Peter Harnik on the booming interest in linear urban parks

Peter Harnik directs the Trust for Public Land's Center for City Park Excellence. (Andrew Harnik)

Peter Harnik is director of the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, which studies how to make urban parks work better. I spoke with him recently for this week’s Citiscope feature about the growing interest in turning elevated railways, land above freeways, and other strips of space into parks that often get compared to New York’s High Line. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Grace Chua: What are the types of linear parks, and what role do they play in mending divided cities?

Peter Harnik: Overhead railroad corridors are quite different from submerged freeway corridors for a couple of reasons.

Virtually all of the overhead rail corridors are old — typically a hundred years old at least. The High Line, [Philadelphia’s] Reading Viaduct, and others are old facilities that the city has, to one extent or another, grown up around. When first built, they were probably very disruptive, but in the intervening hundred years or more, the city has gotten used to it. It does create a barrier, but it doesn’t rip apart the city’s fabric the way new freeway construction did from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Now, new freeway construction is wider than railroad tracks — it’s more like a gaping wound, and the other is more like a healed wound. When you have a below-grade freeway that you can deck over, you can solve that problem tremendously well — the freeway becomes invisible, it’s quiet, and you pretty much completely solve the problem.

When you have an overhead railroad like the High Line, you’re creating a much more interesting and unusual solution that might work or might not, depending on how it’s done. It’s more like a work of art.

Q: What are some mistakes made by existing projects, or places where they could be improved?

A: Elevated parks are a pretty new development, so there aren’t any really bad examples I’m aware of.

But in Boston, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway replaced part of [the Central Artery, which was moved underground]. When they tore down that highway it did wonders; it opened up a very bleak area. But if the High Line had happened 15 years earlier, I think maybe Boston would have left a portion of the old highway as a memento because of its visual interest.

A highway has two really bad impacts on people — one is the physical structure blocking the sun, the dirtiness and the peeling paint and everything. And the other is the noise — which you don’t think about that much, but the noise from an expressway is very significant. It’s an oppressive, continuous noise. And one of the great things about the High Line, and the Central Artery expressway if it were left standing there after the fact, is it’s completely quiet. People don’t realize how nice it is that the High Line is so quiet.

Q: You work a lot with park systems around the U. S. How much potential is there for such elevated railroad parks around the country? How powerful are they as drivers of rejuvenation?

A: There are no formal studies yet, but I’d bet that there is room in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, as well as other cities that have had railroads and bridges.

Chicago just opened its 606 [the Bloomingdale Trail, developed by the city of Chicago, the city’s park district and the Trust for Public Land]. In St Louis, an old railroad trestle has been purchased by the parks district, but it hasn’t been developed yet. And I wouldn’t be surprised if New York has other opportunities besides the High Line, say in Brooklyn or Queens. In Queens, my organization is working on something called the Queensway [a disused branch of the Long Island Rail Road], which is partially elevated and partially at ground level.

These things don’t necessarily drive redevelopment all by themselves. But if they’re located in a place where redevelopment is likely to happen, they could ratchet it up.


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Grace Chua is an award-winning journalist who covers science and the environment, from national climate change policy to community anti-littering projects.   Full bio

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