Walk down 18th Street in Manhattan’s gritty Chelsea neighborhood and you’ll come across a metal stairway that will take you up to a narrow strip of lush park, a mile and half long and three stories above street level. The High Line is perhaps the best known urban repurposing success story of the last half century – NYC’s newest park built atop a hulking freight rail spur erected by the New York Central Railroad in 1934.
The tenacious nonprofit group, The Friends of the High Line, saved this elevated rail line from demolition after it sat unused for decades and was seen as a liability. Their vision: turn the rusting and weed-choked infrastructural behemoth into a promenade of sorts. The idea is modeled off the Promenade Plantée, a three-mile long Parisian viaduct that was successfully transformed into green space in 1993. And it worked, very, very well. The High Line opened in 2009 and ignited a storm of attention and investment that has caused other US and international cities to start looking at their own disused infrastructure as a new home for green space, unique tourist experiences, and engines of economic activity.
How does a project like this work so well? From a design perspective, floating above the noise and congestion at street level, a raised linear park provides an uncommon experience of the urban environment. At a raised and protected perspective, it puts the skyline on display in a multifaceted way that traditional greenspace cannot. Between its swooping benches and professionally curated planting, the High Line functions as a strolling Manhattan looking glass just as much as it does as a destination onto itself. That combination of contemporary urban design and unique visitor experience is what draws people, to the tune of 5 million annual visitors in a neighborhood once better known for meat packing than a world class park.
What the High Line has also proven is that reuse projects that create intriguing public space are powerful catalysts for economic investment. $150 million from a combination of public and private sources built the High Line. And in the seven years since completion, has yielded an estimated $2 billion dollars of private investment in the surround blocks and brought in more than $900 million in additional tax revenue for the city – a stratospheric return on investment. It’s this type of success what helped push forward similar retrofits such as The 606 in Chicago’s northwestern neighborhoods, which converted the elevated Bloomingdale Line that had sat unused for over a decade into a 2.7-mile trail and system of small parks; and has helped double property values along some stretches of the line. Planners and developers have long known that properties adjacent to parks and waterfronts are more valuable. These new projects, part park, part trail, and part viewing deck, are proving this trend in a new way.
Gentrification is, however, elbowing out many of the residents that called these neighborhoods home before reinvestment started. In the case of New York City, Chelsea was once known as the landing place for artists and small businesses looking for more affordable rent. Around the High Line is now home to boutique hotels and condos selling for millions of dollars. The 606 bisects some of Chicago’s most bustling immigrant neighborhoods that now are feeling the pressure of higher rents. This sheds light on the growing phenomena of environment gentrification. When urban develop strives to make a place ‘greener’ it often edges out underserved communities as those places become more attractive to well-heeled residents. And it’s a particularly difficult challenge to address with policy because the policies that can help buffer such community displacement most often operate at the county and state level and struggle to respond to rapid, localized development.
The High Line Effect is still in full effect. Singapore, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Rotterdam all have elevated parks in the works. As these amenities develop, it is important to consider two different views of urban sustainability. The first is cultural sustainability, striking a balance between development that attracts new residents and new investment while maintaining the fabric of existing communities. Regulations that help maintain affordable housing and participatory design that help ensure new public spaces meet the needs of locals residents are two mechanisms that can manage environmental gentrification. Second, linking these unique linear parks to larger non-motorized networks and thus drawing upon their capacity as connectors of housing and jobs will only improve their long term viability. The 606 is gradually tying into a bike lanes in Chicago, and The High Line will soon connect to Hudson Yard, the largest private development in US history. Cities will undoubtedly benefit from these nifty green spaces placed where you would least expect them. But we can expand on the original question: How does a project like this work well to improve the city as whole?
Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on September 15, 2016.