Robert Hammond remembers the uphill battle he and Josh David faced when they tried to convince people that a derelict, weed-covered, elevated railway could become a beautiful park. In 1999, the High Line was a tough sell. Flash forward to 2017 and it’s one of New York City’s top destinations.
“We’ve made the crazy credible,” Hammond, the High Line’s executive director, tells Co.Design. “We spent 10 years trying to convince people that this would work at all, not that it would be successful.”
On any given day, thousands of people meander through the park. It has become one of New York’s most iconic landmarks. The neighborhood around the High Line has done an economic and cultural 180, too: Wealthy New Yorkers have moved in, and the stores, restaurants, and hotels they like to spend money in have arrived as well (at the expense of longtime residents). Cities around the world–upon seeing how an adaptive reuse project could become an economic engine–are eager to replicate the park’s success with their own aging infrastructure. At the same time, the High Line, along with the dozens of high-rises that have sprouted up alongside it, has become an emblem of a widening class divide that exists in the city.
“When we opened, we realized the local [New York City Housing Authority] community wasn’t coming to the park, and the three main reasons were: They felt it wasn’t built for them, they didn’t see people like them there, and they didn’t like the programming,” Hammond says,
Now, Hammond has embarked on a new project: the High Line Network, an organization, which just launched a brand new website. Its aim? To help cities working on their industrial adaptive reuse projects learn from the High Line’s stumbles–and from each other.
The network launched internally about a year ago and has now evolved into a public-facing platform for sharing information about infrastructural reuse, everything from news stories to updates on new projects in this realm. Together, leaders from the 19 different projects that comprise the network hope they can forge the next great public spaces. But will this collaborative effort be enough to help new parks avoid the High Line’s hiccups?
A Support Group For Next-Generation Park Designers
The 19 projects in the High Line Network represent a number of different adaptive reuse projects in various stages of progress, including Rail Park, a plan to turn three miles of disused railway in Philadelphia into a linear park; the Bentway, a proposal for a cultural hub beneath an expressway in Toronto; the 11th Street Bridge Park, a pedestrian walkway that will span the Anacostia River in southeastern Washington, D.C.; and Buffalo Bayou Park, a Houston initiative to make the city’s waterways accessible to the public. The inaugural group of members joined by invitation, based on some of the relationships the High Line had formed over the years.
While the projects vary in type, scope, and location, what unites them is an attempt to remake heavy-duty infrastructure into public space. Cities no longer have swathes of open space to build parks from scratch as they did 100 years ago, and the very definition of a park has changed. Cities now have to be more clever about where they find opportunities for public space. Because public space is in short supply–and real estate is expensive–these spaces have to pull double and triple duty to serve their communities. Meanwhile, cities have whittled their parks’ budgets down to virtually nothing, so securing development and long-term maintenance financing becomes a challenge.
“They’re these hybrid projects–they’re more complex than a public square,” Hammond says. “Thinking about those issues up front is important. It’s not that sexy, but it’s the core for making them successful.”
Over the years, many organizations contacted the High Line for tips and advice on how to navigate the arduous path to launching infrastructural reuse projects. But during these conversations, the High Line realized that it was often learning as much from the other organizations as those organizations learned from the park. Hammond thought that a peer-to-peer network of organizations could help everyone learn from one another, leading to the internal launch of the network about a year ago.
“Simply having a ‘family’ who is working on similar projects in diverse cities creates a great opportunity for sharing and testing of ideas,” says Paul Levy, president and CEO of the Center City District, one of the organizations developing Rail Park, in Philadelphia.
The Bentway, which is in its early stages, has been getting advice from the network’s various groups, whose projects are further along, on how to structure its board, how to address gentrification concerns through inclusionary zoning, and how to think about its involvement long-term with the project.
“Someone from the network remarked [to me], ‘There’s nothing like people using the space to tell you what you should have done,'” Judy Matthews, a philanthropist behind the Bentway, says. “And this is very wise. Based on the things we’ve heard, we know that we can only do our best, but we’ll need to keep adjusting and recalibrating. We’re designing for uncertainty.”
Designing Parks With True Equity
One of the biggest challenges facing these spaces involves equity. Communities are skeptical of them, and often oppose them because development usually heralds gentrification.
“A lot of the reason city governments want to do this is because it’s going to increase value,” Hammond says. “But what we want the cities to understand is the other issues–not just the economic impacts but the social impacts as well . . . [the issues surrounding these projects] used to be about fundraising and design, and people are realizing that the most critical point in these projects is social equity around their neighborhoods.”
The definition of “equity” as it relates to these projects is twofold. One is creating spaces that make people from all walks of life feel comfortable using and occupying them. The other is making sure that communities receive as much economic value from the spaces as possible.
“There’s not one thing you do,” Hammond says about approaching equity. Over the years, he and his organization have experimented with different ways to make the High Line more equitable. They polled the community to figure out what types of amenities and programs they’d like to see and integrated those suggestions, like hosting job training, into park. And they conduct outreach to public schools and host field trips so kids can learn about the park and feel comfortable inviting their parents and family to return.
Through the network, Hammond and the High Line are opening more formal lines of communication between organizations developing industrial reuse projects with these issues in mind.
Anne Olson, president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP)–the Houston organization behind Bayou Park–believes that for parks to be truly successful, they need equity designed into their DNA.
“Twenty-first-century parks need to reflect the desires and needs of the city’s population,” she tells Co.Design. “In this current politically charged environment, parks are the one equalizer. They are places where people of different views can interact and come together, whether its walking on a trail, attending a program, or volunteering.”
BBP is currently developing a park in a historically disadvantaged neighborhood, and the formation of the High Line Network coincided with the master planning process for that space. Discussing how different organizations have approached this helped the partnership figure out its strategy. For example, BBP established a stakeholder committee composed of community members, and hosted small backyard gatherings to learn about what’s important to them and keep them involved with the planning and programming process.
For the 11th Street Bridge Park, in Washington, D.C., equity was a part of the conversation from the get-go. One side of the bridge is in an area that has high poverty and unemployment rates, along with low home ownership rates. In 2014, the park’s leadership founded an equitable development task force to better understand the forces at play and come up with recommendations on how the development could benefit the community and promote equitable and inclusive growth.
For example, they propose establishing a community land trust and hosting tenants’ rights workshops. They want to structure job training workshops early enough so the community can gain employment from the construction of the park and from its maintenance and services after it opens. They also want to work with city leadership to initiate policies to preserve affordable housing within a one-mile radius of the park.
“Throughout our community-led process, it became clear that the Bridge Park had the potential to be more than just an innovative public space,” says Scott Kratz, director of the 11th Street Bridge Park. “In particular, the Bridge Park could symbolize a new unity and connection between a booming area of the city and one that has long been overlooked and excluded from the city’s economic progress.”
While the network wasn’t involved with Bridge Park’s equity research, its members can benefit from its findings. The High Line Network is currently developing a framework to help planners measure the social impact of projects. Information from all of the network’s organizations is feeding into it.
“Through the High Line Network, we can push each other further up our collective learning curve and avoid reinventing the wheel,” Kratz says.
In 20 years, cities will look far different than they do today, just as New York City looked very different 20 years ago. Hammond hopes that the network and the information sharing it promotes will help public spaces successfully endure over time.
“Public open space is not going to solve income inequality, displacement, and environmental problems, but public space does touch on all those issues,” Hammond says. “As we think about these projects we have to be thinking about each one of these pieces.”
The High Line Network plans to keep building its site out to include original editorial content and a resources section with best practices and instructional guides for grassroots groups or individuals who might be thinking of getting their own industrial adaptive reuse projects off the ground.
“The network is not here to make these projects happen; it’s to make them better and to help them change and evolve to the changing needs of our cities,” he says. While the High Line has become something of a victim of its own success, the network will hopefully ensure that the next crop of rails-to-trails projects will be successes–period.