The Reading Viaduct as public landscape — good for Philadelphia?

    In 2004, plans took shape to transform the desolate Reading Viaduct, abandoned since the last train left its tracks in 1984, into a public landscape. Do you think this is a good idea for Philadelphia? For Chinatown?

    Just north of the Convention Center, an old elevated railroad bed swings through Chinatown and the Loft District before terminating at Fairmount Avenue. The Reading Viaduct is the last vestige of the once-behemoth Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, significant player in Philadelphia’s early industrial prominence, and source of a chunk of its wealth and subsequent philanthropy.

    Abandoned since the last train left its tracks in 1984, the viaduct has in recent years been the source of buzz. In 2004, plans (and opposition to them) took shape to transform the desolate viaduct into a public landscape, similar to the successful High Line conversion in lower Manhattan.

    Much of the controversy centers on funding for the renovation, and where it should originate. The age, mass, and location of the viaduct indicate that demolishing or even maintaining this structure will at some point require a plan with a lot of dollar signs.

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    But before the discussion bogs down over how to pay for it, it’s worth asking whether converting this three-acre causeway of unused, elevated open space into a public park will really benefit the people of Philadelphia.

    In a basic sense the viaduct is already a park, albeit one mainly used by those with a socially unacceptable definition of the word recreation. I recently had the opportunity (not legally sanctioned) to walk amidst the graffiti and trash of the viaduct with a group of botanists and horticulturists who were conducting a plant survey of the species growing in the few inches of topsoil that’s landed on the bed of cinders over the last quarter century.

    As the visitors wove their way through swaying grasses, goldenrod, asters, Eastern Red Cedars, and wild cherry trees, it was striking how less than thirty feet above the street level, the pedestrian experience was completely transformed. Looking down from the long strip of land that nature is reclaiming, it seemed impossible that the streets below are the ones we walk every day. The view was gorgeous, encompassing long sightlines which connect neighborhoods that aren’t visible to one another from the sidewalk. The viaduct doesn’t always follow the street grid, allowing visitors to have the heady experience of walking, almost floating, through the city on a diagonal — without stopping at traffic lights.

    William Penn planned Philadelphia so that its urban fabric would be regularly relieved by parks. With this original goal in mind, the neighborhood around the Viaduct is noticeably lacking in green public land. A little north of Penn’s original grid, it was built during the industrial expansion of the nineteenth century with no thought to the creation of attractive open space for its residents. Today, the neighborhood seems to have missed out on the boost that the rest of Center City has enjoyed in the last two decades. If not the whole answer, an elevated park could be an important component in the revitalization of the area. As an attractive setting for this kind of project, the placement of the Reading Viaduct is ideal.

    The Railroad deserves to be remembered as something more significant than a good place to land on a Monopoly board. And the residents of under-greened neighborhoods like Chinatown North should be able to enjoy a safe and accessible version of what is one of the most remarkable landscapes in our city.

    As for funding, let’s first agree that this project will improve Philadelphia, then cross that, ahem, viaduct when we come to it.

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