Getting off the tram at Castlefield, Deansgate, Manchester’s Roman center, travelers are greeted by an industrial-era spaghetti consisting of trains, canals, bridges and tunnels. Its centerpiece is a majestic Victorian viaduct, once used to haul heavy freight trains in and out of the Great Northern Warehouse.
This landmark, abandoned since 1969, was relaunched as a temporary “sky park” created by the National Trust. The 12-month pilot project, which opened to the public last month, covers half of the Grade II-rated facility. It’s one of many projects inspired by New York’s famous High Line, although at 330 meters the full-length viaduct is less than a sixth the size of the High Line.
The elevated park on the west side of Manhattan, itself inspired by Paris’s Promenade Plantée, is a 2.3km stretch of ruined railroad turned into a new park and tourist attraction, attracting 8 million visitors a year. It sparked a global craze, providing a blueprint for how other post-industrial cities could recycle disused infrastructure. But beyond his successes, there are lessons to be learned from the New York pioneer, which had the unintended consequence of accelerating gentrification by driving up property prices in surrounding areas.
This phenomenon, dubbed the “High Line effect”, has led developers to jump on the winner’s bandwagon and brand all kinds of elevated gardens or walkways built with the latest High Line.
Recently The Tide, an “elevated linear park along the river,” built in 2019 on the Greenwich Peninsula development in south-east London, was critically dismissed as “greenwashing”. And since the start of the pandemic, the creation of new parks in urban areas is even higher on the agenda. So, can the Manchester attempt bring the High Line concept back to its original spirit of reuse?
Designed by Blackpool Tower engineers Heenan & Froude, the Castlefield viaduct, with 3,000 rigs just installed, is impressive from all angles. And there is a thrill in walking on its large deck, 56 feet above the ground.
The £ 1.8 million pilot project was specially designed to showcase different eco-friendly options and encourage feedback, says architect Matt Cartwright, of Twelve Architects. The first “uncontaminated” area is inspired by how nature has recovered the structure, which had not been used since the 1960s. It has a simple path with flower beds planted with native species on each side, while the second zone includes gardens maintained by four local partner organizations. There is a canopy of climbing hops and clematis and an observation gallery that overlooks the remaining structure, which is overgrown with shrubs and wild strawberries.
The current iteration only allows visitors to walk to this midpoint, before walking back and out the way they entered, near a tram stop. Extending the park across the entire viaduct and making it a through route requires steps at the western end.
“It’s not a normal project for us,” says Trust CEO Hilary McGrady. “It is owned by a public body and it is not really in their interest to open it. There is no money for it, so it is difficult in all ways. . . It is also unusual because, for the first time, we have created something, instead of protecting or withholding something. “
The viaduct is a flagship project for the Trust’s Urban Places team, which is looking to move beyond its existing sites to more deprived cities and areas, where green space and heritage are under threat. The pilot is just a teaser, with McGrady’s “grand ambition” that the viaduct becomes an A to B route, a “green-blue corridor” extending from the city center.
“Manchester is pretty devoid of green space,” he says. “It’s really hard to bring green space into an area as densely populated as here, and I think it applies to cities across the country.”
In addition to convincing the Department for Transport, which owns the viaduct, and its manager Highways England to let the project go on, there were other obstacles for the Trust. Although they were once capable of carrying heavy freight trains, these tracks were located on a structure under the bridge deck, with the bridge itself not designed to support the weight.
Cartwright explains that this meant a new platform had to be built on the bridge, which also serves to cover the underlying overgrowth. This might seem counterintuitive for a greening project, but it is a necessity due to the fact that the viaduct’s existing soil is contaminated with petrochemicals. Any definitive intervention would require the treatment of the ground, the lead paint present on the viaduct itself, as well as more in-depth structural interventions.
But for the local community, which has been focusing on the transformation of the structure since the 1990s, the pilot project represents an important step forward. The Castlefield Forum, one of the Trust’s partners, drew up the first plans for a ‘Hanging Gardens’ project in 2012. “I have lived here for 15 years and it has always been a great sadness to see him in a state of managed decline,” says Russell. Eckersley of the forum. “We fantasized about it but we never thought it would happen.”
The recovery of industrial wrecks such as the Castlefield Viaduct can be seen as part of the growing shift from the new building to adaptive reuse. This practice of converting existing structures avoids contributing to climate change through demolition and the release of carbon contained in building materials such as concrete.
Other rails-to-trails projects in the UK include the 1.6km-long Holbeck Viaduct in Leeds, which a local community interest group wants to transform into green space, and another elevated park currently being studied by the Camden Council. in London, designed by High The designer of the James Corner line.
“The High Line showed us that we don’t just have to demolish this old railway and build a building, we can really think about returning it to nature and making it work with the urban fabric,” says Meredith Whitten, a green space researcher and environmental fellow at LSE. . High Line-style projects show, she says, that we can “think more innovatively” about how to green our densifying cities and provide an alternative to traditional Victorian-inspired parks.
Some of the broader challenges, Whitten adds, include how to provide publicly accessible green spaces that are not necessarily paid for with public money and finding a way that city-wide greening projects can serve surrounding communities.
This was one of the main lessons of the New York High Line, according to Asima Jansveld, chief executive of the High Line Network, set up by the organization behind the original park to advise high-line aspirants on issues such as equity.
“We don’t want to say it’s always a bad thing to generate value in the community, but it’s really about who captures the value,” he says.
While there is no way to guarantee a fair outcome, Jansveld says it’s important that the voice of the community remains central. “Who said they wanted it? This is the first big question. “
Castlefield is already well established on the development map and popular with tourists, having undergone a heritage-driven renaissance in the 1980s with the new Museum of Science and Industry and a recreated Roman fort. Today, bars are scattered around the canal basin, as is Lendlease’s Potato Wharf housing estate, which sits right next to the viaduct.
Yet the project comes to the city at a time when heated debate is underway about who benefited from Manchester’s luxury tower boom, so the stakes are high to ensure it’s an asset to the community. McGrady says making sure the community retains ownership of the project is “critical” and wants it to remain free to access, unlike other Trust sites.
While “oasis of peace” is perhaps an oversell for a garden near an active railway line, the Castlefield project shows how a slice of dead space can be returned to the city. As Whitten says: “The viaduct is a way to provide interactions with nature that weren’t there before.”
Check out our latest stories first – follow @FTProperty on Twitter or @ft_houseandhome on Instagram