New York's High Line - a linear park built on a disused elevated railway in the Lower West Side

New York’s new elevated linear park, the High Line, is one of the highest profile urban design successes of recent years.

It’s all the more remarkable because, says architecture critic Paul Goldberger, New York is a place where “good things rarely happen easily and where good designs are often compromised, if they are built at all.”

The High Line is an enormous hit. It attracts a claimed four million visitors a year and has generated $2 billion worth of new economic activity.

It’s now one of the most popular cultural destinations for tourists in Manhattan. It’s had a far-reaching impact, transforming the Lower West Side by drawing in gentrifying land uses and driving up property values.

Not surprisingly, lots of other places want to emulate the High Line miracle. Similar projects are in early stage development in St Louis, Philadelphia, Jersey City, Rotterdam and more.

Something like the High Line is proposed as part of the redevelopment of the Bishopsgate Goods Yards in London and the British Landscape Institute recently ran a ‘High Line for London’ competition. In Chicago, it’s envisaged the former 3 mile elevated Bloomingdale rail line could be converted into a linear park and trail to connect “neighborhoods, the river and Chicago’s great park system.”

Closer to home, architect David Vago was inspired by the High Line to propose turning Sydney’s monorail track into a walking and cycling path. Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle proposes converting part of the former Sandridge rail bridge into “a park oasis over the Yarra”.

Imaginations aren’t limited to elevated rail tracks. In Manhattan, there’s also a well-developed proposal for the Lowline (a.k.a The Delancey Underground), an underground park using the abandoned Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal and lit naturally by fibre optics.

There’s now growing experience with urban freeway removal. In South Korea, demolition of the Cheonggye freeway enabled construction of a 3.6 mile linear park based on restoration of a seasonal waterway (covered over when the freeway was built).

There’re plenty of more modest instances of disused infrastructure being converted into parks, too. For example, the former Inner Circle and Outer Circle railway lines in Melbourne were converted to an inner suburban cycling and walking trail.

The High Line is especially notable because it’s an example of how amenity-enhancing infrastructure can generate enormous change. It’s often assumed only “productive” or “economic” infrastructure, like roads or rail lines, can generate change on that sort of scale.

The High Line was also cost-effective. The first two stages, from Gansevoort Street to W 30th Street, cost the city a modest $152 million, of which around a quarter was financed by donations. The new park is estimated to generate $900 million over 20 years in revenue for the city.

It has its downsides though. Some New Yorkers complain about the hordes of tourists and the declining profitability of light industrial businesses like the auto service establishments in the area’s “gasoline alley”. One critic, Jeremiah Moss, says:

Not yet four years old, the High Line has already become another stop on the must-see list for out-of-towners, another chapter in the story of New York City’s transformation into Disney World….But the problem isn’t just the crowds. It’s that the park, which will eventually snake through more than 20 blocks, is destroying neighborhoods as it grows. And it’s doing so by design. While the park began as a grass-roots endeavor — albeit a well-heeled one — it quickly became a tool for the Bloomberg administration’s creation of a new, upscale, corporatized stretch along the West Side.

It’s hard to see from today’s vantage point how it would matter on the Lower West Side, but in other cities conversion of unused transport alignments to linear parks runs the risk of foreclosing future transport options should the need ever arise. Equally though, there’s a cost to leaving reserves vacant against an uncertain future possibility.

It’s quite plausible that cities with suitable disused or unwanted infrastructure can create something like the High Line and be decidedly better off. Generating the same level of visibility and scale of land use change as the High Line would be much harder however.

Although not the first modern conversion of elevated rail to park (that honour belongs to the Promenade Plantée in Paris, built 1986-93), the High Line has produced enormous positive publicity. I suspect that’s for a combination of reasons that can’t be duplicated easily elsewhere.

Having access to an unwanted and cheap elevated rail line that provides a new perspective (in fact a series of them) for visitors on one of the world’s great and currently fashionable cities isn’t a common combination. This is a personal take, but I think the High Line makes a place that’s mostly visually uninteresting a lot more exciting.

For residents, it provides high quality open space in a dense city that has very little. It’s located in an area that was ripe for redevelopment and abetted by the highly constrained scope for redevelopment in most other parts of Manhattan.

It also has novelty on its side. The next elevated linear park, whether in London, Chicago or elsewhere, isn’t going to have the same “first mover” advantage.

Further, the High Line comes with an engaging narrative. It’s seen as a grass roots initiative, driven by the vision and passion of two locals, Joshua David and Robert Hammond. It’s had the support of Hollywood actors and other high profile New Yorkers.

So while it presents a model other cities would do well to learn from, they shouldn’t expect anything like the transformative effect of the High Line. There’ll probably only ever be one High Line. I think the BBC News offered some sound advice:

But if it stays true to the spirit of the original, the next High Line won’t be a high line at all – it will be something else, something very unexpected.

The High Line is a great achievement and how it came about should be closely studied for the lessons it offers. Paul Goldberger says it’s

that rare New York situation in which a wonderful idea was not only realized but turned out better than anyone had imagined. It isn’t often in any city, let alone New York, that an unusually sophisticated concept for a public place makes its way through the design process, the political process, and the construction process largely intact.

(I’m not going to go into it now but I do wonder if the success of the High Line suggests we should think more about the scope for elevated pedestrian ways and transport routes in our cities. Maybe another time.)

Note: Here’re the entrants and winners for the High Line design competition. Or take a virtual walk along the High Line – see second exhibit, below.

Go for a walk along the High Line via Google Street View (heading south from W 30th Street