Dreaming in Green: Reimagining Abandoned Railways

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Dreaming in Green by Pauline Ang was first published in the November 2011 issue of Singapore Architect (Issue 265). Below is an extract of the original article.

Amidst spirited public debate about the future of the rail corridor, an oft-cited precedent for the successful conversion of a disused railway line to an immensely popular urban park is the High Line in New York City. Running along the west side of lower Manhattan, the elevated park extends some 20 blocks, starting from the Meatpacking District through Chelsea to 30th Street, and terminating at the West Side Rail Yards just south of I. M. Pei’s Javits Convention Centre.

Phase 2 of the High Line, which consists of the stretch between 20th Street to 30th Street, recently opened in June 2011, two years after the opening of the first phase. A recent visit on a glorious summer’s day reveals a landscape that is dotted with sprays of colour – loose clumps of pretty wildflowers amid tall, swaying grasses and overgrown bushes that look like they have sprung from seeds brought by the birds and the wind, which of course, is exactly as Dutch horticulturist Piet Oudolf has intended. As you read this, the fiery explosions of autumn reds, yellows and browns will have subsided in preparation for the winter, where a crisp, monochromatic landscape, defined by the stark, snow-covered outlines of woody plants and dry grasses, quietly awaits. Oudolf’s seasonal orchestrations celebrate the natural growth cycles of birth, life, death and decay in their full, unadorned glory, continuing a long-established life rhythm that has existed on the abandoned railway tracks for decades.

The urban landscape asserts itself more strongly in Phase 2, with buildings pressing right up against the park, so that you can almost reach out and touch them. And these buildings seem to be designed to be viewed up close, with their subtly patterned skins and irresistibly tactile surfaces. Grimy ex-industrial buildings and glamorous luxury condominiums stand cheek by jowl, giving rise to unexpected juxtapositions and layered readings that are all the more delightful in their unstudied spontaneity. On this fine summer’s day, a group of ladies is spotted sitting and chatting companionably on the fire escape landing of a run-down New York building next to the park, virtually at eye level with visitors strolling on the deck. Here and there, tangles of mechanical ducting sit like dexterous sculptures on the roofs of adjacent low-rise buildings, on display for the very first time.

According to an article in the New York Times in July 2010, the High Line’s resounding success has attracted overwhelming interest from city planners both within the United States and around the world, all hoping to bring about the same miraculous urban transformation in their home cities. Among the stream of official visitors was a team from Singapore, which prompted the reporter to wonder with some surprise if there was really anything old and rusty in Singapore?

Well, the answer is yes – as of July 1st the KTM railway land was reverted to Singapore, and we are now faced with the exciting question of what best to do with it. Comparisons with the High Line crop up frequently in such discussions, but few seem to acknowledge the fact that the spectacular success of the High Line owes a large part to its highly charged Manhattan context, which was already interesting to begin with. The High Line is a true urban relic that was born from the industrial beginnings of the Meatpacking District, squeezing its way through a fascinating section of Manhattan that has undergone a dramatic transformation over the years, from the slaughterhouses and packing plants of the early 1900s to the drug-ridden, transsexual red light district of the 1980s and the chic, fashionable neighbourhood that it is today. The exquisite confluence of different architectural styles, attitudes and periods, the edgy mix of boutiques, restaurants, bars and art galleries, the wide spectrum of people who live and work in the neighbourhood, and the constantly changing landscape of the elevated park itself – all these make each visit to the High Line seem like a fresh and stimulating experience.

In contrast, the KTM railway corridor passes through an almost pastoral landscape where landmarks and points of interest are few and far in between, and much of the 26km long route is bordered by the same sort of vegetation and undifferentiated scenery that can quickly start to feel dull and repetitious. While nature purists would prefer to keep it as a green corridor that remains unfettered by any form of significant development, there is a strong argument for an active green corridor that is much more integrated with its urban context, or to borrow URA‘s words, one that would marry development and greenery whilst maintaining a continuous green link along the rail corridor. Certainly, sections that are distinguished by their historical significance, unique settings or rich biodiversity should be preserved as is, but if the aim is to encourage frequent use of the park, these alone are not enough to sustain interest throughout a relatively long and flat route.

If there is one thing that we can learn from the High Line, it is the importance of programming, sequencing and pacing along the route, as these factors ultimately underscore a vividly varied experience that is filled with memorable moments both dramatic and subtle, large and small. Other than outdoor leisure-related development, the green corridor presents a significant opportunity to expand upon the local arts and culture scene, offering a more spontaneous, informal setting for an extensive public art programme, and for a series of independent galleries, artists’ studios and outdoor performance spaces that are interwoven into the park and its surrounding communities. Integrated residential and commercial developments of a compatible scale and suitable porosity, sensitively crafted to privilege pedestrians and cyclists, together with well-designed linkages to key transportation nodes, will also help to activate the green corridor, making it a meaningful public amenity that is embraced as part of everyday life.

Needless to say, the preservation of key historical structures is essential. For a start, the URA has announced that the Tanjong Pagar and Bukit Timah stations will be conserved. In addition, various nature and heritage groups have negotiated successfully with the authorities to preserve parts of the railway tracks at the two railway stations, as well as those on the steel bridges at Dunearn Road and the Rail Mall, though exactly how much of it will be kept remains unclear.* Yet, it is a modest victory that rides on an undercurrent of regret, given that most of the tracks – the last remnants of the railway – will be returned to Malaysia, whether we like it or not. The failure to secure an agreement on a seemingly straightforward matter speaks to the touchy state of bilateral relations between the two countries, where the inability to rise above petty concerns has resulted in the inexplicable sacrifice of a symbolic piece of railway history.

Moving on, hopes for the green corridor are high and there is much to look forward to. The project heralds the beginning of a healthy, activist approach towards development, which sets the stage for a wider range of opinions and a more robust exchange of ideas in shaping the future of the city, rather than leaving its fate entirely in the hands of planning authorities and private developers. Now that, is surely cause for rejoice.♦

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Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

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Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

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Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

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Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

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Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

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Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

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Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

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Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

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Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

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Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

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Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

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Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

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Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

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Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

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Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

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Tanjong Pagar Railway Station

 

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