To revive our towns and cities we need more transport infrastructure and fewer High Lines, says Rory Olcayto
Here’s an idea for mayors all over the world: if you discover an abandoned railway in the centre of your city, whose transport infrastructure is already straining, don’t transform it into an urban strip farm or High Line-style hipster park. No, no no - try this instead: revive its fortunes by rebuilding … a railway.
But this really is the situation facing Paris and its mayor, Anne Hidalgo. She wants to regenerate the Petite Ceinture (‘little belt’), an abandoned railway built more than 150 years ago in the city centre, into a cultural hub with cinemas and aquariums.
You can understand why: the land is central and worth a bomb. Furthermore, creative culture hubs, leisure quarters, places with smoothie cafés, pop-up burger bars and fixie bike accessory shops are lauded as the route to magicking dereliction into gold.
And then, of course, there is the High Line.
In recent years The High Line has become the template for city makers looking to turn failing post-industrial quarters into sparkling leisure and cultural hotspots. It has been massively successful, drawing 5 million visitors a year to the Meatpacking District of New York. And, less than a fortnight ago, the third and final segment - dubbed the Rail Yards phase - opened to the public following a $35 million overhaul.
Yet the most important lesson to learn from the High Line is that it’s not a sustainable template. When I visited in 2012, I was bowled over by the sheer excitement this project brings to how we experience the city. It’s comic book stuff: the elevated views, the close-up views of rooftop water tanks, the squeezing-between-buildings thrill you get as you wander along the boardwalk-style promenade - it’s all very Batman (or Daredevil, if Marvel’s more your bag).
But I felt sad, too, when I thought what this place used to be: a busy freight service, employing hundreds of people in transport, manufacturing, retail and any number of other trades linked to freight. If New York continues down this route, so that all of its industrial infrastructure is refashioned as a cultural draw, what kind of city will be left to live in - or even visit?
A mixed use of activities makes a place. And by mixed use I don’t mean housing with a Costa coffee unit on the ground floor. If everything we build in our cities now is either speculative residences (for overseas investment) alongside cultural quarters and leisure complexes, the idea of place begins to dilute.
Yet many architects seemed hooked on culture as the only way to make a place, perhaps not realising such an approach actually stifles creativity in the places it’s meant to invigorate. Cultural regeneration, perversely, relocates real creativity well away from the district being transformed. New York’s Meatpacking District is a case in point: no one would argue today that it serves as the city’s ideas factory.
Meanwhile, in Paris, L’Association Sauvegarde Petite Ceinture has the best idea for the city’s derelict railway. It is campaigning to keep the track as one line so it can be revived as a public transport route to relieve the city’s overburdened metro system, stating on its website: ‘Our association considers that urban ecology doesn’t limit itself to planting trees, but must consider a broader approach to the city’s functions.’
This is so obvious it’s hard to argue with: sustainable place-making doesn’t mean trees, pop-ups and salted caramel ice-cream parlours. It means infrastructure and industry - and fewer High Lines. Not very sexy, it’s true. But then urban design, or town planning as it used to be called, isn’t meant to be.