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Urban conversion: the shape of things to come?

New York’s fêted High Line urban park has hit the London headlines twice in as many weeks with the unveiling of plans for an iconic new bridge across the Thames and a new public space in Vauxhall.

Last week NCE exclusively revealed that London mayor Boris Johnson is pursuing plans for a new iconic “garden” bridge across the Thames in central London in a bold attempt to capitalise on the success of New York’s High Line.

Meanwhile, a proposal by Erect Architecture and landscape architect J&L Gibbons to regenerate a section of the South Bank in London has won competition run by the Royal Institution of British Architects (Riba) and local business group Vauxhall One.

The competition was for proposals to create a striking new identity for the area in and around Vauxhall along a stretch of land dubbed the “missing link ” between the new US Embassy and the South Bank.

The intention is made clear in the brief: “In New York, the High Line has shown what can be achieved with a sculptural trail and linear urban park. Vauxhall also has an opportunity to create an outstanding new addition to the urban environment.”

In case you hadn’t heard, the High Line is an elevated freight line through the Meatpacking district, that has been transformed into a public park on Manhattan’s west side. The high line was originally built in the 1930s under a public private partnership project. It carried freight trains 9m above the streets of what was then Manhattan’s largest industrial district.

Trains stopped running in 1980 and the line became derelict. Then, just before the turn of the century, not-for-profit group Friends of the High Line was formed to fi ght off a plan to demolish the steel and concrete structure and the transformation of the route from industrial dereliction to living, breathing parkland began.

Construction kicked off in 2006, and the first section opened in 2009 followed by the second in 2011.

The new attraction has attracted millions of visitors moving some locals to grumble that it is now too successful. One New York Times op-ed even labelled it a “tourist-clogged catwalk”. Although many dismiss this claim, citing evidence that there had already been a meteoric rise in the popularity of the Meatpacking district in Chelsea’s otherwise alternative and arts focused area.

The High Line has attracted millions of visitors, moving some to grumble that it is now too successful. One New York Times op-ed even labelled it a ‘tourist-clogged catwalk’

The project continues unabated. September last year saw work start on the third and final section, which will begin a phased opening next year. This final 800m section extends the park to the northern terminus of the elevated rail structure at West 34th Street and will cost $90M (£57M).

However, this final section signals a departure from the first two and embraces even more its industrial heritage by retaining sections of rusted track.

If the High Line could be any more popular it is hard to see how. As part of the design for the first phase, an interim walkway through the original structure, self-seeded wildflowers and grasses have grown and the guided walks have been exceedingly well subscribed. It seems that more and more people are keen to see the infrastructure even in its unpolished form.

It appears that other cities, as well as London are keen to emulate the High Line’s success.

America’s other industrial powerhouse, Chicago, is following suit. As NCE was writing this, final plans were due to be revealed for The Bloomingdale - a 4.3km long elevated linear park and trail running through the heart of Chicago, connecting neighbourhoods, the river, and the city’s parks.

It too will be built from a former rail line and construction is set to start this summer.

The Chicago viaduct is a little older than the High Line. It carried the Bloomingdale Ave railroad in the late 19th century and was built to serve a small manufacturing district across the city’s northwest side.

Paris has its own High Line, the Promenade Plantée which predates the New York version by many years

Initially, the track was laid at street level but in 1893 the city council ordered the line to be elevated within six years to alleviate street level congestion.

By 1910 The Bloomingdale was elevated but by the early 1990s, only one train per week passed through and a few years later freight services ceased entirely.

The link with the past is again at the heart of the Chicago scheme with its aim to celebrate the freight line’s past by opening it up to people. It is this endeavour that clearly appeals in New York where so many are keen to see the raw infrastructure before it is transformed.

In London, the new Arup-Heatherwick bridge across the Thames is striving for the iconic but if it also wishes to replicate the success of the High Line, regardless of the fact that it is seeking sponsorship for the entire £60M cost, it must still strive to make clear its purpose.

It is seeking to revitalise the Temple area on the north bank of the Thames and open pedestrian routes to tourist popular Covent Garden and Soho.

But this will be entirely new infrastructure where the High Line and The Bloomingdale focus on adopting neglected viaducts from their cities’ industrial past and making them work for today.

Ensuring that people enjoy walking through the world’s greatest cities is where the other schemes can find their raisons d’être. The Vauxhall scheme is clear in its intention to do this but beyond New York, Paris may be the one to beat. In fact, and in addition to the city being widely pedestrian-friendly, Paris has its own High Line, the Promenade Plantée which predates the New York version by many years.

This plant-flanked promenade spans the 4.5km from Place de la Bastille to Bois de Vincennes. Philippe Mathieux and Jacques Vergely designed this trail in 1988, on the tracks that took trains from Bastille to arenne-Saint-Maur from 1859 to 1969 when the line was abandoned. Now, as a result of a vast refurbishment, the walkway winds overhead and underground, on viaduct footbridges and in tunnel trenches.

No one is suggesting that the two new London schemes are the first, even in the capital. But the celebration of New York’s scheme in recent years seems to be setting the trend for others to follow.

With the potential for redeveloping disused rail infrastructure elsewhere in cities like Manchester which has a short section of disused line near Victoria station, it will be interesting to see how many other schemes spring up.

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