Urban trail construction booms in Philadelphia.

Greenway Dreams

Story Jenny Willden
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Vibrant restaurants, crowded sidewalks, and towering skyscrapers. These are things we love about living in our bustling city. And while the Wissahickon and Kelly Drive offer welcome doses of nature, as spring returns, we’re on the lookout for more green in the city. That’s where Philadelphia’s new urban trails come into play. From the Rail Trail to The Circuit, we’ve got the scoop on new greenways to get outdoors this spring—without ever leaving the 215.

Repurposed Railways

Elevated railways were once vital for transportation in Philadelphia and New York City, carrying passengers and freight into city centers. Used from the late 1800s to the early 1980s, these railroad viaducts were eventually abandoned and left to deteriorate. But as wild plants crept over the old tracks and calls to demolish the “eyesores” grew, a coalition of citizens advocated for an alternative future: revive the freight lines as elevated green spaces.

New York City’s rails-to-trails plan came to fruition first, with the lauded High Line rising in the Hudson Yards neighborhood in 2009. The 1½-mile parkway draws tourists and locals alike, with Instagrammable railroad track segments preserved to showcase its transportation past. Today the iconic High Line is arguably too successful, becoming a packed destination for art, food, and garden strolling 30 feet above the city streets.
Its achievement pushed forward Philadelphia’s plan for an elevated rail trail on the Monopoly-made-famous (albeit long abandoned) Reading Railroad Viaduct. Raising $10.3 million dollars was enough to get construction underway in 2016, and the Rail Park’s first quarter-mile section opened in 2018.

This first phase rises above Callowhill, a gritty post-industrial neighborhood that’s changing fast in the Rail Park’s wake. The park is a walkable oasis with city views, porch swings, art installations, and places for you—and your pup—to lounge and chill. Love City Brewing opened a few blocks away, and an outdoor pop-up bar called The Patio serves up creative cocktails and beers with midcentury vibes during summer months.

A Growing Greenway

The Rail Park’s initial construction is just a taste of what’s to come. As funds are raised, restoration of the worn viaduct will continue—with hopes for it to one day span three miles through 10 neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Cutting across 50 city blocks through elevated railroad platforms and tunnels, the completed Rail Park would be twice the length and width of New York City’s High Line (but who’s comparing?).

Philly’s Rail Park also differs from the High Line because of its three distinct zones: the current elevated section (the Viaduct), a below street level that’s open to the sky (the Cut), and an underground area (the Tunnel). Phase one is open daily and can be entered off Noble Street near the bridge over 13th or on Callowhill between 11th and 12th.

The park also hosts events such as February’s Lunar New Year festivities, which brought a Hong Kong–style celebration, dancing, a flower market, calligraphy classes, and themed food and drink to the space. And its nonprofit organization, Friends of the Rail Park, is also launching events to spearhead fundraising for the next phase. You can help by attending the April 2 Off the Rails fundraiser, which will honor advocates of public green spaces and just be a damn good time outside.

Once the full three-mile Rail Park is complete, it will give pedestrians and cyclists a safe, car-free path across the city while providing outdoor events, education, and recreation to residents and visitors.

The Circuit Trails

Beyond the Rail Park, the Greater Philadelphia region is quietly boosting its own new collective trail network called the Circuit Trails. You’ve likely run or biked a few of these trails without even knowing it. The name references a collective of 300 multiuse miles traversing southeast Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It’s already one of the largest trail networks in America—and it’s right in our backyard.

The Circuit Trails include some of Philadelphia’s most iconic paths, including the Schuylkill River Trail, Schuylkill Boardwalk, Manayunk Bridge Trail, Pennypack Trail, Cooper River Trail, and the Wissahickon’s Forbidden Drive.

From waterfront walks to forested paths, the Circuit’s trail diversity highlights how special Philadelphia is as a big city. You can quickly escape the skyscrapers and be alone in nature on a wide variety of biking and pedestrian paths. But many are disconnected from one another, requiring more work for cyclists and pedestrians to use them. This is a big reason why the Circuit Trails Coalition—a collaboration of nonprofit organizations, foundations, and agencies—is working so hard to advance the completion of the Circuit Trails in Greater Philadelphia.

Upcoming Developments

The Circuit Trails Coalition hopes to add 200 miles to its maps in five years, and while it may seem like an audacious goal, the group is on track to realize its dream by assuring the funding and completion of 166 in-the-works and in-the-pipeline trails.

Upcoming completions include linking the Delaware River Trail from Spring Garden Street to Washington Avenue, building a path between the Chester Valley Trail and the Schuylkill River Trail to create 89 miles of continuous trails, and building the 34-mile Wissahickon Gateway to connect Philly’s Schuylkill River Trail to Montgomery County. Connecting the paths adds to their appeal and promotes safer walking and riding in the region.

In West Fairmount Park, an abandoned, overgrown 19th century trolley line will rise again as the Trolley Trail, a five-mile loop for hikers and cyclists. The trolley brought city dwellers to the park until the 1940s, and this revived route will follow much of the original pathway, showcasing old bridge abutments and tunnels formerly used by the trolley.

By 2040, the goal is to complete an 800-mile Circuit Trail network. But you don’t need to wait 20 years to enjoy them. Visit circuittrails.org for maps and directions to current Circuit Trails, or use the site’s itinerary tool to find guides for 12 lauded trails.

Once completed, both the Rail Park and Circuit Trails will link the region’s urban, suburban, and rural communities, providing a vast network of connected paths for residents and visitors to enjoy. This spring, instead of another run on the crowded Schuylkill Boardwalk, take a new Philly trail for a spin.

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