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New York’s High Line Park sets the bar for urban regeneration

A once-disused rail line in Manhattan has become one of the city’s favourite parks. It shows how innovative regeneration can redefine urban landscapes

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The High Line Park has made the most of abandoned land in New York, creating more green public spaces for local residents to enjoy  

What to do with the decrepit and rundown parts of a city is the sort of thing that gets squabbled over for many years by numerous interested parties. From local government to private property owners, conservationists to real estate developers, disused city districts are highly fought-over spaces.

While some would like out-of-use areas to be converted to meet the demands of the city – be it housing, transport or office space – others would rather see them reclaimed for wider public use. Green spaces in populated cities are often few and far between. In particularly populous cities like New York there is little space for citizens, other than one or two large parks, such as the admittedly huge Central Park in the middle of Manhattan. Providing people with greener spaces that can be enjoyed outside of the usual working week is something all good cities should strive to do.

Providing people with greener spaces that can be enjoyed outside of the usual working week is something all good cities should strive to do

Another difficulty is what to do with space that is too small to be converted into proper buildings. Disused rail lines, for example, can be found across many cities across the world, especially in countries where ambitious transport infrastructure was built and then seen to be either inadequate or superfluous.

However, innovative plans for what was an expensive part of New York’s subway line have shown how cities can transform rundown areas into new attractions. Originally built in 1929, the High Line was a 13-mile project that ran elevated across the west of Manhattan. Built at a cost of $150m – a sum that would now be worth over $2bn – it soon fell out of favour and began to be closed and demolished. Much of the line was axed in the 1960s, and more was shut off in the 1980s. A short section remained, unused, until the turn of the century.

In 1999, Manhattan residents and property owners began campaigning for the disused rail line to be converted for public use. While the southern section was demolished to make way for new apartments, the rest sat out of use for 40 years while the surrounding neighbourhoods of Chelsea and the Meatpacking District became sought-after locales.

The High Line Park, unveiled in 2009 and currently being extended, runs through the western part of Manhattan. A mile-long walkway decorated with plant life, it offers a unique view of Manhattan and has breathed new life into an area that was once run down.

Transforming cities
Such has been its success that nearby property prices have soared, while new developments are sprouting up around it, bolstered by the value it has brought to the area. Other cities are looking to replicate the success, while some were one step ahead of New York – notably Paris with its popular Promenade Plantée. How easy these models are to replicate depends on a number of factors.

Witold Rybczynski, Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, says that part of the reason for the success of the High Line and the Promenade Plantée are their locations within interesting, historic neighbourhoods, meaning it would be hard to replicate in other US cities. “Very few American cities… can offer the same combination of history and density.”

Frequented by locals and tourists alike, the High Line Park comes to life in springtime
Frequented by locals and tourists alike, the High Line Park comes to life in springtime

The High Line is especially attractive to locals in Manhattan who can’t enjoy the sort of outdoor green space that most other cities have. “While the High Line may have become a fashionable distraction for out-of-town visitors, it succeeds because it offers a green outlet to its many neighbours, who, like Parisians, live in small apartments. In no other American city do residents rely so much on communal green space, rather than backyards, for relaxation,” says Rybczynski.

The form of the High Line and Promenade Plantée gives them a distinct characteristic, compared to traditional urban landscaping, says Rybczynski. “The Promenade Plantée and the High Line are similar: although its landscaping is more traditional than that of the relentlessly hip High Line, the Promenade Plantée is likewise tightly squeezed between buildings. And unlike Olstead’s parks, which were intended to provide a green escape from urban bustle, they both offer a new way of experiencing the city – from above. It is the unexpected views of surrounding buildings that make walking the High Line such a memorable experience.”

Rybczynski has been keen to highlight the origins of landscape urbanism. “The use of landscapes to influence urban development dates back 150 years, to when Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux laid out Central Park, so it is not entirely clear that landscape urbanism is really so new. Nor is the idea of elevated linear parks built on old railroad tracks: it actually originated in Paris in 1988 with the design of the Promenade Plantée, a 2.8-mile-long series of gardens built atop an abandoned railway viaduct in the Right Bank’s 12th Arrondissement, anchored by the Opera Bastille at one end and the Bois de Vincennes at the other.”

Replicating success
Since the High Line was unveiled, numerous cities in the US and elsewhere have talked of similar projects. Chicago, Philadelphia, Jersey City and St Louis have considered the same solution for their disused urban spaces, while Europe’s capitals have enthusiastically discussed similar designs.

A couple jogs along High Line Park, making the most of inner-city public space away from busy roads
A couple jogs along High Line Park, making the most of inner-city public space away from busy roads

In London, Mayor Boris Johnson has announced he would like to replicate the High Line over some of the UK capital’s many out-of-use tube and rail links. A competition last year to devise new green infrastructure around abandoned urban spaces received almost 200 entries. However, it remains to be seen whether any of them will actually get implemented. One new construction is currently underway – a new bridge by designer Thomas Heatherwick that will provide a plant-filled walkway across the Thames River.

While these regenerative projects are attractive, they are also expensive. The combined cost of the first two phases of New York’s High Line was more than $150m – a considerable sum for a small urban park. A third of this was raised through private funding, but ongoing upkeep is paid for by the city.

Finding the funding for this in places like London might prove difficult, especially as there is such demand for property developments and housing, as well as better transport infrastructure. However, while cities certainly need to be better connected, they also need to be liveable spaces that citizens enjoy being in. Providing green spaces in innovative ways can help already cramped cities achieve this and allow people to feel that they don’t existence merely to wake up and go to work.

High Line Timeline

NY-High-Line-Park

1929

The State of New York agrees to implement the West Side Improvement Project after accidents between trains and traffic in the city

1934

The High Line opens to trains, running from 34th Street to Spring Street

1950s

Increasing use of trucking leads to a drop in rail traffic

1960s

Southernmost section of the High Line is demolished

1980

The last train runs on the High Line

1999

Friends of the High Line is founded

2006

Ground is broken on Section 1 of the rejuvenated High Line

2008

Final designs for the High Line public park are released

June 2009

Section 1 opens to the public

June 2011

Section 2 opens to the public

September 2012

Work begins on the High Line at the Rail Yards, with the first phase projected to be complete in 2014

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