This week the second section of New York’s iconic High Line park opened with almost as much fanfare as the first section got when it opened in June 2009 and drew 2 million visitors in its first 10 months.
What makes the High Line so unique as an urban park is that it rises 30 feet above the street on a 1930s elevated freight line that was slated for destruction after the last train ran on it in 1980. Only the action of neighborhood community groups, committed to preservation of what they regarded as a local landmark, saved the High Line.
High Line concepts are being considered for other cities across the country. And well they should. For the message the High Line sends is: Treat your urban ruins carefully. They may be more valuable than you think.
The difficulty with trying to apply the High Line concept to other cities, as the architectural historian Witold Rybczynski recently observed, is that few cities have New York’s density. The High Line could not, for example, work in an old, industrial area people avoid, or in a neighborhood in which it towered over one- and two-story homes.
The density argument is that this works because there is a large nearby population. Visitors from elsewhere, other neighborhoods of the city or suburbanites or tourists, can also come but the park is sustained by daily visits from nearby residents. Urban amenities from parks to museums to public spaces need a steady population of visitors just to survive, let alone thrive. Just because they are unique or interesting is not a guarantee that visitors will come.
But there is another angle to this as well. In the case of the High Line, we need to hear more about how the neighborhood and the city help make this possible: what is it about this particular social setting that creates an environment where this park can succeed? Witold Rybcynzski makes this argument:
The High Line may be a landscaping project, but a good part of its success is due to its architectural setting, which, like the 12th Arrondissement, is crowded with interesting old and new buildings. The park courses through the meatpacking district and Chelsea, heavily populated, high-energy residential neighborhoods. Very few American cities — and Manhattan is the densest urban area in the country — can offer the same combination of history and density.
Rybcynzski concludes by suggesting that this idea will end up becoming another “failed urban design strateg[y].”
So other cities could move in a couple of directions after this:
1. Try to build their own “High Line” anyway. Since this has gotten so much popular attention, someone is bound to try it. (Outside of Chicago, how many cities have existing elevated railroad structures?)
2. Look to develop their own unique repurposed structure(s). This would likely take different forms in different places but has the advantage of working with existing structures and the existing character of the community.
There must be other cities that have done something like this but how many of them are public spaces? I was thinking of several repurposed museum spaces, like the Tate Modern in London which was a former power station and the Museum of Science and Industry which dates back to the 1893 Columbian Exposition, but these require admission.