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Philly's New Park Is Off the Rails

Updated: Jan 22, 2020

Photo credits: Rail Park Facebook page

In mid-June, I had the pleasure of being one of the first people to experience the incredible first phase of the Rail Park in Philadelphia, PA. There is a movement afoot around the globe to recapture now-derelict infrastructure and transform it into public space: the Rail Park does just this. Intended to be a full three miles of adapted Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company track when completed, Phase 1 is ¼ mile long, running alongside Noble Street and up onto the Viaduct. Late morning, dozens of visitors of all ages streamed in from both ends to explore.

Photo credit: Friends of the Rail Park

Having worked with the High Line Network, and having had the privilege to visit or work with many transformative projects ranging from the Bentway to the Lowline to the Atlanta BeltLine, I notice that each of these projects faces incredible challenges in the physical landscape it inherits, with questions around how to design a space with and for its host communities, and a consistent need for operating financing. The very nature of these projects is that they are not knocking down existing infrastructure to build something new, but rather, that they are using the essence of what exists to see what is possible for a public space.

The Rail Park follows this trend. Designed by Studio Bryan Hanes and Urban Engineers, it celebrates industrial history from the moment you step into the park. A welcoming display portrays industry and the railroads. The space uses steel and wood in its design; both beautiful and industrial, it pays homage to the neighborhood’s surrounding uses, including fabulous steel swings that invite every visitor to relax, play, and observe. As you walk up the first stretch of the Rail Park and take in the incredible views, you can see into the surrounding industrial buzz: countertop manufacturers, power lines, forklifts, and empty factories. You can also see evidence of a changing neighborhood, with new breweries and shops opening nearby. Some articles point to questions around gentrification concerns, and highlight community engagement conversations around green gentrification and how adaptive reuse projects can cause serious concern in areas that surround them. While at the park last Saturday, I heard local conversations about both how incredible the design was and open conversation about what the park may do to change the community.

The Rail Park is raising funds to build out its future phases. Until then, we eagerly await activities and programming in this Phase I, and look forward to updates on community conversations. Congratulations to the Philly Rail Park on this amazing accomplishment!

- Rebecca Karp (June 2018)


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