5. Urban Linear Parks

Hartford's linear park connects Downtown with the riverfront.

Traditional urban parks are public spaces designed for passive recreation; users sit to read, to eat, to watch other people. These parks are destinations, places to go to.

In contrast, urban linear parks take you somewhere. They are facilities for active recreation, for walking, jogging, or biking. They combine elements of transportation with recreation.

Linear parks in cities and towns are popular partly because they contribute to today’s interest in physical fitness. They offer urban populations changing vistas, including riversides, ports and cityscapes. They draw consumers to commercial places they might otherwise not visit. They increase residential real estate values, attracting new tenants and owners to homes and apartments with these nearby amenities.

They are remarkably diverse. Some pass through old railroad tunnels; one is being constructed on a disused elevated railway; many follow old canal berms. There are oceanside linear parks as well as riverside examples. Many transform deteriorated industrial and residential areas into popular features of the urban renaissance. Some are at least a hundred years old, while some impressive ones have been created in the past decade.

Several examples illustrate how these convenient and poplar public spaces have been created and the benefits they bring to urban populations.

Washington, DC

Starting at the old port of Georgetown, the twelve mile Capital Crescent trail links Washington, DC with Bethesda, MD. The linear park follows an abandoned Baltimore and Ohio railroad freight right-of-way. Passing through a hundred year old tunnel, an attractive bit of urban archeology, the trail is used by biking commuters, weekend hikers and mothers pushing children’s prams.

A clever redevelopment agreement provided Bethesda with added land for commercial expansion, thereby producing a second tunnel for trail users. Proceeding through central Bethesda, bikers and trail pedestrians pass by restaurants and shops as well as trailside retail kiosks created and maintained by the creative business improvement district(BID). Recreation supports retail and retail adds appeal to recreation.


Schuylkill Banks in central Philadelphia is the latest piece of a riverside trail which will enable pedestrians and bikers to pass from the densest, most historic neighborhoods in the Nation’s third most populace city center to Valley Forge, more than twenty miles away. The latest mile and a half of improvements passes on the riverside of an active freight line. Popular with fishers, runners and bikers, this section eliminated an area best known for drug dealing and related crimes and passes through the exquisite Waterworks, dating from the early nineteenth century. A popular museum is dedicated to the century old complex of classical buildings, with a fine restaurant, magnificent views of  the river and of the  famed Boat House Row. The changing views and amenities appeal to trail users. Farther along, the Manayunk segment supports local commerce on nearby Main Street and, because the pedestrian trail feeds walkers through two canal-riverside restaurants, on the canal berm itself.

New York City

A pair of Urban Linear Parks in Lower Manhattan combine a remarkable feature—reuse of an old elevated freight line 30 feet above the street—parallel to a second urban trail passing along the Hudson from the Battery to the Javits Center in Mid-town. The elevated High Line offers an elevated garden as well as a trail. The views and the variety of recreational offerings on the adjacent Hudson River piers—everything from a full soccer field to boating—already makes this partially completed public space among the city’s most popular. A rare feature among Urban Linear Parks, this pair will provide a round trip experience for city hikers.

San Antonio

The Paseo del Rio is a triumph of civic imagination. Once the site of repeated flooding, the city gradually converted Downtown’s river edge into a pedestrian way that is now among the Southwest’s most popular tourist attractions. Hotel lobbies open on the riverside walkway, as do restaurants. For the less ambitious, party boats offer a floating and musical vision of the city. Passing under 20 odd bridges, the Paseo is pleasantly removed from the noise of city traffic.

Canal trekking is widely possible throughout England’s industrial cities created in the nineteenth century, all needing waterways to move raw materials and manufactured products.  Manchester’s historic canals and paths shape much of the redevelopment there. Ottawa’s canal offers a popular route to work for skaters.

Barcelona’s La Rambla passes through the heart of the historic area and has set a high standard for attracting pedestrians by providing them with a series of entertainments (mimes), outdoor dining and unusual commercial offerings (the bird market) as crowds walk toward the Sea a mile away. Copenhagen created the Stroget in the central business district by gradually reducing streets for cars and opening them for pedestrians.


The Orange Line, a major element of Boston’s subway system, was decked over creating a two-mile footpath especially popular with those who enjoy walking to work. Boston’s linear Park is well landscaped and includes some active recreation facilities requested by the adjacent residential neighborhoods.

Atlanta is creating a 13-mile loop trail mainly on old rail rights of way. Financed by a Tax Allocation District (TAD), the Trust for Public Land reports that new taxes generated within the District will finance creation and maintenance of Urban Linear and other public spaces.

Redevelopment can benefit from Linear Parks and can contribute to their success. In Long Branch, NJ, a half-mile of Oceanside Promenade attracted a hotel and subsequent residential and retail projects. Even before it is completed, developers investing near New York’s High Line are advertising its proximity to their real estate.

Lessons Learned

To be successful, Urban Linear Parks must:

  1. Exist in high density places with ready access on foot and via transit—real urban places
  2. Be both attractive and interesting, offering changing views.
  3. Be wide enough to safely accommodate bikers and pedestrians, where both are expected.
  4. Provide opportunities to purchase food and pleasant places to take occasional breaks.
  5. Be at least a half-mile long.

Sponsors are commonly non profit corporations, such as those formed for the Schuylkill Banks, High Line and Capital Crescent projects, although government sponsorship was common among the earliest ones eg., San Antonio’s Riverwalk. Citizen sponsorship can produce local political clout (without which the High Line probably would not have been started). Citizen fund-raising, however, can be difficult and time consuming. The citizen input in planning local details of the Orange Line trail offers a model that can improve the use and enjoyment of the public space.

Typically full of people, Urban Linear Parks rarely evidence public safety concerns. An exception emerged from Wilmington, DE’s two mile long linear park planning where transformation from a largely abandoned riverfront to residential, retail and entertainment produced a Business Improvement District (BID) that organized and financed uniformed security personnel and cleaning up after the crowds.

Urban Linear Parks appeal to people as public facilities with an abundance of engaging things to do and see. They produce urban places where people want to be active.

The River Walk connects pedestrians with commercial activities at street level.

The former rail line between Washington DC and Bethesda, MD has been transformed into a popular linear park.

San Antonio's River Walk attracts visitors as well as locals. Much of the density needed for success comes from the cluster of hotels.

Strategically located places to eat reinforces the evidence of success at San Antonio's Riverwalk.

While the elevated rail line was being converted to a linear park, revenue producing air rights construction was also underway.

The tow path through central London follows Regents Canal. The users--pedestrians and bicyclists-- are reminded of necessary safety rules.

The Thames Path crosses England from the river's source, to the sea. In London, new improvements include pedestrian only bridges

One linear park in Philadelphia follows the canal and passes through an outdoor restaurant.

One of the former railroad tunnels that add variety to the DC-MD urban linear park.

Clear rules keep park accidents minimal.

A mixed group of users enjoy the urban linear trail between Washington, DC and Bethesda, MD.

The Washington DC to Bethesda, MD urban linear park includes two short tunnels, relicts of its earlier role as a railroad right of way.

The urban linear park linking Washington, DC and Bethesda, MD attracts a broad segment of nearby population including parents.

One of America's most popular urban linear parks is San Antonio's Riverwalk.

New York City shut down several blocks of Broadway to produce its very central and successful linear park.

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