London Wall Place
As rays of spring sunshine are splintering between the glass, chrome and concrete towers that dominate London’s financial district, architect Sam Potter is taking a relaxed walk above the bustling streets below. At the newly redeveloped London Wall Place, calm is found by heading upwards via a series of elevated walkways.
“We were inspired by how New York’s High Line put people first,” says Potter, a partner at London’s Make Architects who led the Wall Place project, which was funded by private developers Brookfield Office Properties and Oxford Properties. “It demonstrated that an elevated setting could succeed at moving people from A to B while acting as a destination in itself.”
He meanders past an elderly couple pausing to point out remains of the Roman wall found in this part of London, while businessmen in suits watch a gardener tend to the verdant green space below. Officially opened in late 2017, these 350 linear metres of elevated track connect pedestrians with the area’s new office developments as well as the famous brutalist Barbican Centre, a popular venue for performing arts.
Shielded by weathering steel, the aerial paths contrast well with the greys, blacks and whites of the heavily layered concrete and glass city backdrop. The design is contemporary – a series of staircases are seemingly suspended in midair, enticing pedestrians upwards, while handrails and seating are built in tactile timber – but the idea behind the project is rooted in the past. In the 1960s, walkways such as this (known as pedways) were popping up all over London; the common view at the time was that cars would soon dominate at street level and pedestrians would navigate the city from above.
“Ultimately the concept of the multilevel city failed because it was premised on the idea that the future would be based around the motor vehicle,” says Professor Michael Hebbert from the Bartlett School of Planning, who’s written about and lectured on the history of London walkways.
Over time the city pushed back against the motor vehicle with the introduction of a congestion charge on cars driving into central zones, alongside improved public transport and a greater emphasis on cycling and walking. This change meant that walkways were no longer a planning priority and started disappearing. Despite this shift, London’s roads remain busy with cars and Make Architects’ reinvention of the pedway makes a new case for its relevance. Where its predecessors were cold and purely functional, this new walkway’s fine design and incorporation of High Line-esque elevated public spaces encourage users to linger and appreciate their city.
“Elevated landscapes, when employed with care, can enrich our sense and understanding of the urban habitat,” says Potter. “After all, why should we only experience our cities from one level?”
Stig Lennart Andersson of SLA Architects considered the success of New York’s High Line in the planning of a newly built elevated public thoroughfare, which opened last year in Copenhagen.
The walkway linked to the CF Møller-designed Maersk Tower, part of the University of Copenhagen in the city centre. The two firms collaborated on plans for the concrete and steel elevated path. The aim was to make people’s journey as visually stimulating as possible. The result is a narrow walkway that zigzags its way over a bushy, wildly planted landscape.
“It’s a shortcut that gives you a completely different understanding of the city and nature along the way,” says Andersson, who populated the landscape with trees, plants and flowers that once thrived in the farm paddocks that pre-dated the city.
The landscape architects worked with CF Møller to develop the track in an unobtrusive way so it’s the views – and not the new path – that take centre stage. The balustrades, which are designed as narrow vertical slats, appear to “disappear” as pedestrians navigate the course. The result is an uninterrupted view of the tower’s undulating metallic façade and the Danish capital beyond.
“We thought about how people tend to navigate natural terrains,” says Andersson.“The zigzag form does make it a longer walk but not everyone wants to take the beaten path. When people come across nature, they have the urge to forge their own journey through it and this is what this path does.”
While cities grow upwards and continue to densify, one issue affecting even tall towers is their failure to offer good city vistas because views tend to be blocked by neighbouring skyscrapers. Urban walkways like the one at Maersk Tower are the antidote. Offering myriad viewpoints along their route, they enable citizens to reconnect with their city and see their home from the best vantage point. “There’s a special feeling when you can come close to a building’s façade when you’re higher up, it gives you a new appreciation of its context within a city,” says Andersson.
“Also people in Copenhagen are crazy about getting elevated so don’t be surprised if we see many more projects like this in the years to come.”
“The park already exists, it just doesn’t have any trees,” says Felipe Morozini, an artist and a key member of São Paulo’s Minhocão Park Association. The place in discussion, however, isn’t only missing trees. This elevated stretch of highway is also missing many more key elements of a park: grass, play areas, proper seating. Yet on a steamy Sunday afternoon in Brazil’s largest city, the scene here is one of people enjoying a great public space. It’s brimming with walkers, runners, cyclists, skateboarders and friends sharing a coconut while sat in the shadows cast by the surrounding skyscrapers. Since 2018, this 2.8km stretch of road has been officially designated as Minhocão Park.
It’s not all good news for the 230,000 residents of the surrounding area. Between 07.00 and 20.00 on weekdays the “park” is rammed with vehicles slowly edging bumper to bumper over this baking overpass, covering the neighbourhood in toxic fumes. The flyover may be a weird white elephant of urbanism but residents such as Morozini forecast an exciting future. “The new use of the Minhocão was led by the people,” he says, noting that since 1989, traffic has been banned for increasingly longer periods due its popularity as a park. “The people who live here need silence and positive wellbeing. The park is a result of this desire for peace of mind.”
The project is a result of a number of other factors too, the first being that since its inauguration in 1971, the overpass – standing about two storeys above the famous São João Avenue – was, and still is, considered a social and architectural disaster: honking traffic ruins residents’ peace and the dark spaces under the flyover are prime spots for criminal activity.
Things are changing, however, and while a masterplan for the area proposes to eliminate its use as a highway by 2029, traffic may be halted much sooner. There’s an obvious place to look for inspiration. “There are many differences between the New York High Line and the Minhocão,” says city councillor José Police Neto, who is working on the transformation. “But both projects aim to give new meaning to a public space that used to be aggressive to the landscape and caused disturbances because of pollution and noise.”
Led by government and the public, the mission to create this elevated park has been progressing for years; there was a determination to move ahead even before a full ban on cars could be enacted. On several nearby towers, green walls have been erected by young artists and architects, with the help of landscape architect Guil Blanche of Movimento 90º studio. Other buildings have had their façades painted by street artists.
Cues will no doubt be taken from the High Line as the project’s development moves forwards but the Minhocão Park’s long-term ambitions are simple: to let the people who live here have a better quality of life.
Ricardo Scofidio, 83, set up design practice Diller Scofidio + Renfro with Elizabeth Diller in 1981. Its projects include the redevelopment of the Lincoln Center and The Shed, a cultural centre that will form part of the city’s Hudson Yards development. But it was arguably the High Line, a collaboration with James Corner Field Operations and Piet Oudolf, which initially opened in 2009, that cemented ds+r’s reputation. A new model for urban regeneration, it led designers and city-planners to rethink how they can repurpose downtrodden civic spaces.
What does the High Line provide users from its location and elevated position?
A lot of the strength of the High Line deals with where its location is in relation to the edge of the city. If you put it through Midtown Manhattan it would become like a skyway; it wouldn’t be the same. The fact that you’re nine metres up makes an incredible difference to the sound; it’s softer. Taking the stairs up requires an effort – you have to give something of yourself to gain this pleasure. Then there’s the discovery you have when you’re up there. The second thing is that you see the space of the city in ways you’ve never seen it before. If you live in Manhattan you exit your office or your building and you walk on the sidewalk. You’re always walking around the blocks – you’re never out in the space between the blocks. We’re like mice: we always run along the baseboards. The moment you come out on the High Line it’s the first time you look down the centre of your cross-streets.
Some linear parks or raised walkways are less successful. What lessons can be learnt?
The problem with skyways is a lot of them enclose people, as it’s convenient to be out of the weather, but that kills the experience. You can’t enforce the idea, “Oh, we’ll do a High Line,” because it needs a certain set of issues that it’s responding to in order for it to work.