Chandler Hwy bridge, Melbourne
Chandler Hwy bridge, Melbourne.

I admire Manhattan’s High Line for many reasons, but a key one is that it works in its context i.e. Manhattan. Cities everywhere think they can capture the same magic by simply re-purposing disused infrastructure.

There’ve been proposals and in some cases even actual works for a range of projects in London, Chicago, St Louis, Philadelphia, Jersey City, Rotterdam, New York (the Lowline a.k.a The Delancey Underground), and more. Sydney’s got The Goods Line and Melbourne’s Lord Mayor wants to landscape the Sandridge rail bridge (see What can other cities learn from New York’s High Line?).

Now the High Line is being cited as an inspiration for what could be done with a soon-to-be-redundant bridge across the Yarra River connecting the inner Melbourne suburbs of Fairfield and Kew. The Chandler Hwy bridge, which currently carries two lanes of traffic but started life 124 years ago as a rail bridge, will no longer be required once construction of a six lane road bridge beside it is completed.

According to Roads Minister, Luke Donnellan, it’s high time the old bridge was “turned into an urban oasis”. He’s asking the community for ideas on the design and future use of the bridge and the land beneath it:

Community gardens, parks, playgrounds and an open space inspired by New York’s famous High Line are among the ideas to transform the Chandler Highway Bridge into an urban oasis.

The parallel with the High Line is a stretch; apart from both being former rail lines (the Chandler Hwy bridge was part of the ill-fated Outer Circle rail line), they’re very different.

The High Line is 2.3 km long and in a dense, formerly mixed industrial area that’s starved for any form of open space, much less bushland. The Chandler Hwy bridge, on the other hand, is only about 100 metres long and is set in a significant bushland corridor. It will soon be cheek-by-jowl with a six lane bridge on its western side.

This is not a location that lacks either bushland or open space; there’s heaps of it (see first exhibit). The building of a new bridge, though, offers the opportunity to develop a small portion of land under and close to the bridge in more exciting and enriching ways for the benefit of both local and regional communities.

VicRoads is gathering a heap of suggestions for ways the land could be developed. I’m not personally keen on most of them (e.g. see Should urban parkland be used for community gardens?), but I think there’s a lot of value in using the open space that exists in better ways rather than the usual preoccupation with getting more and more (e.g. see Do residents think more public open space is a fair price for Skyrail?)

My main worry about what’s going on here, though, is the idea that the old bridge itself is a candidate for High Line treatment (see Take a walk along Manhattan’s High Line). I’m concerned that ambition might conflict with the idea of maintaining the bridge as a transport facility for cyclists and pedestrians.

This is a key route for cyclists. It connects Fairfield and Alphington with the Yarra Trail, the bike path parallel to Earl St, and with Yarra Boulevard in Kew (see Could Yarra Boulevard be a “Bicycle Boulevard”?). Alternative river crossings are some distance away – at Fairfield Boathouse and, some day, at the confluence of the Yarra and Darebin Creek when the trail along the latter is eventually completed (see Why have these cycling projects been forgotten?).

No doubt you can never have too much of a good thing, but there isn’t a pressing need for yet more open space and more views of the river at this location. What it needs most of all is better transport infrastructure; in this instance the ability of cyclists and pedestrians to cross the river without conflict and with high amenity.

It’s a narrow bridge; let’s maintain its primary use as transport infrastructure. It should be regarded as part of a Cycle Superhighway running north-south along the Chandler Hwy. If some aspects of the High Line can be accommodated on the bridge without compromising that use then fine, but I fear the Rhonda’s in VicRoads and the Jim’s in the Minister’s office might be over-whelmed by the PR glamour of the High Line.

Like the Promenade plantée in Paris, the High Line works brilliantly in Manhattan. The model can be exported to other cities where the circumstances are right, but not willy nilly (see Can other cities emulate the success of New York’s High Line?). In this case, using the bridge for its key purpose – transport – should be the key objective.

Manhattan's High Line. This photo was taken in the month it first opened
Manhattan’s High Line. This photo was taken in the month it opened