Railroads were one of the most significant early forces of change to the landscape of North America. They not only moved freight and people but they participated in opening up the newly formed National Parks to visitors with the creation of the now iconic grand hotels.
But as roads began to rival rails the network underwent a steady decline, and fewer and fewer resources were being put into their maintenance.
Fast forward a century–give or take a decade–and we find railroads, or at least rail corridors, going back to one of their greatest historical traits; as a pathway to nature.
In the 1980s the U.S. Congress passed an amendment allowing the use of soon-to-be-abandoned rail lines for hiking and biking trails.The highly successful “Rails-to-Trails” program has lead to nearly 1,012 rail-trails in the U.S. with a total trail mileage of more than 11,000.
Not just a U.S. phenomenon, there are similar programs in Canada, Mexico, Europe and Australia, to name a few. (Tasmanian Trail anyone?)
Rural areas have not cornered the recycling market however. In fact, the roots of the Urban Renewal concept lie in the 19th century, not too distant from the roots of the railway system itself.
An example of Urban Renewal that has come full circle is the New York City High Line. Built in the 1930s as part of a massive infrastructure project called “The West Side Improvement”, it was a raised railway for industrial use connecting warehouses and factories above the bustling streets along Hudson River. It was in use for close to 50 years until it, too, felt the impact of the interstate highway systems.
The High Line project provides an excellent example of successful community activism, in terms of both the preservation of the land and the specifics of how it was ultimately completed into an innovative part of the New York City park system with green space that combines nature, architecture and art.