London: Taking a High Line?

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Of all the transport modes we have covered on London Reconnections, we have rarely hitherto covered the first principle of movement – walking (in which we include personal mobility assistive devices and rideables). Here we look at the world of ‘High Lines’ and their current status within the capital.

In 1991 London published a green strategy that recommended developing and establishing walking and cycling networks in the city. This slowly developed in the background as many other, higher profile transport schemes were mused, discussed and debated.

Part of the reason for the near-invisibility of such walking plans is that responsibility for the pedestrian environment is spread over government departments, London boroughs, railway stations and private property. As a result, there is no single entity in charge of overseeing, directing or protecting the pedestrian realm. The rules and regulations of pedestrian byways have been codified into byelaws, building codes, highway acts and more. Much like the British ‘constitution’, there is no single act of law, simply a collection of individual statute clauses built up over the centuries.

There has been no overall walking or pedestrian initiative, strategy or agency policy for improving walking in London, just individual initiatives like the National Trail’s ‎Thames Path and individual borough policies. ‎Unfortunately, Thames Path access is being restricted by numerous riverside property owners.

As with train operating companies, this at times leads to a lack of joined up thinking to improve the pedestrian environment. As a result, the pedestrian experience is often haphazard‎ and disjointed, shunted aside for private developments or higher forms of transport and squeezed into whatever leftover space remains.

We are all pedestrians. Human movement ‎brings us to school and work, family and entertainment, and back again. We may use mechanised transport in between, but most of us start and end our journeys on our feet or using personal mobility devices.

London is not the only city that has traditionally struggled to deliver large-scale projects aimed at pedestrians. One of the concepts that has emerged elsewhere with some success, however, is that of the ‘High Line’. A High Line is generally understood to be a route that is traffic free, ideally elevated and not broken up by road or railway crossings. It is a route which is not designed to be a commuter link or an otherwise ‘fast’ route, so there are no opportunities for cycling at speed along it. It is a route which allows people to see a densely populated part of a city in a new way, the novelty and theatre of the route created by maximising the contrast between the mean, traffic-choked city streets below and soaring buildings above and the green oasis of the route itself.

The New York High Line

New York’s High Line is the abandoned elevated railway line in inner New York City that has become a pleasant linear park, major tourist attraction and urban regeneration stimulus in a brick-warehouses-and-cyclists part of Manhattan. Gliding peacefully above the busy traffic, moving through buildings and alongside wild flowers, the experience is rather surreal and, on experiencing it, it’s easy to see why it’s been such a big hit.

New York High Line, before the crowds arrive

Since the first segment opened in 2009, it has generated much civic interest and stimulated the adjoining neighbourhoods’ economies. Unsurprisingly, a number of other cities have taken notice and sprouted similar plans for their own High Lines. It is a win-win in most cases – converting a derelict eyesore into a community amenity and a draw for locals and tourists alike. Several similar projects have opened in Chicago (The 606), Seoul (Seoul Station Park), Rotterdam (Luchtsingel), and more are under construction in Washington DC (11th Street Bridge Park on a disused highway bridge), San Francisco (Transbay Transit Centre Park) and Philadelphia (Rail Park).

Others are in fundraising mode – Brooklyn (The Lowline, in an unused underground tram terminal), Miami (The Underline, under the elevated Metrorail structure) and Hollywood (covering part of a freeway), whilst more are planned for Sydney, Rome, Paris and yes, Seoul again, which has demolished 15 elevated highways since 2002.

A year ago, the New York High Line Trust informally started the High Line Network in 2017 as a forum for cities around the world to share experiences on implementing similar parks, as well as to help each other mitigate some of the negative effects such as gentrification. The 19 North American projects that comprise this network have now gone public to share infrastructural reuse information, news and success stories on their network.thehighline.org website.

An honorary mention should also be made of Paris’s Promenade Plantée, or the Coulée verte René-Dumont to give it its official name, which shares many similarities with the High Line and indeed substantially predates it, having been opened in 1993. The western half is raised above the streets, although this being Paris, the feel is very different to New York’s -with views across tree-lined boulevards and classical Parisian architecture, before descending into a large and rather bleak looking municipal housing estate and thereon into tunnels.

High lines in London

London has been looking for its own High Line for a few years now. One problem with creating a High Line in London, though, is that there never were many abandoned elevated railways in the city. The capital largely escaped the rail network rationalisation of the 1960s when many rural and other little-used lines across the country were closed. After these cuts, laws were changed to make the closing of railway lines much harder to achieve so, even when railway usage reached its nadir in the 1980s, few additional lines were closed. Since then, ridership has soared, particularly in and around London, and there is virtually no prospect of any existing lines being closed in the foreseeable future. Indeed the winning entry in the 2012 London High Line competition was an underground mushroom garden walk in disused Mail Rail tunnels. Not really a crowd puller or particularly ‘high’.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t (or haven’t been) plenty of realistic options. Some of these already exist, some had a chance of being a genuine High Line until they were overtaken by events, whilst others still have potential. There is one, in particular, which falls into the latter category.

Broad Street Approach

A short abandoned, elevated link of the old North London Railway branch to Broad Street station, the remainder of which has become the East London Line Extension, remains near the Broadgate Tower/Estate (now built across where the former Broad Street station was), located at the turn across Shoreditch. It is currently blocked by Village Underground, a popular music and arts venue which notably and ironically has some old Jubilee line carriages on its roof as workspaces. The link, closed to the public, is however very short, barely 100m long. Indeed, even this fragment has been very recently further reduced, part-demolished by works associated with the Principal Place residential skyscraper development, beside the former Light Bar, which was itself saved.

Village Underground on the Broad Street Approach

Nonetheless the public can still experience the High Line feel by taking the East London Overground line between Dalston Junction and Shoreditch High Street – passing by the second floors and roofs of old industrial buildings and loft apartments, with excellent and unexpected views across to central London. The new stations, particularly Hoxton, have developed a High Line style coffees-amongst-brickwork feel to them. It’s not quite the same but it’s probably, in terms of area and feel, the closest that London has right now. Another elevated Overground section, from Hackney Downs to Bethnal Green, has the same post-industrial chic.

Broad Street Approach which now forms a chord between Liverpool Street Station and the East London Line Extension. Diamond Geezer

Current status: The small section remains derelict and inaccessible and there appears to be little interest in opening it.

The Newham Greenway

The Greenway is an existing High Line in East London. It does not follow the route of an abandoned railway line, rather it runs 7km along the top of the Northern Outflow Sewer. This is one of London’s huge Victorian sewer pipes constructed by Bazelgette and the occasional vents in the path’s tarmac provides passers-by with a reminder of what is below. As a result the Greenway, aided by the path’s signage made from recycled sewer pipe, was initially nicknamed the ‘Sewerbank’.

The route heads east from Hackney Wick, which certainly ticks the High Line boxes of a post-industrial, loft-living neighbourhood, before slicing through the still-evolving Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The remainder of the route, however, is through large industrial sites and a low-density residential area – Plaistow. The grand Victorian Abbey Mill sewage pumping station is a highlight towards the western end of the path.

The first part of the Greenway received a substantial upgrade just before the Olympics, as it provided two potential entry points into the Olympic Park during the Games (although they were little used in the end). A section had to be blocked during the games though, as the athletes’ route between the warm-up track and the main Olympic Stadium passed across it. The Park’s improvement works were designed with the legacy in mind and the resulting path is of a good quality, well-lit and with good views to the Olympic Park structures and the various residential skyscrapers going up along Stratford High Street. Cyclists use it as a commuting link as the path is wide and visibility good.

The Newham Greenway. Oliver O’Brien

The route will be further improved when the Crossrail works finish later in 2018 and a Greenway section near Stratford, which has been closed since 2007, finally reopens. If walking along this first part, stop off at the “View Tube“, a coffee shop made out of lime-green shipping containers, perched at the point where the Greenway route descends to cross under a railway line. It is an excellent vantage point. There may be further buildings appearing in the future – such as the University College London East campus and other similar projects – which mean that this section might eventually form more of a High Line feel, but it will never be an oasis in a dense inner-city, simply because it is too far out from central London.

Millwall Viaduct

Before the DLR came along in the 1980s, the abandoned Millwall Extension of the London & Blackwall Railway ran through the Isle of Dogs and ended on a viaduct just south of the current Island Gardens station, at a terminus called North Greenwich – several miles from the Tube station with that name. Almost the whole route, including the viaduct, was then reused when the DLR was built, with the new Island Gardens station built just north of the old one. When the DLR was extended under the River Thames to Greenwich, the route needed to drop at a greater gradient than even the DLR could manage so that it could tunnel under the Thames, therefore this short section at the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs was abandoned for a second time. The viaduct remains to this day, running across Millwall Park, starting shortly after Mudchute Station and ending shortly before the old Island Gardens station.

Millwall Viaduct and parallel path underneath. SquareWheels.org

On paper, it would make a lovely High Line if it weren’t for being:

  • a little too short
  • above or beside a public footpath already for its whole length
  • in a park rather than crossing over roads and around or through buildings, and
  • quite a long way from inner city London.

Still, it’s conversion would likely be an attractive prospect to many, especially those wishing to follow a route not possible since the original Island Gardens terminus station (née North Greenwich) re-closed in the 1990s. Aerial imagery suggests the viaduct path is currently just strip of grass and shrubbery. For the foreseeable future, it seems likely to remain a derelict railway section with no public access.

Peckham Coal Line

Peckham Coal Line is the centre green strip. Peckham Coal Line

The Peckham Coal Line is a potential High Line for south London. It is also one with a higher profile than most of the others in this feature, following a recent crowd-funding campaign to fund a full feasibility study and expressions of interest from Southwark Council, former Mayor Boris Johnson and others.

Proponents’ ground level sketch. Peckham Coal Line

The route proposes taking over an unused set of sidings beside the Overground between Rye Lane (near Peckham Rye station) and Queen’s Road Peckham station. This would be turned it into a linear park, separated from the railway by a fence, incorporating a gradual descent down to road level at its eastern end through an existing small park beside the railway. The total length would be a kilometre. Peckham Rye station itself is due to undergo a major redevelopment, opening out the historic Victorian station building and courtyard, and a nearby High Line would be likely to greatly add to the rejuvenation of the area.

Aerial view. Peckham Coal Line

Peckham is reasonably far out from central London, but has the right ‘inner-city’ urban-renewal feel that could mean such a venture ends up being successful. The people behind the campaign held an open day in 2015 where part of the route was test-walked. Looking at the map (dangerous in and of itself) suggests that much of the route will be a tight squeeze between the viaduct edge and operational railway.

The website for the project is impressive and has some nice videos and visuals of what it looks like now and what it might look like in the future. The previous Mayor of London had backed the feasibility study but did not announce any funding. Architect and landscape designer Adams & Sutherland was appointed in April 2016 to create the feasibility study for this elevated walkway which would lead to a series of community engagement and participation events to test the designs. Peckham Coal Line advocates have been planning a launch of the crowdfunded feasibility study. This was due to be published last year but required greater volunteer effort than had been anticipated. It is now anticipated to come out later in 2018.

Parkland Walk, North London

The Parkland Walk is possibly the closest thing that London has to a High Line right now. It is a section of the never-opened Northern Heights extension of the Northern line which itself was originally part of the Edgware, Highgate and London Railway. It even includes former platforms at one point. It has some short elevated sections and it already exists as a walking and cycling route.

Planned Northern Heights extension on post war map

However, the character of the area is very different. The line runs through a solidly residential, leafy (and hilly) part of north London. This connects Finsbury Park to Highgate with a branch of the route running from Queen’s Wood, near Highgate, to Alexandra Palace which provides some spectacular views southward to central London. The feel is more of a woodland walk, with tall mature trees lessening the sense of threading through the city and observing it and making the route feel rather enclosed and claustrophobic in places. It’s a popular route with dog walkers or people cycling west from Finsbury Park – although the route is generally not surfaced and can turn to mud in bad weather.

Parkland Walk. Oliver O’Brien

More could be made of it, certainly. However, the local patronage probably rather like it as it is and would never allow the trees to be cut down to improve the view. The route is a lost link, a slightly neglected but useful enough rail trail through some deliberately overgrown flora, rather than a place to view the city from. The route is not secure or lit and is open at night, so has suffered from some anti-social problems.

Parkland Walk map. OpenStreetMap contributors

Bishopsgate Goods Yard

This is a potential High Line that might well happen, but in a radically different form to the current situation. Largely demolished, the raised Bishopsgate Goods Yard area is about to see major changes.

Sitting just south of the new Shoreditch High Street Overground station was once Bishopsgate Station, converted to a goods yard in 1875. After a huge fire in 1964 it was abandoned. The remains of the building were demolished in 2003 but a raised area remains, part of which is the Braithwaite Viaduct, a relatively linear section which is largely unseen. The adjoining Shoreditch High Street station is also elevated and so the viaduct would provide good views of the area, except that it is enclosed in concrete in anticipation of major building construction over and alongside it.

Bishopsgate Goods Yard (outlined). More Light More Power

It would make a nice, if short, High Line running between Brick Lane and the Great Eastern Street/Bishopsgate junction, with great views over to the City, Spitalfields and Hoxton/Shoreditch. The section is just 260m long, not much longer than the station alongside it, but conversion has been suggested. Indeed, the BBC have made a short video segment about it.

Bishopsgate Goods Yard barren path. The Goodsyard

A small part of the site – specifically the arches forming the remainder of the Braithwaite Viaduct – are likely to be preserved and remodelled (rather than being demolished) as part of a huge new mixed use development, The Goodsyard, that is currently mired in the planning process.

Photos of the potential design suggest a high level walking route above the arches connecting the various new buildings, as well as Brick Lane with Bishopsgate, along with lower level paths, including one in the arches themselves. A local campaign against the project, concerned mainly with overshadowing of the existing Shoreditch area, has already led to some design changes. Existing railway tunnels (Central line and Great Eastern) underneath the site mean that piling locations are limited however, and so elevated walkways (which generally wouldn’t require piling) are likely to remain part of the final design. It won’t be a quiet path snaking through an old industrial area, rather a route connecting various new blocks. It will, however, be raised and it’s in an appropriately gritty area for a High Line, as anyone who’s crossed the Three Colts Bridge over the Hertford Union Canal in Tower Hamlets will know. Bishopsgate Goods Yard has been off limits to the public for about 50 years.

Limehouse Curve

Limehouse Curve lies just east of Limehouse station in Tower Hamlets, East London. It was formerly a railway chord for the London and Blackwall Railway that linked Stratford/West Ham and the Isle of Dogs/Blackwall until the 1960s. These days only a short 120m long brick viaduct section remains, about half of the curve itself, running from the DLR viaduct at the eastern edge of Limehouse Basin and crossing Commercial Road, beyond which a line of apartments stands. The link is short but it is raised and through an appropriately gritty part of the post-industrial inner-city.

The curve is located in a local conservation area that includes interesting industrial infrastructure such as the Limehouse Accumulator Tower and the Limehouse Station viaduct. In terms of pedestrian connections, the Limehouse Curve is also near the Jubilee Greenway and Thames Path London Walks (more on these later). There are two bridges that are solely part of the disused route plus a third which is shared with the existing DLR route, beside which a wooden decking and descent down to street level could be assembled. Step-free access, likely a prerequisite for any funded project, would be very tricky at this end, however.

Limehouse Curve collage. What If

There was a tentative project a few years ago to create connections at either end. Nothing came of it.The route remains, though, and includes a potentially useful bridge across a busy road. Perhaps one day it will live again.

Limehouse Curve model. What If

Barbican Highwalks

The Barbican is a huge 1950s-60s housing development in the ‘raw concrete’ Brutalist style which divides opinion. The concept of the Barbican was to have the pedestrian level on two ‘podiums’ 4-6 metres above the car/street level, entirely separated from traffic. Connections between the podiums and the street level, and between different parts of the estate, are via ‘Highwalks’. These walkways in the sky are in fact legally considered to be public streets and they are a pleasant way to pass through this part of the City without encountering traffic.

Barbican Highwalks. Oliver O’Brien

The Highwalks are shown as orange lines on the estate maps scattered throughout the site. Most of the corresponding orange lines painted on the ground still exist to help visitors, often unfamiliar with the complex three dimensional nature of the walking routes in the area, find their way to the Barbican Art Centre.

One section of the Highwalks near the Barbican that has recently disappeared is a triangle of land near London Wall that used to connect the predominately residential Barbican to the Guildhall. This has recently been demolished for the new London Wall Place complex of office towers. Thankfully, the raised section has reopened in early 2018, following office building development works beside London Wall. The reopened sections has been completely reimagined in steel and wood, with a curved section giving a much greater view of some historical remains. The reopened link passes through the new buildings and restores the connection between London Wall, the Barbican network of Highwalks and podiums, the Guildhall and the rest of the City. The thought these days is to improve the pedestrian realm at street level, as ultimately that’s where people want to be, but it’s good to see that in this case the ‘first floor’ pedestrian level has a second life as a route from which to observe the buzz of the city below.

City of London Pedways

Complementary to the Highwalks of the Barbican, elevated ‘Pedways’ were intended in fact to spread throughout the Square Mile of the City, of which the Barbican formed the northern edge. For several years in the 1950s and early 1960s, new offices were required to have an entrance and lobby on the first floor, as well as on the ground floor as normal. In time, a network of Pedway bridges would connect the offices to each other and provide a complete alternative network of pedestrian routes around the City. Such 1950s utopian ideals never came to pass.

The history of pedways will be the subject of a forthcoming LR article, so we will explore them in detail in future. For now, it is worth highlighting that the still extant Pedway network forms a north-south route from London Wall to the Thames, including a long road-level section linking the two main elevated sections. The network itself is also gradually disappearing, as the City and its buildings are redeveloped with no apparent interest in rebuilding or restoring Pedway segments or connections.

City Pedway. Daniel Wright

Borough Market Bridge

This new railway bridge was lifted into place a few years ago and now forms the dedicated tracks between London Bridge and Charing Cross, with the old bridge going to just Blackfriars rather than to both. For its first few years, it was empty and was used for storage and the possibility of a temporary High Line perhaps existed, allowing people to walk straight from the concourse in front of London Bridge station to Borough Market, without having to cross Borough High Street. This opportunity has now passed. There was also potential for using the railway chord that curves westwards from Cannon Street to Charing Cross, as no scheduled train needs to use this curve. However, there is still a single track here which is used as a siding after the morning rush hour, so although there is enough room for a path alongside, it’s (even) less likely that this would ever become a High Line for the public on safety grounds.

Borough Market Bridge. Google

Camden Highline

This final London High Line idea is one which seems to tick all the boxes. It runs through post-industrial inner-city London, it’s elevated, it’s an old railway route and the land is undeveloped. The potential route runs between Camden Gardens Park (just off Kentish Town Road), around the back of Camden Road station alongside the Overground’s North London Line, across a number of intact but unused railway bridges and ends at an existing footbridge across the Midland Mainline, just past Camley Street. In all, a distance of around 800m, with a possible Phase 2 future extension across to the huge, evolving development area behind King’s Cross station.

Aerial view of the line. Camden Town Unlimited

The ‘Highline’ could build a staircase at its western end in Camden Gardens, potentially the most expensive new structure of the project. The western end could alternatively have step-free access from Camden Road station, so a lift may not be needed in Camden Gardens after all.

The route would then move away from the current railway line, using the disused (and now heavily overgrown) section behind Camden Road station – another possible access point and one that could provide a step-free entrance using the existing lift on the eastbound platform (ticket barrier location notwithstanding).

The route moves back towards the current rail line, crossing Camden Road on a disused but intact bridge. This is the bridge which currently has “Camden Road” painted on its side prominently by Network Rail, visible when travelling down the hill. Walking underneath the bridge reveals its empty and expansive nature. The route continues along the former double-track between Camden Road and Caledonian Road & Barnsbury stations, walled off safely but with plenty of space available for the path itself. Other road bridges follow, one of which has potential for a spiral staircase connecting down to a large paved area below it.

The east end of the route at Camley Street narrows but connects to a new railway bridge, from which ramps and stairs provide a choice of access. There is actually still space on the new bridge here for a narrow walkway, and a ramp on the other side means no need for a new access point. As the land in front is also currently empty, it could quite easily accommodate a new route down, potentially as part of a wider development of the plot. The road south leads to the Regent’s Canal and the back of St Pancras International station.

A ‘Phase 2’ extension of equal length could connect the eastern end of the Camden Highline southwards to the huge mixed-use King’s Cross Central redevelopment and Central St Martin’s College behind King’s Cross station. Such a route would require crossing over (or under) the existing North London Line and various other lines emerging from St Pancras, with at least one footbridge needed – as such it would be an expensive exercise. Having a complete link running all the way between Camden Town and the King’s Cross – St Pancras complex, parallel to Regent’s Canal to the south, seems like an obvious route between two major north London walking destinations.

The full Camden Highline would provide pedestrians with a pleasant 10-minute, car-free garden walk linking the expanding King’s Cross – St Pancras transport hub and educational district with Camden Town, popular with tourists for its markets and music events. Sound barriers 2m high and covered with plants could mask the railway sounds, although arguably a close-up view of the slow-speed but intensive railway could be part of the attraction – a similar concept is being mooted as part of the Museum of London’s move to Smithfield, with a subterranean gallery providing a view of the Thameslink tunnels.

It now looks like this project could be happening as Camden Town Unlimited, the business improvement group for the area, are proposing it as a serious plan. Design and architecture firms Studio Weave and Architecture 00 won the design competition and collaborated to create the initial visualisations to show off the Highline. A 3D wooden model of the route and the surrounding topology has been produced, which gives a good sense of the scope and extent of the project.

Camden Highline Road Bridge Rendering. Camden Town Unlimited

The viability of the project depends on Network Rail long-leasing its land, support from Camden Council and the Greater London Authority, a fundraising effort to build the actual trail and connections to it, and likely the creation of a local trust dedicated to maintaining such a route on a largely voluntary basis once it opened, as is the case with the New York High Line. There have been positive noises from all these parties so far, but the challenge is just beginning. In short, it won’t be easy, but it is certainly very possible.

Right now though it remains a derelict railway section with no public access. Camden Town Unlimited have been working with Network Rail since early 2016 on the technical feasibility of using the rail infrastructure and have a publicity campaign underway. Since then, a new link near the east end, not directly related but potentially beneficial, was recently completed, as King’s Cross development owners Argent have built a brand new footbridge across Regent’s Canal, connecting directly to Camley Street and what will be known as Gasholder Gardens. The footbridge opened in July following landscaping and installation of the access ramps, providing step-free access. Camden Highline advocates successfully crowdfunded a feasibility study, which was duly commissioned and completed at the end of 2017, the results of which were outlined in early 2018. The Camden Highline website shows interesting views of the route, from on and below the alignment.

Continuing the story

This map shows the 11 London High Lines drawn on Google Maps. Improved pedestrian environments and car free zones have not always been a high priority for London’s infrastructure planners, but TfL do have a practical London Walking section which links to maps of central London Tube and rail station-to-station walking times, as well as the map of Tube transfers that are quicker on foot. This page also links to the seven formal paths in and around London, including the Thames Path and the London Outer Orbital Path (LOOP), which form the Walk London Network, one of the largest walking networks of any city in the world. These routes were specifically designed to be easily accessible by public transport.

For now, High Lines remain very much a paper entity in London, although what the future will bring remains to be seen. Regardless, globally High Lines have put public focus on pleasurable walking environments in the urban fabric, and those opened to date demonstrate how they stimulate discussion, activity and commerce. Arguably,the things that cities do best.

This article is an updated version of a series of individual posts published by Oliver O’Brien, urbanist and researcher at University College London (UCL), on his Urban/Rural blog. He also runs Mapping London. His original Camden High line proposal in December 2015 was the inspiration for Camden Town Unlimited’s current Highline campaign.

Written by Oliver O'Brien