Green space: The sky's the limit

Planners trying to fit green space into cities should follow the lofty example of elevated parks in New York and Paris, says Rob Sharp

A A A

Once upon a time, there was an elevated railroad known as the High Line. From 1934 it hurtled through New York's West Side, allowing freight trains to sweep meat, milk and manufactured goods from Manhattan's ports into the second floors of the meatpacking district warehouses. But as industry declined in the city, the railroad fell out of use. A train last used its tracks in 1980, its rails ran into disrepair and its sleepers, well, went to sleep.

That isn't the end of the story. The High Line's tracks, once a rusty scar marring the Big Apple's streets – became overpowered with weeds and seeds spiralling from the sky. Locals, enamoured of the serene individualism of this secret space, launched a campaign to convert the High Line into a park. In 2004, the city's authorities granted them £50m to do so. A serious planting operation later, sprouting everything from meadow sage to switchgrass, black-eyed susans to echinacea, the park attracts 25,000 visitors a day, boosting property prices nearby.

In London, the Greater London Authority estimates that 38 per cent of the city is green space. The city's mayor, Boris Johnson, hopes to grow that number by 5 per cent annually. Given the the tightness of urban space and inner-city land prices, he would do well to invest heavily in elevated and rooftop parks and gardens. These act as a city's lungs, natural insulation tools which provide habitats for insects and birds.

Opening a year ago this month, the High Line's success has inspired a generation of parks in America – and beyond. St Louis, Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, Virginia, the Florida Keys, Oakland and Dallas are all mooting similar schemes. Paris has an elevated park, Mumbai has elevated walkways linking green spaces, Toronto wants to muddy its shoes, as does Shenzhen in China. The British architecture firm Terry Farrell and Partners is working on converting a viaduct near the former Bishopsgate goods yard in London's Shoreditch into an elevated park. Want your city on the map? Get second-storey foliage.

"We're reconstituting the fabric of the city," says Craig Schwitter, of engineering firm Buro Happold's New York office, who worked on the High Line project along with architect James Corner. "We were trying to knit something in with what was already there. Rather than other examples of elevated parks– which might be on the top of buildings, for example – it's more of a filigree piece of urban infrastructure. We've taken on an industrial relic and improved it in quite a fragile way. We've stripped down the steel and reused what was there. When you mention infrastructure to most people, they think you have to tear it down and then build it up again. We wanted to avoid that".

Elevated parks are mostly built on raised former rail lines, or industrial buildings. Many urban green spaces, elevated or otherwise, offer reinterpretations of different, former uses. London's Royal Parks and Paris's Jardin du Luxembourg were originally used solely for the recreation of the British and French royal families before opening to the public, for example. Urban areas are in constant flux, whether it is the post-industrial decline of Germany's Ruhr Valley or the replacement of Manhattan's manufacturing with service industries.

On the High Line, pebble-dashed concrete walkways swing from side to side across the former railway's surface, melding pedestrians' paths with planting embedded in gravel mulch. Some of the original tracks are still visible. There are some 210 species now planted on an area accessible by five stairwells, though there are plans to expand. While its designers say it is cheaper than building a raised park from scratch – though probably more expensive than a conventional park to maintain, and build – there is no way an original project of this nature, which cuts through entire city blocks, would be granted planning permission. Maintaining such city-centre bolt-holes throws up fresh challenges. Special crews use a crane to lift equipment for special events and public programming. Gardeners use a small bike with a basket carrying plants and gardening materials from one end to the other.

While the Promenade Plantée – a park constructed on a former railway viaduct – has been pacifying Gallic flâneurs since 2000, other schemes in the US hope to ride in on the High Line's popularity, again using the existence of original infrastructure to cut down on costs. Alexander Garvin, a New-York-based urban planner, intends to use the principles of the "Emerald Necklace" – a circular chain of parks in Boston that combine a drainage system, a recreation facility, a transit line and a framework for real estate development – to Atlanta, where a ring of freight lines encircle its downtown district. Garvin has proposed a 20-mile transit line combined with a 23-mile trail, with 13 parks as jewels on the necklace. Only parts of the freight line are elevated, meaning the height of any parks will be simply a by-product of the existing railway. "All of these conversions are very opportunistic," he says. "Property is no longer being used by its former owner and it no longer functions properly. You get left with these post-industrial relics."

Striking out on its own is a proposed redevelopment of Manhattan's Pier 57 by New York designers LOT-EK. The hope is to overhaul the interior of this former industrial building using shipping containers, finessing the building's summit with a green park. "It could help its insulation," says project architect Giuseppe Lignano. "So why not make it something the entire public can enjoy? Plus it provides a vantage point above the water. It is one of the most unobstructed views in the city."

In Mumbai, city authorities are building a series of elevated walkways to ease congested pavements. The first opened last year and has been nicknamed the "Yellow Caterpillar". It connects commuters pouring out of the city's Bandra Station to a nearby city park. Meanwhile. New-York-based architects Work have won a competition commissioned by Shenzhen's Planning Bureau to build a series of "figure-8" style structures in one of the city's busiest streets to serve as bridges and raised parkland.

Not everyone is in favour of raised public spaces. In Mumbai, retailers have complained they are losing business because of diverted footfall while residents are moaning that the skywalks are blocking their views, allowing pedestrians to peek into private homes. Farrells' Shoreditch plans are facing opposition from residents who say that the raised park would not connect two urban areas, as in Paris or New York. Tower Hamlets Council's proposals, say their opponents – while still in the very early stages of planning – would be be largely inaccessible to those living closest to them.

In short, therefore, while elevated parks are the must-have green space accessory for any city, they should not be applied in a "one-size fits all capacity". Certainly not before any important stakeholders have been canvassed. Moving forward, it might be best for city residents to gird their loins. Everything from floating parks powered by water power to grid-like skyscrapers with huge, sweeping walls of jade and emerald creepers have been visualised (GRO Architects' very cool floating parks look like a cross between a yellow Lotus Esprit and a chunky Frisbee). Things can only get greener. The High Line's success points in the right direction. The future, it seems, is vertical.

Sport
world cup 2014A history of the third-place play-offs
News
Tommy Ramone performing at The Old Waldorf Nightclub in 1978 in San Francisco, California.
peopleDrummer Tommy was last surviving member of seminal band
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
The Mexico chief finally lets rip as his emotions get the better of him
world cup 2014
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
Life and Style
Several male celebrities have confessed to being on a diet, including, from left to right, Hugh Grant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ryan Reynolds
...and the weight loss industry is rubbing its hands in glee
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Sport
Yaya Touré has defended his posturing over his future at Manchester City
News
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
news
Life and Style
beauty
Sport
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice