Beyond the Pandemic: The Camden Highline
Inspired by the hugely successful New York Highline, the Camden Highline is our plan to turn a disused railway viaduct into a new park in the sky. It will be an exceptional new green space, offering a unique perspective on the city and linking Camden Market, Camden Road, Camley Street and Kings Cross to each other and to their local communities.
London’s Royal Parks were born by accident, thanks to the unlikely combination of Henry VIII’s land-grab from the Church and his desire for convenient deer hunting; he probably didn’t mean to provide green space for generations of Londoners. The growth of public parks in the Victorian era was more deliberate, though played to sensibilities of the time, their reasoning ranged from enlightened (public health benefits) to elitist (controlling the leisure time of the working classes).
Through these accidents of history and misguided efforts we’ve been gifted London’s parks, our most authentic community asset. They are one of the few remaining genuinely free spaces, hotbeds of democratic participation, a link to nature for Londoners and shared by everyone regardless of class or background. They spontaneously move with the times, where Victorians would have played things like Cricket and ‘Potato Race’ (imagine the worst parts of an egg-and-spoon race) you can now find people playing football and doing yoga. They are the lungs, and in many ways the heart of London.
The Covid-19 pandemic has rocked everything, the word ‘unprecedented’ has lost all meaning and times are uncertain, but our parks are treasured like never before. For months they’ve been our only recreational and meeting spaces, nice for those lucky enough to have a garden, completely indispensable for those without. A recent survey found that 84% of people want more accessible nature-rich areas in the UK.
These days building a new park is complicated; stretched public funding means new parks are low on the priority list, and in London they’re competing with vital new homes for expensive land. To build a park in the 21st century you need to find a site that’s impractical for other uses and prepare an assortment of arguments to sell the idea to a range of funders and stakeholders.
The beauty of the Camden Highline is that it occupies unusable space and provides benefits to everyone. Here are some of them…
For Local People
The Highline weaves through some of the highest density housing in Camden, as such it will bring new local green space to 20,000 people and provide £5 million worth of health and social benefits. By virtue of its length it also connects different neighbourhoods, some wealthy and others among the most deprived in the UK. It will form a 20-minute walking link between these communities and their local town centres, but also a metaphorical link, a foundation for new community activity. Our Education programme for local schools and volunteer-led improvements to Camden Gardens is just the start.
We built the Highline as a grassroots project, with walking tours of the route for local people and using thousands of small donations to get here. We already have local support (after all, who doesn’t want a new park?!), but having the social impact data is great for unlocking public sector and charitable funding.
For Local Businesses
The Highline will link the hugely popular Camden Market to the growing King’s Cross development and will be a new international visitor attraction in its own right. Pre-Covid estimates saw the Highline bringing in 1.3 million new visitors and £16 million worth of spending to the area annually. These numbers are now less certain, but we know the visitor economy is still vital to many of the businesses in Camden and that it will need all the help it can get.
Alongside tourism woes, Covid-19 is giving us an opportunity to rethink how we use our cities. With pressure from businesses to reduce overheads and from workers who won’t accept commuting for no good reason, we envision a near future where many work remotely (not necessarily from home, but closer to home), with huge repercussions on workspace, transport and High Streets.
We want the Highline to spearhead this new localism and help reconnect Camden’s residents with their local High Streets during the working day. We’re using the Camden Green Loop, of which the Highline is a key section to lay the foundation for a 20-minute Camden. The Camden Highline and our work in Euston will link existing green trails, lower exposure routes and existing parks into a four-mile circular walk. Locals and visitors will be able to explore the loop, which connects local high streets with green spaces and world-renowned visitor attractions as part of a day-long London adventure.
For transport authorities
We all know that Camden Town tube is busy, less known is that the crowds there are the bottleneck for the entire Northern line. As such, anything that helps relieve pressure on it is warmly welcomed by TfL. By providing a direct connection to Camden Road overground and a new walking route to King’s Cross, the Highline will help reduce pressure on the station and therefore the line. Network Rail and TfL are both incredibly supportive of the project and are helping to make it happen.
New public infrastructure pays for itself many times over, but the bulk of the financial gain is captured by an increase in the value of properties around it. Property prices around the New York Highline rose by 200% during its construction. Closer to home, TfL have analysed eight of their prospective projects, with total costs of £36bn, and found that they would produce land value uplifts of about £87bn. In the future we aim to pilot a mechanism to capture a portion of this gain and use it to fund the infrastructure itself, a win-win-win for property owners, local residents and public finances. For now, we’ve done the calculations and can use this to make the case for the Highline to property owners around the route, large and small.
Where we’re up to
The land is spare, the plan is feasible, the benefits are measurable, and we’ve got support from the players we need. Behind this sentence there is an intimidating backend of technical feasibility reports, land disposal evaluations, financial modelling, benefits analyses, site planning and stakeholder engagement.
What you can do to help
Victoria park was built on the back of a mass petition to Queen Victoria, continuing to grow awareness and support is how we can build the Highline. Tell your friends and neighbours about it, sign up to our mailing list to hear the latest news and volunteering opportunities, write to your local councillor or MP or get in touch with us with ideas. As always, donations are gratefully received.
Who we are
We’re an alliance of four non-profit organisations with separate boards but shared staff: Camden Town Unlimited, Euston Town, Camden Collective and the Camden Highline.
We began in 2006 as Camden Town Unlimited which is a business improvement district (BID), an organisation that provides local services and projects and is funded by the businesses in the area through an opt-in taxation mechanism. It was joined by Euston Town, a similar organisation for Euston in 2016. To continue operating a BID must be re-elected by its membership every five years, which means it’s entirely possible for one to succeed by only providing direct services to its members. We do that kind of stuff, but we also realized that we could use our unique position and relationships to lead more ambitious place-shaping strategies by using the BIDs as a launching platform for sister charities like Camden Collective and now the Camden Highline.
Camden Collective supports start-up businesses by transforming vacant buildings into free work, retail and community spaces. Migratory in nature, Collective has occupied 18 buildings since 2009, ranging from single occupier shops to a vacant hospital with room for 500 members. It’s where we finessed the model we’re using for the Highline: a self-sufficient sister charity with a broad range of social objectives, but also direct benefits to our member businesses (Collective members spend £850k a year in local businesses), allowing us to use our money to unlock additional funding from other sources to maximise our social good. It’s also where we cut our teeth on the use of vacant space and infrastructure.
Like Collective, the Camden Highline is a separate organisation. It will benefit local businesses, which means we can contribute our time and experience to managing the project, but we’re too small to do it alone. Our job is to build the arguments, bring others in, explain the benefits to them and assemble the Friends of the Camden Highline; the alliance of residents, businesses, funders and government who will make it happen.
Creation of Royal parks: https://www.royalparks.org.uk/whats-on/blog/henry-viii-and-the-royal-parks
Land value around the New York Highline: https://provocations.darkmatterlabs.org/a-smart-commons-528f4e53cec2
TfL Land value uplift analysis: https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/land_value_capture_report_transport_for_london.pdf
Rules of The Potato Race: Two rows of potatoes are placed on the ground, about three feet apart and a basket is placed between the rows at one end. The race is to be the first to pick up the potatoes in your row with a teaspoon and deposit them in the basket without touching them with your fingers. It is difficult to get the potatoes onto the spoons and then rather a feat to run with them to the basket without dropping them on the way. If they fall off the spoon, they must be picked up again by it, without touching them with your hand as before.