The High Line, Manhattan. Click to take a virtual walk

One of the co-founders of New York’s celebrated High Line, Robert Hammond, is in Australia explaining the fascinating story of how a disused elevated railway line on Manhattan’s west side was turned into a beautifully landscaped linear park.

Given its high international visibility and iconic status, it’s not surprising cities around the world are keen to understand the secret of the High Line’s success and emulate it if they can.

Writing in The Conversation this week, Melbourne University academic, Kim Dovey, said (Could Australia build a New York Highline?):

The obvious lesson from the Highline lies in the opportunities that emerge when trains are removed from the city.

Professor Dovey’s right on that score (1), but I think there’s a number of other issues the High Line highlights for the managers of cities elsewhere, especially those whose imagination and ambition has been fired by New York’s success (e.g. see New York-style elevated park plan for Ultimo).

First, in some cases we’d be better off reserving disused infrastructure for its original or related purpose rather than redeveloping it as a park or something else. Sydney’s new light rail line from Central to Dulwich Hill was feasible because it largely uses an abandoned rail line. Likewise, the extension of Melbourne’s Epping rail line to South Morang uses the alignment left over from a disused track. It’s likely re-using these reserves for new rail lines gives a higher social return than it would have if they’d been developed as (say) linear parks.

Second, a related issue is that if disused infrastructure is given another purpose, it could be very hard to come along later and reuse it for its original purpose. For example, the alignments of Melbourne’s former Inner Circle and Outer Circle railway lines were converted to linear parks with walking/cycling trails. Any proposal to now reuse some of the reserve for an orbital light or heavy rail line (e.g. to assist with decoupling of the Sth Morang line) would meet with stiff opposition from residents.

Third, some disused infrastructure should simply be pulled down. There was a proposal last year for Sydney’s monorail to be re-purposed as a cycle and pedestrian path, but as I explained here (Sydney, what’re you thinking?!), the city would be better off if the blight was removed entirely. I also think Sydney would be better off if the frequent calls to demolish the Cahill Expressway were acted on rather than (say) converting it to a linear park in the manner of the High Line.

Fourth, landscaped walking and cycling trails are valuable in their own right. It isn’t necessary to wait for the rare occasions when infrastructure is no longer needed for its original purpose. We can build paths now if we want, including elevated ones like the High Line. They make sense for walking and cycling because these are modes where the quality of the journey itself matters much more than it does for driving. Much of the appeal of the High Line comes from the novel perspective of the city it provides.

Fifth, projects like the High Line aren’t universally well-received. It’s been criticised for aiding gentrification of the areas it passes through. Some New Yorkers complain (e.g. Disney World on the Hudson) about the hordes of tourists and the declining profitability of light industrial businesses like the auto service establishments in the area’s “gasoline alley”.

Finally, and arguably most importantly, the High Line is a hard act to emulate. As I explained a year ago (Can other cities emulate the success of New York’s High Line?), other cities shouldn’t assume they too can create an instant international icon by re-purposing unused infrastructure. The next “High Line”, whether in London, Chicago or elsewhere, isn’t going to have the same first-mover advantage.

Nor should other cities expect their version of the “High Line” will necessarily have the same transformative effect in terms of land use and economic activity as New York’s original. They should have regard for the special circumstances that applied in the west side.

There’ll probably only ever be one High Line. I think the BBC News offered some sound advice:

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.

Politicians like Melbourne’s Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle, should take note. It’s very unlikely that spending $6 million to landscape Melbourne’s Sandridge Bridge will turn it into “one of Melbourne’s most internationally iconic landmarks” as Mr Doyle would have residents believe. It’s a good thing, but not that good.

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  1. I’m sure Professor Dovey would agree that it’s more than just disused rail lines e.g. disused freeways. He goes on to discuss the scope for using “leftover” spaces over, around and under existing and new railways to accommodate “difficult industries” and “low rent activities”. Interestingly, he also advocates greater use of elevated rail lines in urban areas.