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How railroads have created urban parks from around the world
Reusing infrastructure, a look into railways that have been converted to green belts and urban linear parks
Hello from new york,
Before diving into the topic of today’s post, I just wanted to share a personal story about my spirit teacher.
A few weeks ago, I went to a silent retreat in southern Spain.
There, I found two teachers: one that provides guidance in the spiritual realm (the one whom I went for in the first place, to which I attribute my newfound inner peace to his dharma talks), the other in the worldy ways (unexpectedly).
The former is my spiritual teacher, while the latter is my spirit teacher. I sort of created this word, because I resonate with her in energy and drive, in ambition and execution.
When I first met her, she shared with us a small beginning of her story —
Long story short, a strange encounter on a hitchhike led her to quit university to become a photographer.
It is these kinds of stories that inspire my soul.
There’s an element of crazy, yet coupled with a strong sense of direction and purpose; a bit of fear amidst the overwhelming excitement, to be the most and least certain at the same time, the inner fire to take on whatever challenge the world awaits.
A journey to find our own voice.
I never got to learn exactly what happened to her after. But after the many whirlwinds and living life, she is premiering her movie soon in Spain.
Meeting her reminded me to never forget what I’m meant to do in this world and to constantly search for it and to get closer to it.
Personally, a part of me never really thought that I belong in tech. I sort of fell into it by being in California. Life has been a struggle of constantly trying to leave this world to embark into something a bit more in the physical world, something more creative.
In Buddhism, often our teacher– our inner guide, does not have to be someone who’s actually in our life guiding us. They can be imagined, they can be a role model, they can be observed from afar.
I’m not sure if I will meet this woman again, but I know that from meeting my spirit teacher, I relearned who I am.
And what I’m meant to do in this world.
Railways to urban linear parks from around the world
The definition (from wikipedia) – A linear park is a type of park that is significantly longer than it is wide. They are strips of public land running along canals, rivers, streams, defensive walls, electrical lines, or highways and shorelines. Examples of linear parks include rail trails ("rails to trails" or “railways to greenways”), which are disused railroad beds converted for recreational use or in response to a need for open green space in dense urban areas.
Changing political and economic events as well as innovations in alternative forms of transportation left old railways in disuse around the world.
China, for example, through its development of high-speed train systems, had left behind “normal speed” train tracks. These train tracks became known as the “rust belt”.
Ireland used to have an extensive, well-connected railway network stretching across the island in the late 19th century. However, the partitioning of the country into north and south in the following century resulted in discontinued travels between the two regions and therefore discontinued the usage of a large portion of the network.
In the US, various factors contributed to the disappearance of railway transportation including the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 funding the development of highway infrastructure, the perpetual suburban sprawl, and entrepreneurs like Henry Ford making automobiles affordable.
Amidst these economic and political developments, we see a similar pattern in cities and municipalities from around the world transforming these abandoned railway footprints into urban curiosities. They are giving the railroad tracks a new life while promoting a better quality of life for the people.
Coulée verte René-Dumont, French for 'Tree-lined walkway of René Dumont' (image source: theguardian, paris secret, Philippe Mathieux Architecte)
Paris' Promenade plantée René-Dumont was one of the first projects in the world (if not the first) to repurpose elevated old railway lines as urban gardens.
It is a 4.7 km (2.9 mi) elevated linear park perched 10 meters above street level, built on top of obsolete railway infrastructure in the 12th arrondissement in 1993. It was one of the major projects in the development of the districts of eastern Paris.
Strolling from one side of the park to another, one is immersed in culture and nature. Below the walkway is Viaduc des Arts: 45 brick archways transformed into artisan showrooms that range from violin-makers, glass blowers, crafts workshops, and galleries. The green corridor lined with roses, lavender, bamboo, ivy, and wisteria then passes through Jardin de Reuilly and Jardin Charles Peguy.
The project not only serves as a cultural and architectural landmark today, but it also saved historic buildings like the viaduct Daumesnil from demolition.
Coulée verte would then inspire the famous High Line in New York (est 2009), and many more urban parks.
1 New York - High Line - sightsee
2 Helsinki - Baana - commute
3 Xiamen - Railway Culture Park - culture (image source)
4 Ireland - Great Western Greenway - exercise
Linear parks come in varieties. Some, such as the High Line, become major tourist attractions. Others like Helsinki’s Baana become a humble form of transportation for cyclists and a part of the daily commute.
The one in Xiamen, known as Railway Culture Park (厦门铁路文化公园), serves as a cultural and experiential center for visitors who came to explore and learn about the history and cultural heritage of the area. It functions like an open-air museum with four main blocks: cultural(文化区), folk(民情生活区), experiential(风情体验区), and urban leisure(都市休闲区), each of which has its own charm.
This park preserves the past in every red and black paving of the ground: These are the traditional bricks of the Hokkien tradition called “swallow” bricks with patterns that resemble the birds’ scissor-shaped tails. It’s not really in use anymore, and it reminds the city’s older generation what they saw in their youth.
In Ireland, the greenways are now an extensive web of exercise trails, including the Great Western Greenway, Waterford’s Greenway, and Royal Canal Greenway. Many of these cycle paths make up a part of the EuroVelo, the European cycle route network that comprises 17 long-distance cycle routes connecting 42 countries, promoting “cycling tourism”.
4.5-km Railway Culture Park in Xiamen, China, preserving a trace of history and culture, est 2011 (image source)
Ireland’s greenway success (Irish Times)
On commercial viability
"It brought a whole new energy to the towns and villages along the way that was never there before.” – Anna Connor, tourism officer for Mayo County Council, Ireland
Linear urban parks increase surrounding commercial property values. The availability and attractiveness of the greenways increase the number of visitors and lead to direct jobs. Businesses along the green corridors thrive from the increased foot traffic.
In New York’s Chelsea area, condos along the High Line’s southern end are twice as expensive as those just one block away. One can find some of the most innovative architecture along the linear park. Built in 2018, 61 Ninth Avenue is an office building made of “stacked cube-like modules” arranged in a different configuration on each floor with pocket parks propagated throughout, providing unique terrace spaces with an integrated indoor-outdoor environment.
A collection of the most innovative architecture along the High Line:
520 W 28th Street, the late Zaha Hadid's only project in New York
515 West 18th Street, known as The Lantern House by Thomas Heatherwick
500 West 18th Street, where the High Line meets the Hudson River by Bjarke Ingels
61 Ninth Avenue, setback terraces and floor-to-ceiling glass façade that is integrated within a modular frame
In Atlanta, we see some of the trendiest mixed-use developments in the city walking along the Atlanta Beltline – Atlanta’s loop of multi-use trail and light rail transit system on a former railway corridor.
Ponce City Market houses tech companies, architectural and investment firms, local creative shops, and a central food hall. Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall is a restaurant inspired by the BeltLine and designed with the linear park in mind. Owner Michael Lennox, a lawyer turned restaurateur and a fan of walkable urban environments, remarked “I started reading about the BeltLine. It just all clicked for me in a way that I can’t even explain, and I finally decided I had to do something about it. To me, the BeltLine is the anchor for the whole restaurant concept.” The restaurant is known as “a base camp for the urban explorer,” with decks, railing perches, and a screen porch with picnic tables that offer views up and down the trail.
Converted linear parks brought life to a new part of town. And not just life, but different walks of life.
To me, building linear parks is one of those initiatives where incentives are aligned across the board, from developers and retailers to neighbors, locals, and tourists alike.
“What continues to blow my mind is the wide range of people that are excited about it and come from all over town to use it,” he says. “We see people every day from every demographic you could possibly imagine. I think there’s something very powerful about that.” –Michael Lennox, owner of Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall
“For seven years, we sat out on the patio every night and all we saw was a few homeless people,” he says. “Now it could be 10,000 people a day walking down here. You could sit here for 10 minutes and count 300 people. There’s life here now.” –Kevin Rathbun, owner of Kevin Rathbun Steak
Atlanta BeltLine, projected to be completed at the end of 2030, will connect 45 intown neighborhoods around the city with a 22-mile loop of multi-purpose trail (source).
In addition to railroads, there had been creative and innovative use of other types of disused spaces. Areas under highways and former sites of historic walls can and have all been repurposed into parks that bring life and awareness to these neighborhoods and sites.
Anchored under Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway is the Bentway. Opened in 2019, it is a connected series of public spaces along the Gardiner corridor with activities for the public. In the winter, the space transforms into an ice skate trail, and in warmer months we find art installations and even communal dinner tables.
The Bentway demonstrates how the Expressway can support civic life alongside mobility needs. It utilizes the “city as site, subject, and canvas. It is a backyard park, a cultural platform for artist experimentation, and a growing creative movement.”
Another example of life under the highway is in Miami. In New York we have the High Line, here we have the Underline. In a similar fashion to the Bentway, this linear park runs underneath the county's elevated Metrorail system (M-Path). Construction of the Underline is broken down into phases, connecting various stations in Miami-Dade County.
The first phase of the Underline, known as “Brickell Backyard,” opened in 2021, featuring various “rooms”, including the River Room overlooking the Miami River, the Urban Gym with basketball court and mini-pitch soccer, the Dining Room featuring 50-foot long communal table seats up to 50 people, the Game Room with chess and dominoes tables, and the Oolite Room with butterfly gardens.
Berlin’s Mauerpark (meaning “wall park”) is built on a part of the former Berlin Wall – the “Death Strip.” In this case, it was the challenge of transforming a negatively occupied open space into a positively occupied public park. Born in the 1990s, it echos the ethos of social disruption and creative renewal, symbolizing in its present-day a sense of freedom.
“From border space to open space, from death to life.”
Mauerpark’s rundown, DIY aesthetic, and “anything goes” vibe have proven an enduring formula for success (Image source)
Another example of building along a historic wall is the Planty in Kraków, Poland. This 3.4 km loop park encircles the Stare Miasto (Old Town), where the Medieval city walls used to stand until the early 19th century.
Kraków is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve been to (Image source).
Our urban future
We see beautiful terms sprung that are used to describe these beautiful linear parks:
green lung, city spine
It is almost as if they are living and breathing.
The green lung symbolizes that it is an essential element of the urban fabric, traversing across and reaching different corners of the city. While as the city spine, it acts as a support to the surrounding communities and buildings, a backbone that connects shops, residences, and cultural centers.
There is life to them, and in turn, they give us life.
When I travel, I tend to find these urban green belts and spend a day walking through them, seeing modern life at its finest, a beautiful exchange of visitors and locals. It often brings us to reflect upon the past as we ponder upon the life of the former railroad; at the same time, it is where the newest city developments are as we look forward to the future.
Suggestions for further exploration –
There are many many more of these rail trails in the world. I did my best to compile a Google map list of all the green corridors highlighted in this post, as well as additional ones below and some from this huge list.
Thanks for reading! Curated by Coco, a designer, entrepreneur who is learning more about the world and trying to be more kind.
Taichung Station Railway Culture Park, Taiwan, 1.7-km (source)
Chemin des Carrières, the Quarries’ Track, formerly the Rosheim-St Nabor railway in Alsace, France, 11-km (Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter)
The Goods Line, Sydney, Australia, 1-km (ASPECT Studios)
Park Hamesila, also known as Train Track Park in Hebrew, Tel Aviv, Israel, 5-km (Haaretz, sketch); also in Jerusalem.
Cherry blossoms at Gyeongui Line Forest Park, Seoul, South Korea, 5-km (youtube)
Chao Phraya Sky Park, an elevated linear park in Bangkok, Thailand built on the central viaduct that used to be the structure of the failed Lavalin Skytrain project, 280-m (archello)
The 606, Chicago, USA, 2.7-mi
New Zealand's Otago Central Rail Trail, 90 miles (150-km) (image source)
Empire State Trail (EST) is 750 miles of mountains, canyons, passing through old mills, linking New York City to the Adirondacks, and Albany to Buffalo, the longest rail trail in the US (source).
The Great Allegheny Passage runs from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, spanning 150 miles along railroad corridors through the wilderness. It crosses the Eastern Continental Divide, through waterfalls, rivers, and tunnels, establishing a new identity for the once-great industrial region. I encountered the trail in the quaint town of Ohiopyle and it was beautiful (additional images and info).
Lastly, the High Line back at home, NYC, from Friends of the High Line’s photo gallery.
Mauerpark Berlin – On the Journey From Death to Life (Topos Magazine)