-minded ethos of recycling old infrastructure. As the New York comparisons stretch, the very phrase “High Line” is morphing into a catch-all synonym for what urban planners would simply call a “linear park.”

One thing most of the High Line knockoffs do have in common is a desire to heal some kind of urban wound — the cuts in a city’s urban fabric made by railways, highways, or social segregation. That’s something long, thin ribbons of well-designed public space are particularly good at, whatever you want to call them.

Here are four examples from four continents of how cities are putting these principles into practice.

Seoul: New life for an old overpass

Seoul is turning an automobile overpass into an elevated pedestrian walkway. (MVRDV)

Seoul is turning an automobile overpass into an elevated pedestrian walkway. (MVRDV)

In the 1960s and ’70s, the sprawling South Korean metropolis of Seoul built a lot of elevated highways and overpasses to funnel automobile traffic around a rapidly industrializing city. Today, as those overpasses age and the city turns toward walking and mass transit, Seoul is tearing many of the elevated roadways down.

For a while, it seemed the vehicular overpass around the city’s primary train station would be the next to go. In 2006, the city deemed the flyover unsafe after a safety inspection, and banished heavy vehicles from driving on it. But the Seoul Metropolitan Government came to see the overpass as a historical marker of Korea’s industrial age — and an opportunity to create a unique public space.

Instead of demolishing the overpass, the city government is turning a nearly 1-kilometer (half- mile) section of it into a pedestrian walkway linking Seoul Station to downtown neighborhoods. In 2015, Seoul held a design competition searching for the best ideas. The winner, Dutch firm MVRDV, envisions a “Skygarden” — a tree-like design with pathways branching off the main stretch. The new park will have a variety of plants arranged in Korean alphabetical order, and amenities like cafes, flower shops, and libraries.

Meanwhile, to minimize traffic congestion around the overpass, the city government has been improving intersections, monitoring traffic flows and expanding public transport capacity.

As a pedestrian park, the overpass will reconnect areas on each side of the station to revitalize the local economy, and slash the time it takes to walk around the station from 25 minutes to 11. And there is room for the park to bloom. Its branching pathways will reach toward different neighborhoods or future park extensions, while stairways, lifts and escalators open up new access points to the elevated park above.

Tel Aviv: Roofing a highway

Tel Aviv is planning a park atop the Ayalon Highway, which divides the city. (Mayor’s Office, Tel Aviv-Yafo)

Tel Aviv is planning a park atop the Ayalon Highway, which divides the city. (Mayor’s Office, Tel Aviv-Yafo)

Tel Aviv is a relatively small city with a huge volume of automobile traffic. Each day, 750,000 vehicles thunder down the Ayalon Highway, Israel’s main north-south route. The city struggles with noise and air pollution, and the highway effectively slices it in half.

Now, however, Tel Aviv plans to cap pollution on its busiest highway — by covering it up.

Last year, the city council approved an ambitious, US$525 million project to cap part of the highway with a rooftop park. The 24-hectare park will provide new public space, cut down noise and air pollution from the highway beneath it, and reunite the split city.

Tel Aviv sees a lot of commercial foot traffic around the two areas of the city that will be connected by the new rooftop park, says city spokeswoman Mira Marcus. “Easing access between the east and west parts of the city will be an important step in ensuring Tel Aviv’s continued growth as the financial and business epicenter of Israel,” Marcus says.

And by providing leisure facilities, green space, and bicycle and pedestrian routes, the Ayalon Highway park will improve the city’s quality of life and help attract top talent, particularly for its growing high-tech sector. The extra space for leisure centers and cafes will create jobs and opportunities for new businesses while adding value to residents’ lives, she adds.

The Ayalon Highway park is expected to take shape over a few stages in the coming years. According to Marcus, merely getting approval from the city council was “a major coup.”

Rome: Under the viaduct

Exhibitions bring life to the space beneath an unused viaduct in Rome. (G124)

Exhibitions bring life to the space beneath an unused viaduct in Rome. (G124)

Around Rome, abandoned projects stand testament to a history of bureaucratic mismanagement. The Viadotto dei Presidenti is one.

Originally conceived as a tram line to link Rome’s suburbs, the elevated viaduct fell prey to bad governance and graft in the mid-1990s. Nearly two kilometers (1.2 miles) of unfinished viaduct stood in the middle of a public-housing neighborhood, acting as a barrier that was hard for residents to navigate. Over time, garbage piled up beneath it.

Enter Renzo Piano. In 2013, Italy appointed the famed architect an honorary “senator for life”. Piano used his new influence and salary to salvage abandoned suburban projects by funding a team of young architects.

Eloisa Susanna was one of them. “Rome in fact is full of what might be called un-civic architecture,” she says. Piano’s team, called G124, settled on rejuvenating the Viadotto dei Presidenti after looking at various pieces of unfinished infrastructure.

They contacted public authorities and community members, as well as local urban-regeneration groups such as Greenapsi and Interazioni Urbane. Together, they cleaned up the trash, put in furniture and art installations made from recycled tires and other reclaimed materials, and set up shipping containers as spaces for exhibitions and workshops, opening the previously-inaccessible space to the public.

The idea was to involve residents, giving them a sense of belonging and ownership, Susanna says. “Priority was given to the ideas of the citizens, reflecting their real needs.”

The entire project cost less than €8,000 (about US$8,900), while most of the materials were sponsored by local companies and the labor done by volunteers.

Today, the space under the viaduct is still used as a bicycle repair laboratory, and artists shoot video there while the community organizes performances and urban walks. Plans for an elevated pedestrian and bicycle path are on hold because of uncertain political and economic circumstances, Susanna says. But the project had a silver lining, she adds.

“The co-design and co-working activities revealed the existence of a wide group of people living in the neighborhood who are willing to put their energies into the construction of a shared space for the community.”

Philadelphia: Rallying around a rail park

Philadelphia activists hope to turn the Reading Viaduct into an elevated park. (Jukie Bot/flickr/cc)

Philadelphia activists hope to turn the Reading Viaduct into an elevated park. (Jukie Bot/flickr/cc)

Just 90 minutes from New York, the city of Philadelphia has put a lot of effort into studying the experience of the High Line. And it’s one city that appears poised to most clearly replicate the New York model.

In the 1800s, Philadelphia’s Callowhill neighborhood was a bustling hub of manufacturing and industry, with trains carrying freight and passengers in and out of the city. When businesses moved away, the neighborhood began to slide into decay, leaving factories and warehouses empty. Also left behind was the Reading Viaduct rail line, an elevated nub of train track, after trains ceased running in 1984.

In the early 2000s, Callowhill residents Sarah McEneaney and John Struble attended a talk by Friends of the High Line co-founder Joshua David. Inspired, they started the Reading Viaduct Project in 2003 to renovate their own rusting, weed-covered neighbor. “We were at it for ten years to try to create a park on the elevated portion of the viaduct,” Struble says.

As the campaign gained momentum, Center City District, the local business improvement association, chipped in. Nancy Goldenberg, the district’s vice president of planning, development and research, says: “We saw what happened in New York; that the High Line was able to generate a lot of economic development and really transform that neighborhood.” When engineers retained by the business improvement district examined the viaduct, they found it would cost twice as much to tear down as to keep and and maintain.

Today, a local landscape architect has completed the blueprints for what the community hopes will become a 5-kilometer (3-mile) park, including a longer branch of track that forks off to the west. Its first phase, the quarter-mile Reading Viaduct section, will cost US$9.6 million to build. Plans for the park include greenery and public gathering spaces. Struble and others hope it will revitalize the neighborhood, which already is beginning to gentrify.

Goldenberg says Philadelphia took one important lesson from New York. “Sustainability is something we learned from the High Line,” she says. “They didn’t have in place a business or neighborhood improvement district or a way to sustain the High Line’s maintenance.

“Before the park is built, there needs to be a consistent revenue source, for park improvements, improvements for the streets around it, to make it clean, safe, and attractive.” In Philadelphia’s case, that may come from fees paid by local businesses that would in turn benefit from greater customer traffic.

So far, the Friends of the Rail Park campaign has raised US$5.1 million, and is hoping state grants will provide the balance. “We have construction documents and permits,” Goldenberg says. “We’re shovel-ready — as soon as we hear word from the state, we’re ready to start.”

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