How VIADUCTgreene – An Elevated Urban Garden – Is Going To Change The Face of Philadelphia

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Musings

In the past few years since I first heard about VIADUCTgreene, it has gone from being a nascent organization with hopes of developing Philadelphia’s own version of The High Line to a pulsating, vibrant not for profit that is going to change the landscape of Philadelphia~ transforming it from being a terrific city into an extraordinary one.

Paul vanMeter is the visionary and force behind VIADUCTgreene. His love of gardening and history and his knowledge of garden making combined with what he experienced when walking the unused Philadelphia railroad tracks proved to be the perfect ingredients for him to give birth to what will be a garden like no other in Philadelphia and surrounding areas.

A few words about Paul  – He is a landscape gardener whose work ranges from intimate private to expansive public places.  His passionate interests and lifelong studies of urbanism, landscape design, ethics and management, railroad history and culture have collided in his co-founding of VIADUCTgreene. – Fran Sorin

Can you describe what VIADUCTgreene is?

VIADUCTgreene creates a garden of intersecting culture and wildness along the soaring and submersive landscape infrastructures that are the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad 9th Street and City Branches.

photo courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

photo courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

VIADUCTgreene (VG) advocates for the creation of a linear gardenpark in Philadelphia along the former 9th Street Branch and City Branch of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad.

What was your inspiration for it?

So many wonderful postindustrial places turned garden!  From the Crowinshield Garden built over the ruins of the DuPont Powder works at Elutherian Mills in Delaware to the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, Mass to Natur Park Südgelände in Berlin, Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord, also in Germany, the Promenade Plantée/Viaduc des Arts in Paris. I guess it nearly goes without saying the High Line in New York.  Friends of the High Line, organizationally especially, has been tremendously inspiring.

Photo Courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

Photo Courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

What ignited the fire in you to take it from a ‘maybe concept’ to ‘let’s do it’?

Spending time with Robert Hammond, co-founder of Friends of the High Line.  He said for quite a while he and Josh David were two guys, a good logo, and a good idea.  Friends of the High Line sponsored an International Ideas Competition in January 2003. It’s 2013 and while never being part of a neighborhood, city, parks department, or any other plan the place has not only been built, it’s become iconic. Big Idea.Ten years. Incredible.

Photo Courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

Photo Courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

 Why did you choose the name VIADUCTgreene?

VIADUCTgreene. One word.  In Philadelphia, the common name for the elevated 9th Street Branch is the Reading Viaduct.  Being from Reading, Pa. that doesn’t make sense, where there are a few Reading viaducts. It’s the same with upstate Pennsylvania where every other valley has a Reading Viaduct!  Internationally, it gets all the more confusing. Piet Oudolf’s recent book includes a picture of Macleaya cordata on the “Reading, Pa viaduct,” but it’s taken in Philadelphia.  There was no getting away from “VIADUCT.” As a gardener, I’ve always enjoyed the word green on many levels, but especially WEBSTER’s 4:a : a common or park in the center of a town or village.  The superfluous e kipes Olde English and William Penn’s utopian view of his city plan for Philadelphia, more attuned to his love of country estates than metropolis. “Let every house be placed… so that there may be ground on each side for garden or orchard, or fields, that it may be a greene countrie towne, which will never be burnt and always wholesome.”

Names and nomenclature are important.  I can’t imagine the High Line called the West Side Improvement Park or Promenade Plantee the Paris-Bastille to Boissy-St Leger Park.  The Promenade Plantée was inspiring so far as naming. Bringing it back to a Philadelphia thing, the area was once estates.  William Penn’s and heirs owned Springettsburry, later Alexander Hamilton’s Bush Hill occupied locations where the museums are and the City Branch traverses.  The railroads came along in the early 1830s.

Photo Courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

Photo Courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

How many blocks is the project going to be?

Depending on who’s counting, 55-58 blocks.  Three miles without crossing a street.

It’s not all above ground ~ and it crosses different sections of the city. Can you explain how the feel of the different neighborhoods and the logistics of the tracks play into creating the garden? What areas will it traverse?

The former City Branch is over two miles long and sub-grade. It’s mostly wide open to the sky except for a 3000’ long “tunnel” beneath Pennsylvania Avenue which has stunning brick arches. The whole of the City Branch is enclosed by massive stone walls, from a foot high to over 30’ high. Just about the entire right-of-way (ROW) was minimally a four-track railroad, over 50’ wide. Today it’s easy to vision separated places for bicyclists and pedestrians and art and garden. Lots of garden; it’s all a garden.

Photo Courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

Photo Courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

There are a variety of neighborhoods. At the far west and north is Brewerytown/Fairmount, all very residential. The Museum District includes the Philadelphia Museum of Art with its amazing annex art-deco Ruth and Raymond G.Perelman Building, the Rodin Museum, and of course, the recent move of Barnes Foundation collection to its stunning Tod Williams Billie Tsien building is one of the art worlds’ greatest stories, and always will be.

Photo Courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

Photo Courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

Logan Square is a vivid mix of the museums, residents and cool commercial establishments. The ROW adjoins the Community College of Philadelphia and its thousands of students and continues beneath North Broad Street, arguably the most happening place in the city as the North Broad Street ‘Avenue of the Arts’ initiative designs its way from City Hall to Temple University. Above North 13th Street, submersive becomes soaring as the City Branch meets the 9th Street Branch at Callowhill Junction. Authenticity is palpable in the Callowhill/Chinatown North communities; the city’s work toward managing ‘gentilfication’ will be vitally important to maintaining the distinct and delightful character. The east end is North of Spring Garden Street, becoming a attractive link in the East Coast Greenway. It’s about gardening; cultivating what’s there. The unique qualities of the neighborhoods enroute make for a great site.

What type of planting ~gardens do you envision? Will it be a continuous theme throughout?

I believe the best place projects, whether strictly architectural, landscape or a combination, have a very powerful unifying character. The High Line is a great example. However one feels about the details, the overall theme-powerfully and simplistically designed paving and constructed details contrasted with a planting design inspiring a certain “wildness” is popular beyond belief.  That’s what I envision; but, who knows? I think an Ideas Competition is obligatory for such a great site. It’s exciting to see and hear about what people think!

Photo Courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

Photo Courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

 Philadelphia is a bastion of horticulture with a rich history. Do you think that VIADUCTgreene will offer a new type of garden for the city and surrounding areas? How do you envision it to be uniquely Philadelphia?

A great knowing and respect for that rich planterly and planning history is a big motivating factor in my advocacy. It’s humbling. Along with sponsoring an International Ideas Competition that focuses on the 3-mile continuity and the possible connections, one directed goal of VG is to sponsor a symposium, called the Spontaneous Garden, or something like that. As a gardener, or an urbanist, experiencing and studying places like Natur Park Südgelände in Berlin, the Landschaftspark in Duisburg and other Rhur Valley places changes your game. Projects based on the traditions of the Enlightenment and industrial modernism in the Wörlitz Garden Realm coming from the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation in “The Industrial Garden Realm” are truly inspiring. Largely, the spontaneous vegetation is intelligently managed with important and subtle introductions.

Walking along the Philadelphia ROW with so many people, it seems everybody notes the beauty of the place that currently exists. With so much of the site at grade, or in the case of the 9th Street Branch, built on fill between stone and concrete walls, being inspired by it directly is certainly a conversation worth having.  It also plays on the new movements about tree planting -plant xthousand trees! A lot of good minds I know are thinking simply- maintain xthousand trees!  Robinia and Paulownia are my friends.

I think a symposium would be very popular with a lot of land managers looking for answers to creating, highlighting, and managing a certain level of wildness.

Photo Courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

Photo Courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

 Do you think it will change how visitors experience Philadelphia

Another great motivator is Philadelphia’s industrial heritage.  For a long time, the city has, importantly and charmingly, been happily wearing a tricorned hat mode.  In the 18th century Philadelphia founded the country, in the 19th and 20th it industrialized it and the entire world with it. The City Branch ROW served a bustling industrial corridor that included the Baldwin Locomotive Works. In 1906 Baldwin built 2,666 locomotives, more than seven every day, all of them right at North Broad and Spring Garden Streets, where it employed 17,400 men. “At the turn of the 20th century, Baldwin’s “climbed Pikes Peak, hauled the Trans-Siberian Express, roamed the Argentine Pampas and whistled past the Egyptian pyramids!

The site itself is book ended by Philadelphia’s pioneering c.1830 railways. That the rights-of-way are still intact and moribund is a great story in and of itself.

That history is palpable along the corridor and we seem to be in a time where, warts from the hubris of it and all, people are interested. That and the idea of ruin and regeneration make for a lot of stories to tell. That the site offers undercover spaces for programming makes it attractive to tell those stories. There have been a lot of tours over the site; it’s absolutely changing how people experience the city.

Photo Courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

Photo Courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

  It took the founders of The High Line several years to get their project off the ground and running. What is the #1 obstacle that if removed could move the project forward at lightning speed?

Awareness. The site, its connectivity and desirability isn’t the least bit obvious – just like almost every great garden place I know!

 In your dreams, how do you envision VIADUCTgreene to be/look in 5 years?

Like dreams, VIADUCTgreene is part of the realm of ideas. For now, what’s important is preserving the right to develop the most creative results possible while acknowledging that not knowing the outcome at the outset is not only okay, it’s also better.

In five years – a place civically, physically visioned and in- part being constructed.

Photo Courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

Photo Courtesy of VIADUCTgreene

 What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from working on VIADUCTgreene these past few years?

Every action the least bit provocative has political challenges. I think it’s important to work on an agenda of directed goals. If people are uncomfortable, move on from those people. Allow people to dream.

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Fran Sorin

Fran is the author of the highly-acclaimed book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, which Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends as "a profound and inspiring book."  

A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology, she is also a gardening and creativity expert, coach, inspirational speaker, CBS radio news gardening correspondent, and Huffington Post Contributor.

Learn more about Fran and get free resources that will help you improve your life at

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Fran Sorin
25 Comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Donna February 16, 2013, 11:12 am

Being from Reading originally, I can see that confusion would surface on a name of Reading Viaduct, where this project is a tribute to the great horticultural history in the City of Philadelphia. It will be a spectacular asset to the City and adjoining neighborhoods, and reform areas in need of renovation, rehabilitation and use. I love Philadelphia, the history and culture, and this will add another facet to the fabric that makes up the City. I also like and support a wildlife corridor which it will become by the nature of its natural creation over time. What a worthwhile project and wonderful undertaking.

Donna February 16, 2013, 11:14 am

Fran, I also wanted to mention that your site takes a long time to load. I was concerned on leaving a comment that it would time out. Just thought you should know. I have high speed cable internet too.

Gareth February 16, 2013, 11:15 am

Viaduct Greene is a great idea and project one I personally think other cities around the world should take note of!!

cynth February 16, 2013, 8:10 pm

Love to see cities “breathing” again.

Fran Sorin February 17, 2013, 5:04 am

Thanks Donna. We are aware of the problem and are working on fixing it 🙂 Fran

Fran Sorin February 17, 2013, 5:07 am

Donna –
I hope you take the time to get onto their website – and read about the history in detail. I didn’t want to say that it’s going to change how we perceive gardening in Philly ~ but it will. I can feel your passion about the project ~ you’re a kindred soul.:) Fran

Fran Sorin February 17, 2013, 5:08 am

Cynth –
Pulsating this VIADUCTgreene is. ~ Fran

Fran Sorin February 17, 2013, 5:11 am

Gareth –
The High Line in Manhattan has caused a huge ripple effect. City officials from around the world have visited to experience the beauty and get a better handle on how it happened. I think that VIADUCTgreene will also become a magnet when its first phase is completed. It is exciting! Fran

ann February 17, 2013, 7:54 am

Out here in Dakota, the Hi-Line is highway 2 from Maine to Washington. Lovely plantings that are natural on visductgreene inspire many to work with nature.

carolyn mullet February 17, 2013, 8:53 am


commonweeder February 17, 2013, 8:57 am

This is wonderful news about a wonderful project. In our area Shelburne Falls and Buckland, MA, 2 towns (total pop. 4000) on either side of the Deerfield River are joined by The Iron Bridge, and most beautifully the 500 foot Bridge of Flowers
It is fascinating to see that post industrial infrastructures are turning into stunning green spaces. The Bridge of Flowers was a trolley bridge, but ever since 1929 when the Women’s Club took the disused Bridge in hand it has bloomed and bloomed. Our new website will be up shortly, but many photos are on our Bridge of Flowers Facebook page.

Elle February 17, 2013, 5:32 pm

I so love this Fran. I remember years ago in jolly old England there was a movement to scatter wildflowers all over the place and it was really cool to drive along the highways and have wildflowers waving in the breeze in the medians.

So glad to see there’s a ripple effect here too. Nothing quite like seeing beauty in unexpected places.

Love Elle

Pam February 17, 2013, 6:39 pm

Oh WoW! What a coups for Philadelphia if they can bring this to fruition. It so reminds me of NYC’s High Line. Can’t wait until the day I can walk through this wonderful place!

Fran Sorin February 18, 2013, 11:00 am

Pam – What will be interesting is to see how VIADUCTgreene creates a unique garden – perhaps reminiscent of The High Line- but with its own character and soul – it is exciting! Fran

Fran Sorin February 18, 2013, 11:03 am

Carolyn – yes indeed it is. Fran

Fran Sorin February 18, 2013, 11:08 am

Elle- What synchronicity. I’ve been speaking with a colleague of mine about sowing wild flowers throughout Tel Aviv – the city is filled with beds of annuals – colorful but extremely wasteful and ‘very old school gardening’.
I thought I would cause a little mischief and in the middle of the night scratch them into the soil along the promenade of the Mediterranean. A little mischief wouldn’t hurt, eh?? Fran

Fran Sorin February 18, 2013, 11:22 am

Commonweeder – I got onto The Bridge of flowers site and no photos – where are they? Fran

Fran Sorin February 18, 2013, 11:24 am

Well Ann – I would love to see what highway 2 looks like. You know, once folks are turned onto wildflowers-native plantings- beautiful ecological landscaping- their entire paradigm of what makes a garden has the possibility of changing. Fran

Walt February 18, 2013, 12:27 pm

This sounds just great! My wife, younger son and I loved Philadelphia last year and want to revisit so this is just another great reason. We were early visitors to the High Line in NYC too. As a reminder, one of the earliest remediated industrial sites is Gas Works Park in Seattle, circa 1975. Richard Haag, award winning landscape architect, utilized a gasification plant on the shores of Lake Union to turn the structures into a much loved and used park.

Fran Sorin February 18, 2013, 10:40 pm

Walt – As a Philadelphian – who thinks that it is a terrific city – waiting to explode into a breathtaking one, I’m delighted that you and your family so enjoyed it. Although The High Line is now a super star – and rightfully so- it was a privilege – and exciting- to watch it birth itself. It gets better each time I visit ~ as a matter of fact, I yearn for it. Thanks so much for the info. on Richard Haag’s creation of the Gasworks Park in Seattle. I’ll check it out. Fran

Charlie February 19, 2013, 6:17 pm

As we see land become beautiful again it inspires us both on a community and on a personal level. I am always in awe of those who can cast an image into something that becomes real. I live in Seattle and I ride the bike trail that takes me from Redmond to Lake City, past Gas Works Park, and then on to Puget Sound. Much of this land has been reclaimed and brought to life again. It is beautiful and it makes me proud to share this space with others.

Betsy/Zen Mama February 19, 2013, 11:37 pm

The viaduct is gorgeous! I hope to make it back to Philadelphia someday and see this! It’s gorgeous! I’ve been planning to come to your site for a while now. It’s just beautiful!! Looking forward to reading more.

Fran Sorin February 20, 2013, 12:33 am

Betsy – I agree with you that it is gorgeous in its natural untouched state. I’m more than excited to see what evolves over the next couple of years.:) Fran

Fran Sorin February 20, 2013, 12:38 am

Charlie – I agree with your thoughts ~ beautifully worded. I’ll take it one step further ~ I believe that when we see land that has been ‘healed’, it heals and inspires us to become the best of who we are. 🙂 Fran

Sugarland Landscape Design March 10, 2013, 10:13 pm

Garden in Philly heard were really enchanting,I heard so much about viaduct greene and the submerged section from it.

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