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On the Right Track

Community groups are leading the charge to transform abandoned rail lines into new city parks

By Nalina Moses

This year, the U.S. National Park Service is making do with budgets cuts of $140 million, including $50 million of reduced construction spending. The agency is bracing for additional reductions in 2012 that could be as much as 9 percent of its current budget, according to a report from the National Parks Conservation Association. In Georgia, the state parks division has seen its budget slashed by 46 percent over the last five years, forcing the agency to defer $125 million in maintenance and cut staff by 30 percent since 2009. The park system plans to compensate by making public parks rely on state funding as little as possible, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

As the specter of recession looms, federal, state, and local governments seem unwilling and unable to invest in park space. So, as design professionals learn more and more about the dramatic impact buildings and green space have on the economy and environment, is it any wonder that people are taking matters into their own hands and working to commission public parks themselves?

There probably isn’t an infrastructure type more appropriate and descriptive of our age than the elevated rail park. Often initiated by community nonprofits—not city park agencies battered by budget cuts--they promise to turn industrial relics of a bygone economy into urban amenities for repopulating cities. New rail line parks in development now include the Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago, the Embankment in Jersey City, N.J., and the Reading Viaduct in Philadelphia. While each project is unique, all face similar challenges in raising funds, gaining public approval, reaching institutional consensus, and administering design and construction. What may be most remarkable about these projects is that each grew directly out of community activism. Local residents saw the potential for the abandoned infrastructure, formed nonprofit advocacy organizations, and lobbied their city governments. These community groups will most likely play a fundamental role in the design, maintenance, and operation of the parks, roles traditionally performed by city agencies.

While most of these parks began planning before New York’s High Line rail park, they’ve all been inspired by its success. In New York City, Friends of the High Line (FH), a group started in 1999 by local residents, lobbied the city, raised and paid for a large percentage of construction costs, and now pays for its maintenance. In Chicago, Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail (FBT) initiated the project. In Philadelphia, it was the Reading Viaduct Project (RVP), and in Jersey City, N.J., it was the Embankment Preservation Coalition (EPC). “Good ideas often emerge at the same time in different places,” says Jenny Myers, an EPC trustee.

Park by committee

Nurturing the idea for a new park from neighborhood meetings and fundraisers through design and construction calls for a strong partnership between the community, the public, and commercial agencies. In Philadelphia, the RVP and the city are in very preliminary negotiations to acquire the property, and are developing conceptual plans for one segment. In Jersey City, the EPC is in the final stage of a legal process that will allow it to purchase the required properties. And the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), which is leading the Bloomingdale Trail project, has just secured federal funds from a Community Multi-Scale Air Quality program, which require a 20 percent local match.  It's an important milestone as the first phase of design and construction are about to begin.

At the CDOT, Bloomingdale Trail project director Janet Attarian, AIA, is leading a design team that includes the engineering firm Arup, Ross Barney Architects, and landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh. As part of the team's continuous outreach efforts, they recently held a four-day design charette with community members. “It's an interactive, iterative process where we present and re-present ideas again, to get feedback from the community. It creates an intense design feedback loop,” says Attarian. Carol Ross Barney, FAIA, of Ross Barney Architects, notes, “The collaboration helps us to understand the values that are important to the community, while giving them a chance to sit at the table with us and learn about our experiences and ideas.”

Each park will have a unique spirit, reflecting its specific urban and industrial context. Because the raised rails in Chicago are relatively narrow and pass through a number of neighborhoods, the Bloomingdale Trail will have a street-like character. According to Ben Helphand, president of FBT, “It will be both a park as well as an alternative transportation corridor. We expect to see as many people using it during the morning commute as for a Sunday picnic and stroll.” The trail will offer visitors a variety of dynamic experiences, some idyllic and some urban. Ross Barney, who wants to use different trail elevations to create varying microclimates, also says she’s “very interested in interpreting and preserving the graffiti art [that’s] so prevalent on the trail. In some locations it is very old and significant.”

The trail at the Viaduct, by contrast, is relatively wide, and its park might have a more restful, recreational character. “The park is four tracks wide, so there are lots of opportunities for both hardscape and landscape, for both walking and biking,” says Alan Greenberger, FAIA, Philadelphia's deputy mayor for planning and economic development.

In contrast to the other parks, the Embankment is raised on earth and held back by stone retaining walls. And although the final design process hasn't started yet, the park is conceived as a nature refuge rather than a promenade. Myer says, “Our goal is to give residents, particularly children, a park experience more in touch with nature than most urban parks. A concept design we commissioned therefore calls for wild spaces, a bird meadow, tent platforms, and the like.”

Advocates into stewards

In addition to offering valued public space, there's hope that these projects will revitalize their neighborhoods. “But to do so effectively,” says Alex Garvin, an urban planner and member of the national advisory board of the Urban Land Institute, “the surrounding neighborhoods must be places to which city residents wish to move, private developers can profitably adapt to new uses, and government regulations not only permit but actually encourage nearby real estate development.”

At first glance, the idea of developing unused infrastructure elements as green space seems immune to criticism. Who would object to transforming a neighborhood eyesore into a vibrant public park? But a new rail park might not be the right solution for every city, especially ones that still need to build up their public transit infrastructure. “It is a mistake to take out of permanent use rail lines that could be reused as effective transit lines within a few years,” says Garvin.

Another concern is that the new rail parks will bring rapid gentrification, effectively pricing out some of the community members who helped bring them into being. It's a concern that the projects' designers are well aware of. “I think the trail will help to revitalize adjacent communities, but I believe that the ethnic and economic diversity of these communities can be preserved,” says Ross Barney.

As always, the development of subsidized housing is key to managing the destructive (and constructive) effects of gentrification. “Our interest and goal is in creating more residential development, to accommodate both market-rate and low-income housing,” says Greenberger.

There's no doubt that the design of the new rail parks will exploit the most current planning and architecture ideas: adaptive reuse, alternate transportation methods, pocket parks, native landscaping, etc. But what's most innovative about these projects is how they are fueled and sustained by community involvement and associated nonprofits. It's a bold new model, one that bypasses the traditional role of city government in implementing and maintaining public space. And it calls on community members to be more than activists, and to step forward as planners, fundraisers, marketers, and managers, too. As Helphand explains, “We are now also looking to the future when the trail is a reality, and we transform from advocates into stewards.”


The Bloomingdale Trail at night. Photograph courtesy of Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail.

Jersey City’s Embankment is set in stone retaining walls. Rendering courtesy of Roman Pohorecki.

Conceptual design for the Reading Viaduct in Philadelphia. Image courtesy of Olin Studios.


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