© KPF/Plompmozes

The elevated Victorian rail viaduct weaves its sinuous way across South London, linking and sometimes severing diverse neighbourhoods and communities. It is a defining feature of much of south London.

How can the spaces along and adjacent to such a monumental piece of city infrastructure, built of brick and iron, be re-imagined as a rich and verdant resource, that can connect and support communities, commerce and wildlife?

The Low Line concept offers a new way to view the rail viaduct, and the role it plays in the neighbourhoods from Bankside in the west, through London Bridge to Bermondsey in the east. The Low Line will offer a continuous walking route along the base of the viaduct, which will be unlocked incrementally over time, linking with investment in the arches themselves, and in the sites adjacent to the viaduct.

Historically this structure has contributed to the segregation of communities in the 'urban interior' from the more active river edge. The Low Line offers a way to knit together spaces along the viaduct, so that they connect into the broader neighbourhood and help spread the benefits of economic activity deeper into Southwark.

This design competition is an opportunity for architects and landscape architects, ecologists, urban designers, artists, engineers, and other disciplines, to explore the many interconnected strands that the Low Line presents and to shape an exemplar green and creative vision for the viaduct. One that is rooted in sustainability – a jewel in the crown of London’s National Park City.

Recent stretches of the Low Line which have opened at Flat Iron Square and Union Yard Arches give a glimpse of how revealing blocked stretches along the base of the viaduct can help stitch the broader neighbourhood together. Our ambition is to expand this approach and continue to successfully unlock new stretches of the Low Line, supporting the movement of people, nature and commerce — providing spaces for social interaction, commercial activity, and for nature to thrive.

Developing and maintaining green infrastructure along linear assets provides multiple benefits and opportunities to create sustainable networks and corridors. Complementing these with connections to the surrounding landscape and places where people live and work adds further value. The Low Line provides a testing ground in the heart of London to explore these principles in greater depth.

A design competition that focuses on the Low Line's landscape and ecology will help us generate fresh ideas to visualise how the external spaces along the rail viaduct can support nature and wildlife in our inner-city neighbourhood, while supporting good growth in the adjacent rail arches. It will provide the opportunity to actively engage our project stakeholders in forging a shared vision for the Low Line.

The competition will also help raise visibility and awareness of the Low Line and will encourage people to think about its role. The methods we use to transform future stretches of the Low Line here could provide a template and exemplar for the regeneration of the wider viaduct network across Southwark and beyond.

The competition and resulting vision will enable greater community engagement in the wider Low Line project and provide opportunity for debate and activities to involve local and wider audiences in the project.

© Royal Institute of British Architects 2019