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Urban Greenways

Dreaming in Philadelphia

Over the past few days I’ve been taking booksellers in town for Book Expo America on walking tours of the High Line. As part of my preamble, I always find myself talking about High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky, the 2011 book by Friends of the High Line co-founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond. I re-read this book every year because it puts me in a good mood and makes me feel optimistic about cities. The High Line faced such formidable resistance on so many fronts that it truly is a miracle that the thing exists at all. But in fact it now is inspiring other communities all over the world to believe in the possibility of creating innovative, people-friendly green spaces from post-industrial sites.

Which brings us back, once again, to the great Paul VanMeter, a driving force behind The Rail Park in Philadelphia. That project began with a dream to create a three mile urban greenway, part of which will be part elevated, like the High Line, and part of which will be submerged, in tunnels created more than 100 years ago by the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad. Paul died in February, but the project lives on. This week PBS Digital Studios released a short film about Paul and the Rail Park as part of its Unusual Spaces series. It’s an inspiring reminder that these unique, miraculous, places begin with someone’s passionate dream, and then take a decade or more to realize. The High Line is testament that it can be done, and the short film below bears witness to the dream unfolding. Give it a watch and you’ll see what I mean. To read more about Paul, click here.


A Tale of Two Gardens


The March Cutback at the Chelsea Grasslands

NOTE: a version of this article first appeared on the blog of the American Library of Paris on 26 March, 2013.

I’m headed to Paris this week to give a talk at the American Library about the High Line. As my plane takes off, an important rite of spring will be ending in New York’s “park in the sky”: the March Cutback. This makes it a perfect time to visit the High Line’s muse and inspiration, the Promenade Plantée, the world’s first mile-long garden built on an old railroad viaduct. Like the High Line, the park in Paris – also known as the Coulée Verte – floats 30’ above the busy streets, cutting through the entire 12th arrondissement.

For all their similarities, the two parks are quite different. Unlike the Promenade Plantée and most other formal gardens, the plants on the High Line are not clipped and pruned at the onset of Fall, when cold weather arrives. Instead, they are left alone to complete the full cycle of their lives. Piet Oudolf, the Dutch horticulturist who created the High Line’s garden design, believes that plants should be interesting and beautiful to behold throughout all the stages of their growth. As he once told a reporter, “Dying in an interesting way is just as important as living.”

For the High Line, Oudolf chose plants that recall the beautiful and richly diverse wild garden that grew on the abandoned viaduct after the trains stopped running in 1980. He selected some 250 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, vines and trees, both native and exotic, that would change in striking ways throughout the year, delighting and engaging a visitor no matter what the season.

I expect to arrive in Paris with a few blisters and even some dirt beneath my fingernails. Every year, throughout the month of March, Friends of the High Line – the group that saved, built and now runs the park – enlists an army of volunteers who work elbow-to-elbow alongside the gardening staff to cut back around 100,000 plants in preparation for the new growing season. The volunteers approach the job like good postal service employees: in rain, snow, sleet, and hail (I once even worked through a thunderstorm) we clip, cut, rake, and haul, filling enormous canvas bags with cuttings that will be trucked to Staten Island where they will rest in peace in giant piles, before becoming mulch for another garden.

Bamboo Forest on the Promenade Plantee, photo by Lorraine Ferguson

Bamboo Forest on the Promenade Plantee, photo by Lorraine Ferguson

The founders of Friends of the High Line, Robert Hammond and Joshua David, knew the Promenade Plantée well, and greatly admired it. But they had a very different idea for the park they would create in New York. At its heart, the High Line was intended to recall the old railroad, horticulturally as well as architecturally. Not only is it filled with a great many plants that are natural pioneers along abandoned railroads and other industrial ruins, but the train tracks themselves got a starring role: they were embedded in the pedestrian pathway and garden beds, where they enunciate the gentle curves that engineers of the New York Central once line navigated back in the day when the railroad was king. Crushed stones were placed in garden beds to suggest railroad ballast, and throughout the park a visitor encounters old signal lights, loading docks, meat hooks, and other elements once integral to the railroad’s freight operation.

Paul Van Meter, a horticulturist, railroad historian, and co-founder of VIADUCTgreene in Philadelphia, notes that the stylish, highly ornamental garden types on the Promenade Plantée – its lush, bamboo forest, sheared hedges, arcades of roses, allé of trees – are by contrast “representative of French classicism, with a focus on decoration rather than function.” He also points out that the elevated garden in New York “signals an important change in American tastes which inclines toward the heavy use of perennials and wildflowers. It’s no coincidence that Robert Hammond grew up in San Antonio, Texas, not far from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, whose 1999 grand opening in part led Americans to discover the inherent beauty of wildflowers and grasses so they would invite them into their gardens.”

As they came to “re-see the beauty of ‘native’ wildflowers,” Van Meter explains, “the post-World War II designers, like my great friend and mentor Wolfgang Oehme and more recently, of course, Piet Oudolf, gained (re)appreciation for a certain kind of controlled wildness. With that notice came availability of plants in previously unprecedented variety and sizes. And a revolution was on.”

The "cutback" in Paris, photo by Melinda Zoehrer

The “cutback” in Paris, photo by Melinda Zoehrer

When my friend Melinda Zoehrer, a horticulturist at the University of Delaware, learned I was writing about the High Line’s Cutback in relation to the Promenade Plantée, she sent me a photo of the Parisian counterpart: a lovely — and very formal hedge — that had recently been pruned. She pointed out the string that cuts a perfect horizontal line from one end of the hedge to the other (click the photo to enlarge it). This image, alongside I photo I shot on the High Line last week (below), perfectly illustrates the difference between the classicism of the French garden and the wildness of the American one. These photographic glimpses offer a way of understanding a garden not by what grows there, but by how what grows is ultimately cut back or removed.

So: two gardens made from old railroads, each a reflection of its history and culture. For me, the great delight of these places is that they form one long, linear, observation deck, providing a stunning and original perch from which to view a much-loved city. In the 1850s, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux conceived their first creation, Central Park, as a grand escape from the city: a place where anyone, no matter how rich or poor, could rejoice in fresh air and beautiful scenery. Today, parks like the Promenade Plantée and the High Line do just the opposite: they console, inspire, and delight us by taking us deeper into the city, through a tunnel of roses (as in Paris) or a prairie of wild grasses (as in New York).

These gardens have had a powerfully transformative effect on the way we think about nature, urbanism, and culture. Just as the Promenade Plantée inspired the High Line, so is the High Line serving as a model for other innovative projects around the world. In London and on Manhattan’s Lower East Side planners contemplate underground parks that deploy 21st century lighting systems and could support agricultural projects like a mushroom farm. Philadelphians dream of a park in two sections that embraces the full range of an urban railroad’s historic pathway: an elevated garden bathed in natural light and a submerged series of graffiti-adorned tunnels. Work continues on the Beltline in Atlanta, a project that is so big – it runs for 22 miles – it can connect as many as 45 different communities.

Virtually every city in the world has a railroading past, and rather than bury or tear down that history, urban planners and community leaders are today seeking to identify the cultural heartbeat of their project, and bring it life as a great public space and grand connector.

The Cutback in New York and the rosebuds in Paris remind us of such renewal, and give cause for much celebration and joy.

The Cutback on the High Line

The Cutback on the High Line


Professor of Place

Philadelphia Skyline from the Reading Viaduct

Paul VanMeter, co-founder of VIADUCTgreene in Philadelphia, has written, with Leah Murphy, a fascinating article on “Placemaking” in the online journal Philadelphia Social Innovations.  It begins: “Great, vital Places — capitalization intended — are imperative for cultivating creative and cultural life,” and goes on to explore what gives a building — or a former battlefield, a street, a park — its own particular, unique sense of place. They describe the responsibility that the transformers of place — citizen groups, urban planners — have to the community, arguing that “It’s up to the imaginations of placemakers to recognize the need for reprogramming our City’s treasures, retrofitting them to accommodate contemporary uses that will serve both to reinvent places and preserve their histories.” For them,  a successful Place — one that merits a capital “P” — “has a distinctive identity and an integral connection to its physical, sociocultural and historical context.” The old and the new exist together, and enrich us all the more for their dual power.

Lately on this blog I’ve been writing about “Urban Greenway” projects around country that are transforming century-old corridors of industrial infrastructure into unique public arenas. Bridges and trestles once designed to carry trolleys, automobiles, freight, passenger, and mail trains, have been re-imagined, then recreated, into open spaces that serve a new community purpose.  All of these places can be appreciated in two ways at once: as a metaphoric platform for teaching a community something of its history, and as a literal one for promenading — quite pleasantly, as it turns out — through our complex, modern cities. Of all the works-in-progress that I’m aware of, the one in Philadelphia is the most exciting, and a prime reason is that the people behind it — at VIADUCTgreene and the Reading Viaduct Project — have a deep understanding of this particular Place. That understanding informs everything they do.

Paul VanMeter

Over the past year I’ve made two visits to the old Reading Railroad’s elevated viaduct, both times led by Paul and his infectious enthusiasm for the Place (capitalization intended…). Paul never conducts a tour without an iPad, because just as important as the sights one can see now — former warehouses and industrial buildings, the Philly skyline (including William Penn himself, looking down on the city from a pedestal) — is the history of the railroad and the neighborhoods it once traversed. On the iPad are photos of sites we pass on our tour, from the historic Reading Terminal Market and the old Baldwin Locomotive Works to neighborhood streets in the Callowhill district 100 years ago. “See over there,” he points, “and now here,” swiping the iPad so it shows a black & white photo of a familiar but long-ago scene. We begin to understand the layers of place that surround us. Once the VIADUCTgreene project is a reality its three miles of underground tunnels and elevated park will enable visitors to traverse some 55 busy city blocks without crossing a single street. The city of Philadelphia will have a new stage for natives and tourists alike to stand upon and absorb its great history. [continue reading…]


The Friendship TrailBridge in Tampa/St. Pete

Conceptual Rendering provided by ASD w/ Gordon Tarpley of Studio AMD

I’ve just learned about an Urban Greenway project that’s making great headway in Florida: the Friendship TrailBridge. This is a project with a long and interesting history that goes back to 1924 and includes two separate grassroots preservation campaigns.

For almost ten years there was a pedestrian bridge here, crossing the Bay and connecting Tampa with St. Petersburg. It was closed in 2008 due to structural concerns, and almost torn down earlier this year. Today, a group is fighting to transform the old Gandy Bridge into a world-class linear park across the water — the longest pedestrian bridge in the world. Read more about it, and see historical and contemporary photos plus renderings for the future park in the Urban Greenways section.


Detroit’s Urban Greenway

The Dequindre Cut Greenway, Detroit. Photo: Ara Howrani

In May 2009, just a few weeks before the High Line was completed, the Dequindre Cut Greenway opened in Detroit. Joggers, promenaders, cyclists, kids in carriages, rollerbladers — just about anyone who wanted to enjoy the outdoors — suddenly had a new open space to wander and frolic. There are many similarities to the High Line: a former abandoned railway, this one a Grand Trunk Railroad line constructed in the 1830s, that serviced factories and industry in the center of a major city. Graffiti. Wild plant life. Water towers in the distance.  A 1.35 mile greenway that connects riverfront, markets, and residential neighborhoods. A public/private partnership. A work in progress. To read more and see additional photographs, visit the “Urban Greenways” feature.


Introducing Urban Greenways

All over the country – and indeed the world – the impact of the High Line is being felt.  Every week, it seems, brings a new story of someone who’s dreaming of a park made from  an old railway, and in many places those dreams are becoming reality.

This Fall I made two trips to Philadelphia to walk the Reading Viaduct, a former elevated railroad that offers stunning views of the Philadelphia skyline as well as intimate glimpses of everyday life in the streets below. Just like the High Line.

My friend Rick Darke, who has been writing about and photographing the High Line since 2002,  introduced me to Paul Van Meter of VIADUCTGreene and John Struble of the Reading Viaduct Project, two community leaders who are working to bring this old elevated railroad back to life as an urban greenway.  This is a particularly interesting project because the 4.5 mile extent of the former railroad includes both an elevated viaduct and an underground section. The mile-long elevated part consists of two branches that would connect very different neighborhoods: Chinatown towards the southern end, and an area settled by artists working in loft spaces just a bit farther north.

As in New York, the Philadelphia viaduct offers a window into the Industrial Revolution and the days when cities were places where things were made and then shipped all over the country and the world. You can still see the faded lettering on the sides of former industrial buildings that once served as automobile, bicycle, shoe, glass and balloon factories. But most stunning of all are the architectural forms that straddle the viaduct:  vertical steel structures known as catenaries that arch across the tracks and once carried electrical current from the high wires and transferred it down to the locomotives. Go here to read more about the Reading Viaduct and see photographs.

Walking the elevated part of Philadelphia’s abandoned railway made me finally understand what so many early visitors to the High Line saw and fell in love with when today’s “park in the sky” was a wild urban garden. That in turn made me fascinated to learn about the many other efforts that are taking place around the country and the world. In cities across America community leaders and urban planners are looking to the High Line for inspiration. One can sense an exciting new trend in urban reclamation, like a heartbeat pulsing from one end of the country to the other.

Thus a new feature on LivinTheHighLine, “Urban Greenways,” which identifies these efforts and provides photos where available.  As time goes by I’ll update the list, add cities and provide progress reports, and I’ll be adding international projects as well.

Railroads came to Manhattan in the 1830s; the first was the Harlem, which opened in February 1832. In those days rail cars were pulled by horses and could attain a speed of 7 miles per hour. It was two years before a steam locomotive would hit the streets of New York, and it exploded just eight months later. But the railroad race was on, and it’s one of the great stories of this country. Seeing urban greenways developing from our abandoned railroads is exciting both for the joys that a beautiful park can offer, but also for the “teachable moment” they can provide.

When New York’s elevated park opened in 2009 it did so with an uncommon dedication to educating young and old alike, providing programs devoted to art, entertainment, cultural history, and even astronomy. Just a year later, the Times observed that “The High Line has become, like bagels and CompStat, another kind of New York export.”  Friends of the High Line created a model that is now inspiring other groups around the country to reach well beyond the noble goal of creating a beautiful public space.  Many of the projects covered in Urban Greenways, like the Harsimus Stem Embankment, plan to include outdoor classrooms for kids and other features that would provide historical context.

This was an important year for the High Line:  it doubled the walkable space of its gardens and announced major progress on the development of the final section, which majestically wraps around the West Side Rail Yards between 30th – 34th Streets. (Joshua David and Robert Hammond also published a book that tells the whole story of how the park came to be…) As the year winds down, it’s clear that there is much to look forward to, both here and all over this great country of ours.

Happy holidays, everyone. And as you think about those last-minute charitable donations, remember that all of these places are steered and guided by non-profits, and depend to a large extent on donations from the public. Each of the Urban Greenways listed here includes links to the websites of the organization behind it, where you’ll quickly find a way to donate.  Here is the link to Friends of the High Line.

 Visit Urban Greenways: Other Projects Around the World.


[Note: if this subject interests you, you’ll find a very interesting list of “Relevant Reading” on the VIADUCTGreene website that includes books about Landscape, Urbanism and Railroading. It’s a must-read list for anyone interested in the powerful new trends in urban design and planning that are sweeping the country. There’s also an excellent new documentary, “Urbanized,” by Gary Hustwit, which you can now watch online if it’s not available in a theater nearby.]