it’s high time for london’s low line

Published in City A.M., Jan ’20

Plans for the new Low Line in Southwark have got Londoners a bit excited.

The project to rejuvenate railway arches and convert them into shops and green spaces has inevitably drawn comparisons to the High Line in New York’s Meatpacking district, which became an instant hit with tourists when it opened in 2009.

But the design by PDP London architects, which won an 82-strong design competition, is more than just a copy of the stateside linear park. First of all, as the name suggests, the Low Line is more down to earth than its New York counterpart.

“What’s interesting about this is that it’s very much on the ground. It’s not an elevated park like the High Line,” says Valerie Beirne of Better Bankside, the Business Improvement District backing the project.

It will cover a stretch of working railtracks running from Blackfriars Road out to The Blue markets in Bermondsey, and focuses on making use of the arches underneath, lots of which are unused or under-used. Ideas put forward so far include yoga studios, food markets, leather workshops, model-making shops, and childrens’ play areas, and there could also be a Low Line app to help people navigate the area and hear about events.

Flat Iron Square
Flat Iron Square is one of the areas along the proposed Low Line route

Beirne says the Low Line shouldn’t feel like one big project, but a series of new additions to the neighbourhoods along the route. These include Southwark, Borough, London Bridge and Bermondsey, parts of which are disconnected by the railway arches although they sit side by side.

“It’s not a big set piece that would be imposed on the area,” she says. “The railway has been a physical barrier that has severed neighbourhoods along its length, and the Low Line will improve its permeability and accessibility.”
Pedro Roos, partner at PDP London, says he wants the Low Line to be a “shared natural and cultural resource of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Similar to the High Line, the Low Line is supposed to bring nature into the city. Areas alongside the arches will be pedestrianised and turned into a green walkway with trees, wildlife habitats and community gardens. 
“We were very interested in how nature and biodiversity could be at the heart of the low line,” says Beirne.

If it works, it could act as a template for other areas of London that are bisected by railways – and there are certainly plenty of those. 
“We’re hoping we can develop thinking and then it can apply to other parts of London where the railway acts as a barrier,” Beirne says.

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