Projects of the People - Determined Locals Behind Elevated Rail-Trail in Philly

Posted 07/17/13 by Jake Lynch in Building Trails

Photo © Reading Viaduct Project's facebook page

The effort of local residents to make good use of the derelict Reading Viaduct through the heart of downtown Philadelphia "is one such manifestation of the new urban. It is as much about celebrating and unearthing the great industrial archaeology that built Philadelphia as it is about building new paradigms of public spaces for the new millennium."  

This is an elegant way of saying that converting disused rail lines into active public places is a great idea. Thanks to creative and high profile projects like the High Line in New York and Chicago's Bloomingdale Trail, such designs have become hot topics for cutting edge urban architects and planners. It is a concept that has spurred the rail-trail movement for some three decades now.

What I love about the effort to repurpose the disused sectionof Philadelphia and Reading Railway along the Reading Viaduct is the same thing that distinguishes most successful rail-trail projects: it was born of, and driven by, the people that live there.

In the fall of 2003, John Struble and Sarah McEneaney attended a presentation in Philadelphia by Joshua David, cofounder of Friends of the High Line (and RTC Rail-Trail Champion). Inspired by the grassroots effort behind the High Line, Struble and McEneaney formed a nonprofit group dedicated to the preservation and adaptive reuse of the Reading Viaduct. Ten years later, they are still at it.

The passage of a decade may seem like it's becoming a cold case. But in the world of rail-trail development ten years is but the blink of an eye. These things take time, to build a groundswell of support, to convince lawmakers and funders and neighbors, for the experiences of other communities to make everyone see that the impossible is possible.

Pretty much every great rail-trail in America went through a similar gestation period. Next time you're enjoying your local rail-trail, have a good look at the ground beneath your feet - chances are there is an epic backstory of perseverance, negotiation and some more perseverance behind that tranquil façade. These backstories must always be recognized and appreciated if we are to pay due credit to the volunteers and committed locals that built the trails we now use and love and sometimes take for granted.

The other day I was contacted by a guy from Philly who asked "is there anything happening with those tracks downtown - are they going to make a rail-trail?" The answer, of course, is that's largely up to you. I pointed him in the direction of the people at the Reading Viaduct Project and offered this advice: "get involved." It's advice I offer anyone pondering an old, disused rail line in their community and wondering why someone hasn't made something of it. The rail-trail movement is built on local champions who realized that "someone" was them.

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