Spurred on by the 2015 UCI Road World Championships, the Low Line is both the northernmost section of the Virginia Capital Trail and the latest effort of the ambitious Capital Trees organization, dedicated to a “greener, more beautiful [and] more livable city.”
Anchored on one end by the recently enhanced Great Shiplock Park and a proposed lawn on the other, the project centers around improvements along Dock St between 17th and Pear. The site plan, composed with consultation from Waterstreet Studio, is spot on. Using the narrow strip of land available, linear boardwalks and tree allees emphasize the motion and mass of the towering railway while the layout of planting beds mirrors the structural bays of the elevated CSX tracks. Sleek steel canopies with lighting elements are integrated into the existing CSX structure and key street crossings and signage are acknowledged by elegant shifts in paving materials.
The planting plan calls for a substitution of invasive plants with native grasses and perennials similar to the style employed by Piet Oudolf in the High Line. It will be interesting to see how these plants age in the challenging environment of surface roads, the adjacent river, and an active overhead train route. Time will also tell if the effects of this trail improvement will reverberate into urban development. Almost the entire stretch of land north of the project’s boundary is occupied by surface or structured parking. While these parcels are still south of the floodwall, perhaps this land can encourage not only movement parallel the river but perpendicular to it, into the fabric of Shockoe Bottom.
The titular reference to the project in New York, however, is unfortunate. While they do bear a relationship to another CSX railways, the 5.5 acres in Richmond negotiate a different set of conditions than the posh tourist attraction and luxury real estate accessory the High Line in New York is, not to mention that New York is already fundraising their own version of the ‘Low Line.’ The industrial history of Richmond’s Kanawha Canal, improvements to the Capital Trail and environmental stewardship along the James are significant points in their own right; relating this development to a fundamentally different project sells short its efforts. This undertaking is the continuation of Richmond’s recent investment in urban greenspaces and commitment to cycling infrastructure in the city after the world championships have come and gone.
Viewed with a wider lens, the Low Line is the latest act in a shifting redefinition of the relationship Richmond has with the James River. Plans such as Hargreaves Associates’ comprehensive Riverfront Plan, efforts behind the Bridge Park or even accolades like Outside Magazine’s crowning of Richmond as the nation’s best River Town affirm the James as the heart of the city. Yet further investment in and development of parks, while potentially providing better pedestrian access and ecological benefit, also lead to stricter management regimes and controlled visual imagery. The ‘urban wild’ identity found along much of the James’ banks is an uncommon and romantic pairing with the river’s unique profile. Yet these areas are often represented as derelict and unuseful swathes of land, weeds to be mowed. While there are more than a few areas of rampant vegetation and and foot-worn paths remaining alongside the river, one hopes that the price to pay for a park system that fits the needs of a thriving city isn’t the sterilization of these untamed, rugged moments in the name of beautification.
Image courtesy of Capital Trees and Waterstreet Studio
To find out more about the Low Line, visit here: https://vimeo.com/112283379
Or see construction updates on Capital Trees’ Flickr page here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/123835433@N06/albums/72157648556102176