A Camden High Line to rival New York’s?
Ever since a public park opened up on a strip of disused railway tracks high above the streets of Manhattan’s West Side, global cities have look enviously towards New York.
The Big Apple’s celebrated High Line combines the latest eco credentials with the kind of clever repurposing of defunct industrial infrastructure that makes for a universally adored attraction.
But while competitive city hall bigwigs can (and do) find it relatively easy to conjure up a taller skyscraper, a bigger Ferris wheel or a more outlandish gallery or opera house, something like the High Line requires that a historic abandoned train track is already long in situ, rusting forlornly before being gloriously saved from the onslaught of the developers. That kind of superlative urban iconography ain’t quite so easy to carbon copy.
Amazingly, after a collection of vague and indeterminate competitions to find ‘London’s Answer to the High Line’, it seems Kentish Town might just be sitting pretty as the perfect location.
The ‘Camden High Line’ could be an elevated parkland walk set on the disused railway bridges that stretch from the bottom of Kentish Town Road, over Camden Road and onwards to Camley St and King’s Cross.
This idea was first mentioned in a blog post by Oliver O’Brien, a research and software developer at the Department of Geography at UCL.
“A couple of years ago I visited New York City’s High Line Park,” he says, “and was excited by the concept, its popularity, and the effect it was having on regeneration of the corridor it passed through.”
As someone who says his job focuses on “novel ways to visualise data relating to people and movement in an urban context”, he enthusiastically set about identifying ten fragments of land in London that might be suitable for such a park, poring over endless Google Streetview maps and making field trips.
“I researched and wrote about each,” he says, “realising during this process that Camden’s was far and away London’s best candidate. I pass underneath the route twice a day too, commuting by bike from Tottenham to Bloomsbury, and have always been intrigued by the bridge over Camden Road in particular.”
Oliver noted that the park route is reasonably long and the infrastructure largely intact, meaning no new bridges need to be built or land acquired, apart from at the access points at either end. It also would run between two of London’s most forward-thinking development zones, linking the regeneration at Camden Market with the King’s Cross estate.
KX owners Argent have also just announced they are building a brand new footbridge across the Regent’s Canal, which could complete the final leg of the walk via Camley Street.
And a new ‘calm’ walking route could also ease the often explosive clash between leisurely strolling pedestrians and short-cut commuting cyclists on the canal towpath.
“Crucially, as far as I am aware, there are no plans by Network Rail to turn the link back into a functioning railway,” says Oliver. “Should the route remain abandoned, eventually Network Rail will have to maintain or demolish the bridges, which will be expensive. So, if that expense is on the way, then it might as well be used for something constructive, such as opening up this route.”
Redevelopment is often a dirty word, particularly in an ancient, much-loved city like London. But projects that preserve historic structures while also offering quirky new public spaces are pretty much a sure-fire hit.
So could a Camden High Line therefore get the green light? If there’s enough public interest, then surely the powers that be in Camden, King’s Cross and Network Rail might sit up and take notice?
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“In a place like London, which is growing all the time in population terms but not in footprint, every spare space should be used for something, not allowed to sit and rot quietly,” says Oliver O’Brien.
“The line also comes with a history: it was once used to move people from A to B. Currently it’s not, and here it might be allowed to be used to move people again, but this time at their own pace, and with time to enjoy the view.”
Linking Kenwood to Kentish Town?
Or how about this for another beautifully ambitious park project, just up the road? Last year, locally-based firm AY Architects (behind striking NW5 buildings such as Montpelier Community Nursery and the new library at Torriano School) put together a proposal for the creation of “a green corridor connecting Kentish Town with Hampstead Heath.”
The team have their sights on making more out of the railway line and Murphy Yard, verdant tracts of urban land that have been off-limits to the public for decades.
If you’ve ever cast a glance out of the train window from the Overground above or Thameslink below, you’ll have some idea how much underused space there is to play for.
Their ‘Kentish to Kenwood’ document outlines the creation of a brand new public square by extending the bridge further over the train tracks by KT tube station, then landscaping a string of parks and pedestrian/cycle routes across Gospel Oak via the City Farm and ultimately onwards towards Kenwood at the top of the Heath.
Ever since the 1850s, when the Midland Mainline scythed a great wound that obliterated the former marshland walks between the central Kentish Town and the west, the railway has defined how we traverse our neighbourhood.
Yet this scar has also served to protect something of the area’s bucolic past by ensuring that nothing has ever been built there.
“The visual connection already exists,” say AY Architects’ Anthony Boulanger (the ‘A’) and Yeoryia Manolopoulou (the ‘Y’). “As you’re coming out of the centre of London up Kentish Town Rd, the city suddenly opens up with a fantastic view to the northwest and you can see Parliament Hill. Imagine this is where we could have a new town square, enjoying beautiful views and sunsets.”
The project was spurred on by an initiative called Night Sky, a call to address the growing issue of light pollution in our cities. “We’ve lost our connection with dark sky,” says Yeoryia. “We thought that the creation of a network of pedestrian paths could start addressing this and proposed the use of ‘smart’ interactive light that could lead people along it.”
Ambitious plans for sure, but isn’t it great that people who clearly love NW5 are daring to dream big?
“Development here is inevitable,” says Anthony, “and planning it in the right way to create meaningful links between south and north Kentish Town and the Heath is essential. We feel our proposal will create urban cohesion, tie Kentish Town with its natural landscape and create vital public space to complement any future building development.”
The green corridor is a truly lovely concept, however it is self-initiated by Anthony and Yeoryia rather than commissioned, and therefore remains theoretical at least for now.
But with redevelopment in this part of NW5 already getting underway with the launch of The Shed, a strikingly designed new 25,000 sq ft office space that’s on course to attract further creative, tech and media businesses to the area, AY Architects brilliant set of ideas should be strongly considered.
They would enhance the future of this long-overlooked industrial land in an incomparable way.
Reviving a ghost station?
Last mooted back in 2011, Kentish Town Road’s ‘other’ tube stop, the ghost station that sits opposite the junction with Royal College St, could theoretically come back to life as a transport hub.
The classic Leslie Green-designed red tile building was opened on the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway in 1907, but had closed as soon as 1924 after proving a fairly pointless tube terminus.
However, with Camden Town station currently groaning under the pressure of all the weekend visitors after decades of indecision over upping its capacity, KT South seems a more viable site for a stop once again.
With the rapid rise of the large Hawley Wharf development just behind it, including school, homes, business, leisure and retail units, not only could reviving the mothballed station ease congestion at weekends, providing locals with respite from the crush of backpack-wielding Italian schoolchildren, it might service a whole new ‘quarter’ of a thoroughly regenerated Camden, too.
The biggest snag is that most of the station infrastructure – including essentials such as the staircases and platforms – has long been removed, so investment would be high.
Still, we like the romance of a station once immortalised in poem by local Laureate John Betjeman, returning to prove that existing in the first place wasn’t actually as bad an idea as it seemed.
An alternative high street?
Wolsey Mews is currently little more than a run-down alleyway, despite its location slap bang in the heart of KT (parallel to the high street between Gaisford St and Caversham Rd). But imagine if this ignored passage, with its hostile security shutters and barred windows was instead lined with designer-maker boutiques and cake ‘n coffee joints.
Well that’s the aim of the Kentish Town Neighbourhood Forum, who include this transformation of the Mews in their Plan of 25 proposals for the area, which goes to a public vote on June 9th.
Caroline Hill, chair of KTNF tells us “the policy for Wolsey Mews – for development of shops, restaurants, cafés, offices and live/work housing – aims to encourage residents and visitors to use this side street in Kentish Town for shopping and refreshment. This promotes the development of creative and small businesses, because the rents here should be lower than those in the high street.”
With so many units on the main drag sitting empty despite the obvious resurgence of restaurants, bakeries and such like around them, affordable options are obviously few and far between, so this could be an innovative way to ensure the smaller guys have a decent chance to set up shop locally too.
The coming month is crunch time for the Neighbourhood Plan, with plenty of activity happening locally, from leaflets coming through 8,000 doors to stalls at key high street locations in the run up to the vote.
“We’re excited about the Plan because many of the policies are groundbreaking,” says Caroline. “They include bringing in a lot more housing; strengthening business and industry and protecting green and open spaces including the view of Parliament Hill.”
Other exciting ideas in the Plan are a new town square and reclaiming the whole Regis Road estate as a more inviting, useful space.
The only shame is that the zone KTNF have designated doesn’t stretch far enough west to incorporate the flagging yet historic Queen’s Crescent market – a missed opportunity for a truly joined-up NW5.
Still, the whole area will benefit greatly if these projects start to come to fruition, so everyone (who can) should vote Yes next week.