London is on track to transform a disused stretch of elevated railway in the heart of the city into a “park in the sky”, emulating similar successful schemes in Paris and New York.
Local planning officials have given the first section of the Camden Highline – named after its famous Manhattan predecessor – the formal green light.
It follows a half decade of dogged planning, designing and fundraising by an alliance of residents, businesses, politicians and donors to get the project off the ground.
The reimagined 1.2km viaduct will eventually link bustling Camden with the revamped King’s Cross district, turning a corridor of overgrown foliage – adjacent to still-active rail lines – into a new green space and attraction.
“We’re hoping to build an amazing park in the sky,” said Simon Pitkeathley, who is spearheading the project, as he led locals on a regular street-level tour of the planned walkway.
“(It’s) going to be a pleasant, beautiful environment in which to move between these very vibrant parts of London.”
Great new viewpoint
Local architects vPPR and James Corner Field Operations, the urban design firm behind New York’s acclaimed High Line, drew up the blueprints after beating out competition from dozens of interested companies.
The US raised walkway, built on former track on the west side of Manhattan, has become a major destination since opening in 2009 and underwent a recent extension.
The forerunner to both is the lauded Promenade Plantee in Paris, which was inaugurated in 1993.
James Corner has promised the Camden project will be a “one-of-a-kind elevated park along the viaduct that speaks to the magical symbiosis of nature, culture, arts and community”.
The venture has electrified Camden, a vibrant neighbourhood just north of central London best known for its market and nightlife.
“We love the High Line in New York and (we’re) very excited that the same company is involved in this one,” said resident Charlotte Tansey, checking out the route with her Dalmatian, Ziggy.
“There are so many tourists going through Camden every day, it’d be great for them to have a different viewpoint, just like the one in Manhattan.”
Next to a real train
The scheme will differ from its transatlantic namesake given the disused siding’s proximity to live rail lines, which will be the other side of thick transparent screens.
“They’re going to be quite different beasts, not least because we’re right next to a real train,” said Pitkeathley, noting those involved in the New York endeavour had been “very supportive”.
The Camden team has agreed to a long-term lease for the Victorian-era viaduct from Network Rail, which owns 20,000 miles (32,186km) of track and 30,000 bridges, tunnels and other structures, as well as stations.
The siding on an east-west commuter and freight route has been disused for nearly four decades.
The Highline will incorporate derelict platforms at Camden Road station and a shuttered stairway entrance to it – one of several envisaged entries along the route.
Its designers aim to “celebrate” the wild twinning of nature and ageing infrastructure, leaving bridge structures exposed and adding new planting and railway artefacts.
Set to be filled with new trees, plants and other vegetation, they also expect it will provide green space to tens of thousands of nearby residents.
The entire walkway will be built in phases and estimated to cost at least £35mil (RM186.1mil).
The first section will start in the shadow of Camden market and could open by 2025. The remaining two parts would likely take an additional minimum of two years, if built concurrently.
But organisers first need to find an initial £14mil (RM74.4mil).
The charity formed to deliver the project has already raised and spent around £1mil (RM5.3mil) and hopes to turbocharge further efforts once formal planning permission is granted.
With the support of Camden Council, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and national politicians including main opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer – who represents the area in parliament – Pitkeathley insists the money can be found.
He is targeting a combination of high-net-worth individuals, trusts and foundations, public sector organisations and commercial partners.
Fundraisers have already been held with the likes of sculptor Antony Gormley.
Residents along the route, which encompasses several public housing projects, appear enthusiastic.
But some said the cost-of-living crisis gripping Britain could hinder efforts.
“There is an argument that if you spend millions and millions on building walkways, what else could that be spent on,” conceded doctor Naomi Craft, 58. “But I think it’s exciting.” – AFP