Train park - Tichnun - 12.4.12
The track was once a key artery on the way to Jerusalem. Photo by Tichnun Nof Ltd.
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Yael Engelhart
Jogging on the imitation-wood rail line in Jerusalem’s new Train Track Park. Photo by Yael Engelhart

An old train track on Manhattan's West Side has been transformed into an urban-ecological paradise. Over the past decade, Jerusalem has been trying something similar with its Train Track Park, which links neighborhoods that would otherwise have little do with each other.

Architect Yair Avigdor and landscape architect Shlomi Zeevi have been busy planning and developing Train Track Park on the historic railway between the old train station near the German Colony and the edge of the new Malkha station near the Biblical Zoo.

It's an important link in the ring of parks going up around Jerusalem. At the edges are exclusive neighborhoods like the Greek Colony, as well as less wealthy neighborhoods like Katamonim and Beit Safafa.

Along the path south of the Khan train station, the tree saplings along the route haven't had time to grow, and the spring sun beats down hard on passersby.

"In Jerusalem there is a pleasant sense of expanses and open spaces because of its topography, and when you walk in the city you feel a lot of green," says Avigdor. "But precisely because of the topography, the number of areas convenient to use is relatively small, and entire neighborhoods have no access to parks."

Zeevi notes that Jerusalem's large parks are typically in wadis - low-lying areas - like Sacher Park or the Valley of the Cross.

"They do the job but they provide an answer only on the neighborhood level. That is, you have to organize yourself to go there, and sometimes you even have to take your car. There are few places in the city where the open spaces are part of the urban fabric. Train Track Park was an opportunity for us to create such a place. The moment you're part of an urban fabric, accessibility is an everyday thing."

Surprisingly, Train Track Park came together as a by-product of the plan for Nahal Refa'im Park. When Avigdor and Zeevi tried to set the park's boundaries, they climbed toward the city and looked for its drainage basin. At the top of the Nahal Refa'im basin is the Khan train station, which ceased operations in 1998.

Avigdor and Zeevi proposed to the municipal engineer at the time, Uri Sheetrit, an extension of the park that would include the train tracks' route and reach the station. Sheetrit agreed, as did the Jerusalem Development Authority, which got Israel Railways on board.

Gestures between neighborhoods

The Ottoman rail line between Jaffa and Jerusalem was the first rail line in the Middle East. Construction began in 1890, at the initiative of Jerusalem entrepreneur Yosef Navon. It took only two and a half years. The track was used throughout the 20th century, apart from of one year during the War of Independence. (Parts of the track were taken by the Arab Legion and returned to Israel in the Rhodes agreements. ) The track served as a major artery to Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem train station was some distance from the Old City, but over the years new Jewish and Arab neighborhoods rose alongside it, including the Greek Colony, Talpiot, Beit Safafa and later Katamonim.

As Jerusalem developed, the track became a kind of municipal border that only exacerbated the economic and social polarization between the neighborhoods. The new park is based on the tracks' original route; the width ranges between 7 and 15 meters.

The architects' most important decision was to preserve the rails and tracks as a major design element. They superimposed on them panels of shaded concrete in a wood pattern, creating a path for pedestrians. Alongside the tracks an asphalt bike path has been paved, which connects to other municipal paths. The pedestrians and the bikes are separated by a strip of grass that provides a place to relax.

Where the park meets urban intersections or small streets, it makes "gestures," as Zeevi calls them, in the form of tiny parks. The planners also sought to strengthen the transitions between neighborhoods by creating spaces with benches and lighting.

In parts of the park, original railway installations have been preserved, including signs and poles. The architects plan to add more signs, explaining a bit of the history.

The park is six kilometers long, and the landscape changes along the way. Splendid villas give way to housing projects in Katamonim and private houses in Beit Safafa. Eventually, the urban fabric gives way to the natural expanse of the Jerusalem Hills.

"The strip of park is simple and legible .... What changes is the surrounding landscape," says Zeevi. "So the park's effect isn't limited to its physical boundaries. Its sides become active participants."

Until a few years ago, the area of the park was "the junkyard of Jerusalem," as Zeevi puts it. Today we're seeing a process of the city turning toward it," he says. "For example, in Beit Safafa ... they once asked us to put up fences alongside the park. Today they're asking us to take those fences down because they want to open cafes there. They understand the potential."

It's better in New York

Unfortunately, it appears the park's design potential has not been entirely fulfilled. One can't help but notice the low maintenance. And the "simple and legible" design sometimes comes across as monotonous.

Thus, for example, the planners decided to lay rails made of concrete imitations of wooden panels, rather than real wood. (It's for maintenance reasons, the planners reply. ) It also seems the design accoutrements are very standard and don't fit the unique landscape.

When discussing parks based on historic train tracks, the High Line in Manhattan is inevitably invoked. This park was built on the ruins of an old elevated track on the western part of the island. The project was initiated by vocal and energetic residents who realized its utility - and real estate value.

The project, planned by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, uses high-quality design elements - such as benches, fountains and railings - that turn the railroad track into an urban-ecological paradise. It's no wonder that cities all over the world are trying to imitate its success. The question is: Why doesn't Jerusalem deserve a similar level of design?

Avigdor and Zeevi note that the New York project enjoys a budget 10 times larger per square meter and a municipality that was extremely understanding of the unique design and maintenance costs.

"The Jerusalem municipality accepted many of our proposals, but today many municipalities reject even wooden benches because of maintenance and vandalism problems," says Avigdor. "We thought it was right to create a simple system that would link up with other parks in the city. For example, we decided that the bike path would look exactly as it does anywhere in Jerusalem."

Currently the third segment of Train Track Park is being completed, linking Oranim Junction to Patt Junction. The fourth and final segment, which will run though Beit Safafa, is in the planning phase and is slated for completion within two years.

The estimated cost of the project isn't low - about NIS 40 million - but is seen quite worth it. Even if the park's design isn't perfect, it's hard to argue with its success in developing green spaces and adding a new twist to the neighborhoods along its path.