The Viaduct may have been abandoned in downtown Philadelphia, but it wasn’t forgotten. Overtaking the wooden ties and metal rails of the once-mighty Reading Railroad are native grasses, fledgling trees, and flowering weeds, which rooted in the rock ballast after train services ceased in 1984. During the 1990s, this lopsided, wishbone-shaped section of passenger and freight—which has various alternate names—became a favorite trespass for Philadelphians. Artists, photographers, landscape designers, and urban adventurers alike celebrated this slice of rusting, graffiti-covered infrastructure overcome by hardy greenery.
Previous Use Railroad viaduct
Status In planning, expected opening 2016
Length 0.25 miles (Phase 1), 3 miles (total)
Owner/Advocate Friends of the Rail Park
Architect Studio Bryan Hanes
It didn’t take long for some of them to start talking about preserving the old byway. The late garden designer Paul VanMeter was one, leading tours of “Philly’s Secret Urban Jungle” and founding VIADUCTgreene in 2010. The group rebranded as Friends of the Rail Park, then merged in late 2013 with another dedicated, artist-led preservation effort: the Reading Viaduct Project. “They understood that this derelict structure was actually an asset to the city, rather than a liability,” says Leah Murphy, an urban designer and president of Friends of the Rail Park today.
Hopes for the park are larger than the quarter-mile-long Phase 1, which breaks ground within the year; there are actually three miles of potential linear parkland available. Interconnected and highly dynamic, the east Ninth Street Branch and west City Branch shift from soaring elevations to un-ceilinged valleys 30 feet below street level, offering diverse views of historic Philadelphia architecture and coming parallel with some of the city’s greatest cultural attractions, including the Barnes Foundation, Rodin Museum, and Philadelphia Museum of Art. The catch? Three different sections of rail belong to three different owners. While the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), owner of the Phase 1 section, has given its piece over to the parkland vision, the others haven’t yet cooperated.
Rather than wait, the park’s longtime advocates hope that completing even this small section, designed by Studio Bryan Hanes, will illustrate the project’s potential and leverage political support for the rest. Studio Bryan Hanes’s design for the SEPTA spur plays off the Viaduct’s industrial history and enticingly illicit vibe of the 1990s. North of Phase 1, artists once guerilla-installed swings so people could soar from the catenary supports. “They’re really cool,” Murphy says with a laugh. So, Studio Bryan Hanes followed suit by creating public swings amid the park’s grassy swells, pedestrian pathways, and outdoor learning spaces for the nearby community college and primary schools to use.
To achieve a lower cost-per-square-foot and a passive landscaping strategy, the design highlights the wild urban flora that sprouted during two decades of neglect, as opposed to removing it. “It’s not going to be this formal, decorative approach to planting,” Murphy says. “It’s already a garden up there. There’s thistle, plantain, mullion, lamb’s ear—it’s beautiful.”
Like all those galvanizing efforts to create linear parks in the United States and beyond, New York’s High Line looms large as a success story. But for Philadelphians, the Rail Park is truly a homegrown project. “Over and over again people have said, ‘The High Line is not what we want,’” Murphy says. “The design has to be gritty and wild and spontaneous, not polished and slick. Our project has to be Philly.”
Click through the other four linear parks below.