What’s going on up there?

New York City’s Highline Park is an excellent example of good leadership in planning on the parts of both the designer, James Corner, and the committee, Friends of the High Line, who were instrumental in bringing the park into being. This old elevated railway had outlived its original purpose as a railway but still had value as a link to the past of not only New York City but our nation as a whole. Railways were a vital part of the growth of the American economy, for many decades rail was the primary means of shipping goods from one location to another and was used not only for long distances but within a cities. New York City in particular had numerous segments of these shipping railways that ran throughout the city on tracks elevated 30 feet in the air so that they could move freely and safely without interfering with traffic on the streets below. The High Line, one of these elevated railways, ran through Manhattan’s West Side and connected the area factories and warehouses by running directly through them, eliminating the need for external loading areas. The tracks served from 1934-1980 carrying a wide variety of goods along it’s 13 mile long course until it was eventually decommissioned like so many other railways due to the increase in the use of motorized shipping methods.

Highline cira 1930

High Line cira 1930

In the mid 1980s a group of property owners who owned the land under the old High Line petitioned to have the railway torn down to remove the easements from their land with the hope of increasing it’s value and sale potential. Railroad aficionado Peter Obletz had other ideas however and petitioned to have the elevated rail line saved and service re-established. Service was not re-established but the railway was not torn down either and members of the High Line neighborhood association formed Friends of the Highline to continue to advocate for the preservation of the High Line railway and it’s use as a public space.

Once the Friends of the High Line had accomplished their initial goal and demolition of the High Line was no longer imminent it was time to consider how to turn this unique space into something the public could use and enjoy for generations to come. A contest was held to search for a design team and the best design for this public, open space that would benefit the neighborhood both now and in future generations. The winning entry come from the well known landscape architect James Corner and his design firm James Corner Field Operations. Corner is the recipient of numerous awards and is considered a leader in innovative, cutting edge landscape design.  Through his work he strives to bring open spaces to the public and has been compared to the Fredrick Law Olmsted the designer of New York city’s Central Park. With Corner’s design behind them Friends of the High Line petitioned for and won public funding of the High Line reuse project.

Construction on the High Line began in April 2006, to date three phases have been constructed and the park is now approximately 1.5 miles long and runs from the meatpacking district to Hell’s Kitchen with more construction slated for the future.  Corner’s vision of a “fantastic, perennial landscape” has been recognized and contributes to both the High Line neighborhood and the city of New York.

High Line Walking Path

High Line Walking Path
( Source: http://landarchs.com/under-high-line/)

The High Line is a great example of planning leadership in two arenas, first the committee and it’s members who actively sought to save what they saw as a valuable part of both the past and present makeup of their neighborhood by involving city planning bodies and city resources.  Second, James Corner with his innovative plans that enrich the lives of those who use the spaces he designs shows incredible leadership and forethought in creating livable cities that incorporate serene public spaces which benefit all who visit them.

As Boiseans we are fortunate to have a great system of public parks and trails even if they are not quite as original as New York’s High Line.  Reading about this all did make me think about how we might incorporate some of the ideas of the High Line here in Boise.  Perhaps even something as simple making the open spaces in downtown where people walk and congregate, areas such as 8th street and BODO, more organic and less accessible to vehicle traffic so that the feeling would be more park like with commercial space integrated like they have done with the High Line.  Though I am not sure if Idaho is quite ready for such a space just yet due to our heavy use of the automobile perhaps it would be a direction to consider in the future planning endeavors.

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4 thoughts on “What’s going on up there?

  1. I think one of the often overlooked aspect of the Highline has been its cost, here’s an interesting take on the subject in a post on Planetizen:


    Despite the lauded fundraising efforts of the Friends of the Highline, with a little sleuthing I found that the $152.3 million to decorate the 296,000 square feet of the current portion of the Highline were principally paid for with public money. Actually, less than 13% of the design and construction money came from private donations — leaving $132.9 million to be borne by the public.

    To put the overall project costs into perspective, the park decorations (here I have to emphasize that the landscaping elements are the only things the project costs have borne — the “land” having already been acquired at no cost) averaged a little over $514 per square foot. Compare this to the costs of a typical paved pathway ($4/sqft), or a playground for children ($10/sqft) — or even the cost of a high-rise office tower in New York ($285 – $375/sqft).

    I think the real question for New Yorkers is what haven’t they received in public amenities, just so the Highline could be constructed?

    • That is a great point Dean, and one that I honestly did not consider until after I had completed this blog post. I think living in a city like Boise I am out of touch with the poor neighborhoods in large cities such as New York and at the time I wrote this I did not consider the neighborhood under the tracks. Not to mention the many others in the vicinity that could have benefited greatly not from the construction of a fancy park, but from projects that would put life back into their communities in much more cost effective ways. How could this money have been spent in a way that was maybe less sexy but of greater benefit to the citizens of New York is a very good question.

      This was a real learning experience for me and opened my eyes to the reality that I need to consider the urban environment in which something comes into being and not let my own life experience color my perception too greatly as it did in this case.

  2. Great post, Juli. New York’s High Line is such a fascinating project, and I think much about its aesthetics seem uniquely New York. I’m also interested in the intersection of urban design and how groups make real use of these places, a subject I’m investigating more thoroughly. One of the stories that sparked my interest in the relationship between the two concepts is this post from the New York Times, highlighting a little-publicized secret of the High Line.

    The author notes that in the early mornings, the park is not just a suspended garden above the city, but a way to shave minutes off a busy commute taken entirely on foot. From the article:

    “With no traffic lights, no cars or bikes and few tourists during the morning rush, the raised stretch has come to attract commuters — not because it is picturesque, but because it is faster.


    • Thanks for the link Andrew. That is a really interesting side effect of the way this park was constructed and ties in to the original reason for the elevated tracks, to avoid tangling with the traffic below. Smart design ideas never go out of style:).

      Really thought provoking about the unexpected results of development, in this case a positive one.

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