New York High Line: pioneer in reusing infrastructure

25 May 2018

The High Line has enjoyed phenomenal success since opening nearly ten years ago, but its creators didn’t get everything right. Elly Earls asks what lessons this New York landmark has for today’s infrastructure reuse projects, speaking to High Line co-creator Robert Hammond, 11th Street Bridge park director Scott Kratz and MVRD senior project leader Kyo Suk Lee.

New York’s High Line has become the poster child for infrastructure reuse. No conversation about the regenerative – and headline-generating – power of architecture is complete without a mention of the prestige parkland project, and no mention of a new example of railroad or highway transformation fails to draw comparisons with it. In terms of impacting the popular conversation about the regenerative power of architecture, it is arguably the closest the 21st century has got, so far, to creating a new ‘Guggenheim effect’.

The High Line’s 2km stretch of elevated railway, with its self-seeded greenery, art installations, live performances, wellness classes and community-outreach programmes, first opened to the public in 2009, ten years after its founders Robert Hammond and Joshua David began advocating for its preservation and reuse. Since then, its popularity has exceeded its creators’ wildest dreams.

The project is on track to generate about $1 billion in tax revenues over the next 20 years and in 2017 will bring in eight million visitors, more than any other destination in New York city. Originally, Hammond gave the project a one in 100 chance of even happening and hoped for 300,000 visitors a year. Others thought these were generous predictions.

Gentrification in action

Yet, in many ways the project has been a victim of its own success. Hammond says it was only a coincidence that he and David teamed up on the High Line – they happened to sit next to each other and exchanged business cards at a community board meeting about the project. He’s the first to admit there were many areas in which they could have done better, particularly when it comes to social equity.

Indeed, a cursory glance around the neighbourhood reveals more luxury condos than affordable housing, and high-end bars and restaurants in place of mom-and-pop convenience stores. Chelsea’s gentrification has been incredibly rapid, and it’s a transformation that has at least partially been attributed to the High Line.

It’s something Hammond wished he’d addressed earlier in the project’s planning process – “Once you create value, it’s very hard to capture it back,” he says. This is why his current focus, through peer-to-peer group the High Line Network, is to help current and future infrastructure reuse projects in the US reach their full potential, and become truly equitable public spaces.

“The High Line was successful because we didn’t have any experience, so we had to rely on other people for a lot of different expertise,” he recalls. “The reason we created this network is that, in a lot of cases, people are doing it better than we did and while there are definitely things we have to teach, it’s more about how we can learn from each other and together establish a set of best practices.

“The most important thing for me is that it’s not about doing it like the High Line. There’s not one way. In fact, when people say they want to build [another] High Line, I never pay much attention to those projects, because that’s not really interesting. The way we’ve been most helpful is that we’ve made the crazy credible and now we can help other projects move along faster.”

Community first

One of the biggest lessons Hammond has learned over the years is that the key to the success is for urban regeneration projects to address the needs of the communities around them. Moreover, what makes these “hybrid spaces”, as he calls them, most interesting isn’t their design – although many are striking and sensitive to their surroundings – but the goals of the organisations behind them. “They’re part park, part public square, part museum, part botanical garden, part theatre, part social service organisation and every different one is a different combination,” he says.

Take 11th Street Bridge Park, which is set to open to the public in Washington DC in late 2019. Designed by OMA and US landscape architecture studio OLIN, which were selected after a design competition in 2014, the project will connect two historically disparate sides of the Anacostia River with a series of outdoor programmed spaces and active zones, including a new neighbourhood park, an environmental education centre, a plaza, a performance space, a hammock grove and a cafe.

Aesthetically speaking, the two see-sawing planes that frame the triangulated park, and the waterfalls and native trees at either end of the bridge, are eye-catching and functional. But it’s the equitable development aspect of the project that really excites Hammond.

Already, Building Bridges Across the River, the non-profit organisation behind the project, has established a homebuyers’ club that provides financial education for residents within a one-mile radius of the park, and connects them with resources to demystify the home-buying process. It also has a community land trust that guarantees affordable housing for them ad infinitum, and holds tenants’ rights workshops. These are just three of the 19 recommendations the project’s equitable development taskforce has come up with, under the categories of workforce development, small business enterprise and housing, after seven months of consultation with local community stakeholders.

But the process actually started years earlier. “Before we got any architects, landscape architects or even engineers involved, we spent two years just going out and talking to the community, sort of asking them for permission,” says the park’s director, Scott Kratz. “Then, when we had lots of enthusiasm for the idea, we asked them to help us make sure this future park could meet the needs of the community. Our community stakeholders reviewed the design brief before a single design team saw it, and over the course of the design competition met with the final design teams again and again. At the end of the process, they made a recommendation to the jury and it turned out that everyone was unanimous.”

Looking forward, Kratz has teamed up with Washington DC-based think tank the Urban Institute to ensure that they have a robust measurement tool for each of the 19 recommendations. And Hammond agrees that the success of projects such as 11th Street Bridge Park needs to be measured on more than economic value. “We are working on coming up with a set of metrics that these sorts of projects could use to measure their success. It’s not just about the economics, it’s also about social and environmental metrics,” he says.

Global growth

Infrastructure renewal projects are not restricted to North America. One of the most widely publicised cases for 2017 – Seoullo 7017 – is in South Korea’s dynamic capital. Like the High Line, it’s a re-imagining of a transport route, in this case a highway overpass that had been destined for demolition. But unlike its US predecessor, Seoullo serves to connect two parts of the city that pedestrians couldn’t previously walk between without a 30-minute detour.

The 983m-long, MVRDV-designed sky garden is home to more than 24,000 plants and is expected to serve as an urban nursery in the future. It also connects with two surrounding buildings and, as it expands over the coming years, could link up with many more. The final phase of its development will involve creating connections to street level.

In the first two weeks after it opened, Seoullo attracted one million visitors, three to four times more than its architects expected. But now it faces similar issues to the High Line, according to Kyo Suk Lee, senior project leader at MVRDV. “The economic benefit is already very clear, because the land prices get higher and higher. For example, there was a discussion with one building that wanted to connect to us that, by connecting to our project, would get an almost €200-million increase in value. The issue is how to manage that without drastic gentrification and make sure it is socially sustainable,” he says. Discussions on this issue are currently ongoing with the city’s mayor, whose dedication to urban regeneration has resulted in a swathe of similar projects across Seoul.

The rapid pace at which infrastructure reuse projects have popped up worldwide is often credited to the success of the High Line, but for Hammond, that’s much too narrow a view. “These are trends that are happening in cities right now – there’s no more land available to just build a park from scratch. Land has to do double, triple and quadruple duty now,” he says. “What people want, and their idea of culture, is also changing – they don’t want to go into a box for art or theatre; they want to have experiences with each other in communities.”

Because of this, the rules about public spaces are changing – from who owns them to their function, whether that’s to connect, entertain or educate, and how their success is measured. The hope is that through groups like the High Line Network, which Hammond would eventually like to expand beyond the US, the next generation of projects will learn from the mistakes of the past and from each other, to achieve the right balance between economic, social and environmental success.

The Seoullo 7017 sky garden in South Korea is a reimagining of a highway overpass.
The High Line’s self-seeded green spaces.
The High Line in New York.

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