Ever since first hearing about the New York City’s newest park, the High Line, I have been transfixed by it, pouring over photos, reading articles, studying the plans. At first I thought it was the juxtaposition of this long ribbon of green amongst the skyscrapers that sparked my imagination, but it’s more than that. It intersects every one of my key interests – urban planning, community organizing, conservation, parks, and media.
For those who are new to the project, the High Line is a reclaimed elevated rail line that was set for demolition in the late 1990’s, but has instead been turned into an incredible raised park that winds through New York City’s western edge. The Friends of High Line providey a snapshot of the history on their site:
“The High Line was built in the 1930s, as part of a massive public-private infrastructure project called the West Side Improvement. It lifted freight traffic 30 feet in the air, removing dangerous trains from the streets of Manhattan’s largest industrial district. No trains have run on the High Line since 1980. Friends of the High Line, a community-based non-profit group, formed in 1999 when the historic structure was under threat of demolition. Friends of the High Line works in partnership with the City of New York to preserve and maintain the structure as an elevated public park.”
The High Line, in its original incarnation, embodies many of the aspects of urban planning that I feel are so lacking in many of our cities today. And the High Line, in its new life, came about in much the same way our nation’s most prominent national parks came into being: through the dedication of a small group of local citizens. That small group has grown into a powerhouse fundraising, planning and outreach organization.
I was first introduced to the High Line through a slide show over at the New York Times. The photos were stunning. Not only did the city and the local community reclaim this old rail line, they invested in a long ranging community conversation as part of the planning process and hired talented architects and designers to turn those ideas into actual spaces. Since that first set of photos I have seen a number of other incredible slideshows, capturing the park from all angles. The place seems to demand to be photographed.
Ten years ago I was living in Providence, Rhode Island when the mayor approved the rerouting of a series of highways that bisected the city. This sparked a debate about what to do with the old on-ramps and elevated roadway that would no longer be used. At the time, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) did an exhibit with designs for the old road from their students. One of the most stunning designs I saw there was a proposal to turn the old highway into a park. That never happened, and as far as I know Providence is planning to just tear down the old roadway, but when I first saw images of the High Line it was like seeing that idea become reality.
The idea isn’t that new. I can think of any number of post-apocalyptic novels that include vivid descriptions of abandoned cities with old clover-leaf on-and-off ramps wrapped in vines and being overtaken by nature. I’ve always found some alluring about this imagery, and I suppose it is nice to know we can achieve something close without wiping out all or most of humankind. Put another way, I am glad to see inventive people finding new ways to insert nature back into our urban centers. It reminds me a bit of other projects like guerrilla gardening and Park(ing) Day.
Part of my attraction to that imagery is a sense of awe and wonder about all that we have built, and a curiosity that borders on concern, regarding what will become of it all. I think that about big-box Borders bookstores which are all closing. I think that about old bridges that sit boarded up and fenced off. I think that about broad black swaths of pavement that have been laid down and then abandoned. The proactive reclamation of these spaces by local communities is a powerful story of laying claim to our space and place.
While in most cities we are seeing an eradication of public space, the High Line is a bold investment in creating more. The results are telling. According to the New York Times, crime rates on the High Line are low and there is a robust and growing economy sprouting up around the new park. People actually report that they feel like people in the park are friendlier, and that it has a small-town feel in the middle of the big city. There is yoga, art, dance and other classes offered on the High Line.
The response to the High Line has been amazing to watch. Measuring qualitatively through the stories I read or quantitatively in the number of dollars raised to support it, the park has been a huge success. I have to wonder if at the root of that response is some deep-seated desire for more of what this little park embodies. More community. More nature. More art and culture. More security. More public space.
If it does, then how should we respond? There is probably a High Line in every community – a site, a bridge, a building, a parking lot – that is just waiting to be recreated. What will you make of it?