The Rail Park, Phase 1
Landscape Performance Benefits
- Reduces stormwater runoff by 1,501 cu ft or 11,200 gallons annually with 102 newly planted trees.
- Sequesters an estimated 1,172 lbs of atmospheric carbon annually in 102 newly planted trees and is projected to sequester 27,632 lbs of atmospheric carbon over the next 25 years.
- Manages an estimated 8,419 gallons of stormwater per year in the Noble Street rain garden, equivalent to 2,105 flushes of a 4-gallon toilet.
- Improves ecological integrity, with a mean C value of 4.2 for test plots at the Rail Park as compared to 2.6 on the undeveloped rail line representing pre-construction conditions. The Rail Park’s Floristic Quality Index (FQI) score is 15.7, as compared to 12.5 for the undeveloped rail line.
- Supports cross-group interaction, with 78% of 45 surveyed visitors reporting observing people of different backgrounds interacting at the park in a 2022 survey. This is an increase from a 2019 survey, when 51% of surveyed visitors reported observing this type of interaction.
- Promotes sense of ownership, with 81% of 32 surveyed nearby residents reporting feeling that they belong, and 94% reporting feeling welcome at the park.
- Improves health and well-being as self-reported by 78% of 45 surveyed visitors. This is an increase from a 2019 survey, when 61% surveyed visitors reported that the park improved health and well-being.
- Creates access to public green space within a 10-minute walk (half mile) for the neighborhood’s 8,634 residents, resulting in 3,005 sf of green space per 1,000 residents.
- Increases park access for Asian residents. 22% of Asian residents in the neighborhoods surrounding the Rail Park have access to a park within a 10-minute walk, while only 7.8% of Asian residents of Philadelphia as a whole have access to a park within a 10-minute walk.
- Contributed to a 238% increase in mean assessed property value of structures within a quarter mile of the Rail Park from 2015 to 2022.
- Supports at least 5 businesses and community organizations within a half-mile of the Rail Park who reported that the park has played a role in business decisions and positively impacted their customers. The park has served as a catalyst for the establishment of at least 3 new businesses within a quarter-mile radius of the park.
At a Glance
Studio Bryan Hanes
Former Land Use
The Rail Park
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19123
26,000 sf or 0.6 acres
The Rail Park is a quarter-mile long, partially elevated linear park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The park is situated on historic rail tracks that were built in the 1850s and decommissioned in 1984, and it is located north of Center City in the Callowhill neighborhood and adjacent to Chinatown. Phase 1 represents the first phase of a rail corridor repurposing project that will ultimately span three miles, connecting ten neighborhoods across Philadelphia. From 2003 to 2016, area residents and stakeholder groups formulated a vision for a park that would maintain the local character and integrity of the site while addressing the area’s significant lack of public green space. Phase 1 includes paths that weave through dense native plantings, flexible use areas, varied seating, and historical features along with reuse of historic structures. The Rail Park connects visitors to the site’s industrial heritage and to the surrounding neighborhoods, which were once known as “The Workshop of the World.”
- Provide a community park for the surrounding Callowhill and Chinatown North neighborhoods and adjacent Chinatown and West Poplar neighborhoods, all of which lack public green space within a ten-minute walk.
- Increase shaded outdoor social space for nearby residents, many of whom live in converted factories without stoops, porches, or yards.
- Increase cross-group interaction and social sustainability between area residents, local organizations, stakeholder groups, and the Center City District by creating a venue for events.
- Preserve a historic structure by repairing and adapting it for new use.
- Provide an experience of rich, thick vegetation using native species.
- Encourage the redevelopment of vacant land and surface parking areas, especially for housing, as part of a goal of the 2004 Chinatown Neighborhood Plan and subsequent area plans adjacent to and near the Rail Park.
- Create the first segment of a cross-city green route to link ten neighborhoods.
- 0.6 acres of polluted, inaccessible land along the Reading Viaduct were transformed into a linear park. Much of the contaminated soil was kept in place and capped. In areas over the trestle, the soil had to be removed in order to repair the trestle structure, but under the rest of the park’s hardscape the soil was retained. 1,000 cu ft of manufactured soil (a mix of loamy sand and organic soil amendments) was installed in planting beds and tree pits.
- The historic foundation and rail infrastructure was preserved and repaired including bridges, railings, and stone walls.
- Industrial materials were used throughout the site to reference the former rail line, including a weathering steel wall, weathering steel raised beds, and chipseal walking paths that reference the rail track ballast.
- The weathering steel wall known as “The Story Wall” describes and illustrates the industrial history of the surrounding Callowhill neighborhood.
- High albedo materials such as chip-seal paving and reflective pavers lower air temperatures in the park.
- 0.31 acres of rain garden trenches serve as stormwater infrastructure, providing a storage volume of 1,106 cf and managing runoff from 6,200 sf of the at-grade entrance street.
- Native plants reference a meadow and woodland edge plant community, including varieties of red oak (shingle oak, Quercus imbricaria) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum), shrubs such as staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), and herbaceous plants including little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), New England aster (Symphyotrochum novae-anglaciae), and goldenrod (Solidago sp.).
- 1,100 individual native plants were planted by volunteers during an early stewardship event in May 2018. Friends of the Rail Park hosts clean-ups multiple times per year, giving area residents and visitors opportunities to serve as park stewards.
- A quarter-inch vine screen cable system marks the Broad Street entrance and reduces sound from an adjacent building’s HVAC systems. A second cable system was installed to screen a surface parking lot, but it was later removed due to a new housing development.
- 5 large, porch-style swinging benches are constructed of wood and steel, and 11 additional wooden benches are located throughout the park. 3 benches are nestled within planting beds and 4 sit near the park’s railings for a view of the neighborhood and the Philadelphia skyline.
- 4 tiered wooden platforms provide flexible space for various activities, such as kids’ parkour and yoga in the park.
- Multiple murals within the park can be seen from outside the park, including murals by Obey and Dora Cuenca. A public art installation by Brent Wahl and Laynie Browne is entitled “Dawn Chorus.” Poetry plaques set within the paving stones display lines of poetry written in 13 languages, representing the abundance of literary arts in the community. Temporary public art also adorns the park, with a current exhibition featuring vinyl prints by The People’s Paper Co-op.
- There is an ADA-accessible entryway along Noble Street and a second access point via stairs on Callowhill Street. The uppermost platform has an accessible ramp with a 5% slope. The 840-ft-long trail is ADA accessible. The trail has a typical 2.0% running slope and a 2.8% maximum running slope. The trail requires a return trip (840 ft) for park users unable to use the stairs on Callowhill Street.
The Reading Viaduct: 1850s to 1990s
The Reading Viaduct transported people, coal, and freight to and from Philadelphia along its lines for over a century, beginning in the 1850s. The 4-line set of tracks departed from the Reading Terminal and ran alongside factories and warehouses in the Callowhill neighborhood before branching out to coal country in the northwest and New York City in the northeast. Admired as the “Workshop of the World” through the 1920s, Callowhill served as home to manufacturers of machine parts, tools, textiles, shoes, and many other products.
There was a shift toward cars and the electric trolley in the 1920s, and urban engineers elevated or sunk rail lines throughout Philadelphia for vehicular and pedestrian safety, including the lines in Callowhill. From the 1950s through the 1980s, as interstate highways grew, rail lines were used less and less. In 1984, service on the Reading Viaduct was discontinued after the completion of the Center City commuter rail tunnel.
In the 1980s and into the early 1990s, a portion of the Reading Viaduct was removed to make space for the construction of the Pennsylvania Convention Center along with the Vine Street Expressway. The remainder of the Viaduct, approximately three miles in length, was left in place. At 25 ft high, the Viaduct remained a visible relic of the time when the Carrowhill neighborhood was a major production center for the country.
From Rail Line to Rail Park: 1990s to 2016
The Viaduct sat vacant for nearly 20 years, covered by invasive vines and thickets of shrubs and weedy trees. In the early 2000s, rather than dismantling the decaying structure, the City of Philadelphia and the two Viaduct advocacy groups, the Reading Viaduct Project and VIADUCTGreene, began to consider alternatives for the Viaduct’s adaptive reuse as a neighborhood green space. Development as a park and recreational pathway, including landscaping, benches, access ramps and staircases, was estimated to cost between $5.1 million and $10.8 million, whereas demolition of the structure was estimated to cost between $35.5 million and $51.2 million.
The Viaduct was also officially deemed historically significant in June 2010. The structure was incorporated as a “contributing structure” within the fourteen blocks of the Callowhill neighborhood designated as a National Industrial Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the historic warehouses and factory buildings are still standing and have remained relatively unchanged.
In 2011, the two Viaduct advocacy groups merged to form The Friends of the Rail Park (FRP), which in partnership with the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation and the Center City District began the process of planning and raising funds for the three phases of the Viaduct’s restoration and new use as a park. Building a community around a shared idea was the key strategy for making the Rail Park happen. The FRP held events, talked with stakeholders, and promoted the possibility of a park. Support for the phased plan, along with funding, was raised incrementally.
A community engagement and design process led by the landscape architect took place from 2010 to 2016 to identify goals for the new green space. Even though the push to make the Viaduct a park came from a group of neighbors, there was skepticism among the wider neighborhood population, including those in Chinatown. Residents were concerned that the park would be for tourists and newcomers, not for them. Having seen other park projects spur not just economic development but also displacement, the Philadelphia Department of Planning and Development identified the need for a neighborhood strategic plan early in the process that responded to concerns over future development pressure.
The central design goal that emerged from the community engagement process was to provide public green space for the three immediately adjacent neighborhoods: Callowhill, Chinatown North, and Poplar. There was a strong desire to retain the industrial character of the Viaduct, in keeping with the rest of the Callowhill National Industrial Historic District, while changing it over to an entirely new use that would better serve the needs of the community. Most significantly, there was no public green space within a ten-minute walk of the Rail Park. Living in converted lofts and warehouse buildings, area residents lacked the stoops, patios, and backyards that support smaller gatherings in other neighborhoods. These two factors drove the design of the Rail Park as a park that is first and foremost for the neighbors.
The Rail Park Phase 1: 2017 to the present
The Rail Park Phase 1, constructed in 2017 and opened in June 2018, currently serves a local and growing population of approximately 8,634 people, the majority between ages 20 to 64. 62% of the neighborhood residents are people of color, and 37% are white. Household incomes are split nearly evenly between those with low, middle, and high incomes.
Although it is just six blocks from City Hall, the Rail Park is in an area with a high percentage of surface parking lots and vacant buildings—though this is changing. Prior to construction, 32% of land surrounding the Viaduct was vacant and undeveloped. The neighborhoods around the Rail Park are a mix of dense industrial buildings, many converted to residences, and superblocks that resulted from a period of demolition for urban renewal. This demolition enabled the prevalence of surface parking lots now seen in the area.
Chinatown, The Vine Street Expressway, and the Rail Park: 1871 to the present
Philadelphia’s Chinatown has been home to Chinese immigrants since its establishment in 1871. Since the 1940s, there have been multiple building projects that have threatened Chinatown’s sense of community, culture, economy, and neighborhood development.
The Vine Street Expressway (or I-676) was a particularly controversial project spanning multiple decades, from when planning began in the 1940s to its construction in the late 1950s to the 1980s, and when it opened to traffic in 1991. This sunken interstate connector and through-route physically divided neighborhoods, including Chinatown. Residents and community leaders protested the Expressway’s construction as they were concerned about air and noise pollution, pedestrian safety, gentrification, and slowing community and economic growth.
On the heels of the Expressway opening in the 1990s came discussions of redeveloping the Viaduct in the early 2000s. There was consensus among area residents and municipal agencies that green park space was needed in Callowhill and Chinatown. However, as noted above, issues related to loss of culture, “green gentrification,” and potential displacement resulting from the Rail Park’s presence were and remain primary concerns for Chinatown residents, business owners, and community leaders. Confirming these sentiments, surveys of Chinatown community members in 2018/2019 indicated that the sense of personal and community ownership of the Rail Park could be improved.
The Friends of the Rail Park is actively working to strengthen a sense of community and personal ownership of the park and is committed to ensuring that Chinatown/Chinatown North community members are directly involved in the planning process for the future of the Rail Park. FRP has organized inclusive programming in the park that includes events specifically for the adjacent Chinatown community, including “Elder Hour,” karaoke nights, and Lunar New Year celebrations. Accessibility has also been expanded through its podcast, Sounds of the Rail Park, and the FRP website is now translated in both Mandarin and Spanish. FRP is also developing an Equitable Development Plan that will determine ways and tools to mitigate the threat of “green gentrification,” particularly as plans develop for “The Viaduct” Phase 2, which will connect the Chinatown North, Poplar, and Brewerytown neighborhoods.
- Plants located at ground level adjacent to the park’s path are not in raised beds, and these plants have continually been stepped on by visitors and dogs. To date, herbaceous plantings located at grade or on the surface level of the path have been replanted three times since the park opened in 2018.
- A consistent maintenance coordinator or group of volunteers would be beneficial for optimal plant care. The Friends of the Rail Park currently have volunteer-based weeding and clean-up work days, which serve as community-building events. However, volunteers with less plant identification knowledge and experience sometimes pull plants in error.
- Waste management, including continuous disposal of litter and illegal dumping in the park, is an ongoing issue that was not foreseen in the park’s planning and design phases. Rat infestations have also become a problem as a result of the presence of litter. This is not an isolated issue for the Rail Park, but one that is encountered throughout the City of Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation is looking to hire a Park Maintenance Ambassador to address the litter issue and support weeding, clearing pathways, and graffiti removal.
- The bollards located at the Noble Street entrance, which were installed to keep cars from entering the park and to provide lighting at night, are expensive to replace and repair. The Friends of the Rail Park maintain these bollards.
- The white chipseal surface can be difficult for strollers and wheelchairs to navigate.
- Wayfinding signs and signs within the park are only in English. Park accessibility could be improved with the addition of Mandarin and Spanish translations for the park’s signage. The park is located adjacent to neighborhoods where 70% of residents are Asian.
Trash Cans, Bike Racks, Weathering Steel Planter Fabrication: Streetlife
Stair Treads and Landings: Ohio Gratings
Vine Screen Cable System: Jakob
Cable Mesh: Carl Stahl
Curbs: NC Granite
Irrigation: Rain Bird
Lighting Design: Illuminations, Inc.
Steplights and Small Flood Lights: B-K Lighting
High-powered Flood Lights, Graze Lighting, and Flexible LED Strips: Acclaim
Pole Lighting: Lithonia
In-planter Lights: Sandro from Designplan
Illuminated Bollards: Streetlife
Ipe Hardwood Benches, Decking, and Platform Seating*: Martin Piling & Lumber Co.
Soils: Laurel Valley Soils
*A tropical hardwood material for benches and platforms (Ipe) was requested by Philadelphia’s Department of Parks & Recreation. The landscape architect does not typically select tropical hardwood materials.
Landscape Architect: Studio Bryan Hanes LLC
Civil/Structural Engineer (Project Lead): Urban Engineers, Inc.
Lighting: The Lighting Practice
Horticultural Consultants: TEND Landscape, Inc.
Electrical Engineer: Burris Engineers, Inc.
ADA/Compliance: Adcon Consultants, Inc.
Surveyor: KS Engineers, P.C.
Environmental Graphic Design: Cloud Geshan
Soil Scientist: Craul Land Scientists
Contractor: AP Construction
Maintenance: Center City District (establishment)/Philadelphia Parks & Recreation (present) + Friends of the Rail Park
Role of the Landscape Architect
The landscape architect was the design lead for the project from early concepts and stakeholder engagement through construction administration. Center City District and the Friends of the Rail Park were integral partners in advancing the design vision. The landscape architecture team developed the initial design studies and designed and documented site materials, layout, and grading along with all platforms, seating, swings, paving, planting, and site metalwork including railings, fences, trellises, screens, and steps. Close collaboration with the project lead/engineer on structural repair and new infrastructure supported the successful restoration and repurposing of the historic viaduct. The landscape architect and engineer also worked closely on permitting, reviews, and approvals from multiple agencies: Philadelphia Streets Department, Philadelphia Water Department, Parks and Recreation, and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation of Natural Resources.