Naturally Philly is a new Billy Penn column that explores the city’s wildlife and plants — both familiar and extraordinary — that thrive or struggle in our urban environment.

It won’t be your typical walk in the park.

When the ribbon is cut on June 14 for the city’s newest open space, the Rail Park, visitors will experience a very different kind of village green. The long-awaited first phase of the park is not like the signature Philadelphia “square” with an expanse of low grass bordered by sidewalks, streets or towering trees.

“There is no lawn. So that will be a big difference,” said landscape architect Bryan Hanes, whose firm developed the schematic for the park.

His fourth-floor studio has an excellent view of Phase 1, a quarter-mile stretch that runs from Broad and Noble Streets along Callowhill, then curves south to 11th Street, and Hanes thinks he won the design project partially because he was in the neighborhood. His landlord graciously moved Studio Bryan Hanes to the building’s Callowhill Street side so staff could watch the daily progress.

Credit: Mark Henninger / For Billy Penn

Several other features also differentiate the Rail Park from your typical Philly public space, including its elevated (and, in later phases, submerged) sections, which offer ever-changing views of the city skyline.

But the plants along the undulating path of the former Reading Railroad line should feel familiar to many Philadelphians. Hanes and his team found opportunity to design a variety of landscapes. Where there is ample soil along the stone walls, large trees can rise. Where there is limited soil strata atop the bridges, Hanes plans low meadows and woodland edges.

“So your experience in walking the elevated piece can be through a shady grove, out into the sun and meadows, and then back into a grove,” said Hanes.

Credit: Mark Henninger / For Billy Penn

The Rail Park’s horticultural design is a “simple palette” with three main layers, he explained.

Hardy London plane trees — “the classic park tree” found along the outer lanes of the Ben Franklin Parkway and throughout the city — will dominate the upper layer. Multi-stem oaks and Kentucky coffee trees will fill in the medium layer, along with shorter redbuds and other flowering trees, American holly and Eastern red cedars. A birch grove will “play off the window boxes” that adorn a neighboring apartment building, like “a domestic landscape writ large,” Hanes said.

The lower level of plants will be more diverse, with arrangements of shrubs and perennials that include:

  • Bottlebrush buckeye
  • Oak leaf hydrangea and viburnums
  • Sedges, tall grasses and ground covers
  • Several varieties of fern
  • Sumac
  • Asters
  • Sage
  • Goldenrod
  • Milkweed
  • Alum root
  • Wild petunias
  • Wild indigo
Credit: Mark Henninger / For Billy Penn

“A kind of wildness” was always the desire of the neighbors who envisioned a linear rail park along the Reading Viaduct, per Sarah McEneaney, vice chair of the park’s friends group.

“The first part of [Manhattan’s] High Line was over-horticultured,” she said. “We didn’t want that.”

In order to build the park, much of the wildness had to be stripped away. “We had to waterproof the deck and the bridge,” Hanes explained. “Every speck of dirt had to come out of it.”

Among the plants that removed were a host of invasives, such as Japanese knotweed, as well as “garden escapees” including a Southern magnolia. A cluster of admired Chinese elm trees also was removed, as were many pawlonia trees, which have a special place in local hearts.

The elms have been replaced with birch, Hanes said, and the London planes, “another chunky leaved canopy,” are taking the place of the pawlonias.

Credit: Mark Henninger / For Billy Penn

“In a lot of ways we’re replicating the character of what was there with a mostly native palette,” Hanes noted, “A lot of people in the neighborhood were really in love with the way the place looked.”

Pawlonias are still on view, emerging from empty lots and any opportune space in the surrounding neighborhood. Other wild things like trumpet honeysuckle vines and the Virginia creeper adorning the chain link along the rail line will also have their place within the new park.

Phase 1 will take a little while to fill in. The perennials and grasses could be well established by end of summer, Hanes hopes. The trees and other woody materials will take a little longer.

Environmental conditions atop the Viaduct aren’t expected to be overly challenging.

“The microclimate doesn’t really change that much; it’s not on top of a 26-story building,” Hanes said. However, this is a public park and could be exposed to a certain amount of abuse by those who use it. “We’re focusing on what can survive those conditions.”

Credit: Mark Henninger / For Billy Penn

The park will be maintained by the Friends group in partnership with Parks & Recreation and Center City District.

“We wanted something sustainable, that didn’t require a lot of maintenance,” vice chair McEneaney said. “We know it will be heavily used, and we’ll take care of it.”

She isn’t ready yet to speculate on the timeline for completion of other parts of the Rail Park. But she believes once people see and use Phase 1, “they will want more.”