Energy & Environment

Linear Parks Are Reshaping Urban Landscapes

Cities are turning abandoned freight train rail lines into parks that attract millions of visitors and investment dollars.
by | October 2011

The Lower West Side of Manhattan has historically been Gotham City’s Rust Belt. The warehouses, distribution centers and rail yards were about as far from the glamour of Manhattan as you could get. And until recently, the abandoned freight rail trestle that runs for 1.5 miles through the neighborhood epitomized the slow economic decline of the city’s former meatpacking district. Like the factories it once served, the elevated rail line was on the verge of disappearing.

But all that changed two years ago, when the High Line park opened. Once overgrown with weeds, the 30-foot-high trestle is now a linear oasis. The High Line, which cost $153 million in public and private funding, winds through a neighborhood that is transforming from its industrial past into an exciting place with trendy apartments, art studios and cafes. Millions of visitors have walked atop the park, which has kept most of the original infrastructure, but is now embedded with plants, trees, walkways and sculptures.

The High Line is more than just a unique take on an urban park. Its dramatic, over-the-top design has caught the attention of landscape architects and public officials. “The High Line has kicked into high gear the whole concept of reusing urban landscapes for parks,” says Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land. “City parks used to be about clearing space to create a flat area with parks and trees.” Now, that concept has been turned on its head, with parks that incorporate former railroads, bridges and factories. The emphasis is on reclaiming land, rather than razing it and starting from scratch.

Reusing our industrial past is not new, however. In Washington, D.C., the C&O Canal was once just for moving freight on water. After being abandoned for many years and with transportation officials threatening to build a highway over it, canal lovers, including Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, fought to protect it. Today, the linear park is one of the Washington area’s most frequented public spaces.

Canals lost their economic importance once railroads spread across the country. In their place, railroads breached mountains and bridged rivers. North of New York City is the 1.28-mile-long Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge, which was considered a technological wonder and the longest bridge in the country when completed in 1888.

Almost a century later, a fire severely damaged the tracks, leaving the bridge in disrepair for decades until an organization called Walkway Over the Hudson acquired the structure. In 2009, the bridge reopened to the public after a $38.8 million makeover. It’s the world’s longest pedestrian bridge, and it’s extremely popular, attracting its millionth visitor less than two years after opening. With its spectacular view of the river and surrounding land, the bridge attracts walkers, joggers and bikers -- a far cry from the days when the railroad carried as many as 3,500 freight cars a day at its peak.

Having a connection to the past is a key element that makes these types of reclaimed parks popular, says Harnik. “An industrial park needs to look to its past as well as express a vision of the future,” he adds.

A linear park built on a former rail bridge in the small town of Shelburne Falls, Mass., is just such a place. In 1908, at the height of the trolley car era, a streetcar company built a bridge across the Deerfield River, connecting the towns of Shelburne and Buckland with passenger service. Twenty years later, automobiles replaced trolleys and the line in Shelburne, including the 400-foot, five-arch concrete span, was abandoned. But the next year—1929—the Shelburne Falls Area Women’s Club laid claim to the bridge and turned it into a garden. Today, the one-time trolley trestle is known as the Bridge of Flowers and attracts visitors from across the nation.

That’s not all that has been lost and reclaimed in Shelburne. When the streetcar line closed, a farmer purchased the last remaining trolley and turned it into a chicken coop. Fast-forward to 1991: Trolley enthusiasts bought and restored that old car, and turned it into the centerpiece for a new trolley museum adjacent to the Bridge of Flowers.

These rail parks aren’t just landscape showstoppers. They can also spur development. Despite its rural location and small size, Shelburne Falls boasts restaurants, artist studios and even a downtown movie theater. Poughkeepsie, which has been a downtrodden city for decades, finds itself attracting the attention of developers who are proposing major retail and residential projects. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said the High Line has generated $2 billion in private investment near the park.

The success of linear rail parks has caught the attention of other cities that have abandoned rail lines. In Philadelphia, there’s the Reading Viaduct near the city’s downtown district, and in Chicago, a 2.65-mile disused elevated rail line, known as the Bloomingdale Trail, cuts through four residential areas. St. Louis also has an abandoned elevated rail line, the 2.1-mile Iron Horse Trestle.

But the craze over reclaiming land goes beyond linear parks. In 1976, the city of Seattle converted the Gasworks, a former coal gasification plant on the shores of Lake Union, into a gleaming park. Providence, R.I., has the Steel Yard, the site of a former steel mill that is now a 3.5-acre park, with old factory buildings converted into artist studios. New York City also has converted an old concrete factory along the Bronx River into a park.

Robert Campbell, an architecture critic, says these former industrial buildings, many of which date back to the Victorian era, have a certain beauty that only increases over time. Writing in The Boston Globe, Campbell said, “As they age and decay, as we begin to lose them, they often seem more beautiful than ever.”

The prospect of preserving industrial beauty sits well with landscape architects and public officials, who look at the high cost of disposing of these relics and realize that a less expensive, more enduring solution may be to reclaim them for the public to enjoy.

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