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Possibilities in abandoned rail lines

Innovation and creativity are two very important elements when it comes to the creation of healthy, sustainable, and overall enjoyable cities. When presented with challenges, we need to be able to see opportunities and create positive change in order to make the most of the spaces we occupy.

As technology improves and cities evolve, many cities are left with unoccupied buildings, vacant plots of land, as well as aging and abandoned infrastructure. For example, many railway lines become abandoned over time, leaving unused tracks running through cities and taking up space. In the United States, and elsewhere around the globe, tens of thousands of kilometers of railroad were abandoned between the years 1965 and 2005.

Railway lines are abandoned for a number of reasons. One of the most common reasons is due to lack of use and poor profits due to competing methods of transportation. Whereas trains used to be the dominant method of transportation in Canada and the United States, contributing significantly to the colonial settlement, the automobile boom began in the 1920s, and has been going strong ever since - resulting in the abandonment of many rail lines.

So, instead of letting abandoned rail lines run through cities and create dead space, smart cities and towns are taking this opportunity to breathe some life back into their communities. Cities around the world have been doing this by turning their abandoned rail lines into public parks and greenspaces.

The Value of Greenspaces

Why should we consider greenspaces when renovating old railway lines?

As urbanization continues to expand, there becomes less and less space available for parks and greenspaces, which are valued aspects of our urban green infrastructure. And no one wants to live in a city devoid of nature! This is why we need to take every opportunity available to develop more greenspaces and reap the benefits they provide!

For one, greenspaces are good for the environment! Trees and other plants are able to remove CO2 from the environment, produce oxygen, filter stormwater runoff, reduce temperatures, and reduce air pollution. But the benefits of trees goes beyond just carbon storage.

Trees are also good for the health and wellbeing of people. Parks and greenspaces encourage people to be physically and socially active by providing an attractive space for people to meet, walk, bicycle, and engage in sports.

And of course, green spaces have been shown to have mental wellbeing benefits as well. Being immersed in nature can reduce stress, reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, and overall increase one’s quality of life. Heck, people even take part in Forest Therapy to gain the physical and mental benefits of time in nature!

Taking Inspiration from New York City

New York City’s iconic High Line has been a source of inspiration for other cities around the world when it comes to the repurposing and redesign of old rail lines. The High Line is a former abandoned freight-rail line which was made into a public park in 2009.

In the 1930s, the West Side Elevated Line transported millions of tons of meat, dairy, and other produce to lower Manhattan. By the 1960s to 80s, train use dwindled due to the increase in trucking. As a result, the High Line was destined for demolition.

However, some creative residents saw potential in what was deemed an ugly eyesore by many. Joshua David and Robert Hammond, inspired by the wild plants that had taken over the High Line, created a non-profit conservancy to advocate for the preservation of the High Line and its reuse as a public park.

Today, the High Line is a 1.45-mile-long greenway which contains over five hundred species of plants and trees, creating a welcoming and aesthetically pleasing public space for residents and tourists to enjoy. As visitors walk along the High Line, they pass through several distinct garden zones such as a woodland, grassland, and wetland.

In addition to the wonderful gardens that line the High Line, public art is another important feature of this greenspace. High Line Art’s mission is to expand the role of contemporary art in public spaces by commissioning and producing world-class art projects that are featured on and around the High Line.

What once was an abandoned piece of infrastructure is now a favoured pedestrian walkway and public greenspace that attracts millions of visitors every year.

Rail to Trail Conversions Around the World

Similar projects as New York’s High Line exist or are being created in many cities around the world.

For example, the 606, located in Chicago, Illinois, is a 2.7-mile-long rail line that runs through the centre of Chicago and has been converted into a beautiful green space for the public. This space features a trail for runners and a pedestrian path which encourages residents to partake in active transportation when getting from place to place. This greenspace also includes a public event space where community members can gather together for fun activities like yoga in the park.

Converted train tracks can also be used to join neighbourhoods together, as seen with Jerusalem’s Train Track Park. This linear park links seven different Arab and Israeli neighbourhoods that used to be disconnected, increasing a sense of community while providing residents with an opportunity to get physically active and enjoy nature.

There are plenty of opportunities for rail to trail conversions, and more and more cities are catching on to this innovative idea. Perhaps we will be seeing this technique used for underused stretches of highways and overpasses in the future as we transition away from automobiles...who knows!

As always, let’s aim to reuse and recycle what we already have in order to make our cities and towns as enjoyable and sustainable as possible! Is there an abandoned rail line in your community? Get vocal with your local Council about what you would like to see developed in that space. You might just be creating a new local trail. The Rails to Trails Conservancy has plenty of resources to help you get started!

And, I want to hear about your community efforts! Share your wins with me and the rest of the Flourishing community.

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