What kind of park? Thoughts on the High Line and other NYC parks
Excited about warming weather and loosening schedules, my partner Tamiko and I were thinking of interesting summer projects that involved getting out in the city. We were having a sushi picnic in Prospect Park, watching the kite flyers and kids on bikes on grass, and had an idea: why not visit every New York City Park this summer? Then we thought, wait, how many New York City Parks are there? It turns out there are 1700*. We realized that we had to rethink this one…
Today the second phase of the immensely popular High Line Park opens. Since its initial opening in June of 2009, the High Line (6.73 acres) has been a huge hit. New York area residents and tourists flock to it, designers and design students pore over and photograph every patch of native planting and railing detail, city politicians puff their chests, and developers move with haste to bring their new High Line-ready creations to market. Everyone has a nice thing to say about this new stretch of green hovering 30 feet above the sidewalks.
It is a special place. The High Line did what so many recent urban interventions can only dream: it transformed the concept of a space – the idea of a park – and how, why, it can exist in a dense urban environment. It’s inherent and simple device – shifting viewpoints and perceptions of the city, just a bit, taking us just enough out of the city – made us look a-new.
Highly detailed, extensively choreographed, landscape architects Field Operations and architects Diller Scofido + Renfro created a place that is as much event programming as design of space; a constantly unfolding, unfurling series of experiences tied to the landscape of the park and the vistas of the city. Embracing its urban context, the park asserts itself as a space not exactly relaxing, but active, engaging, always about where you and others are.
Even as I take in this urban wonder, I find myself asking a question: but what kind of public park do we want?
Is it a park that is intimately tied to real estate values? The High Line took what was previously a rather forlorn stretch of Manhattan west side and turned it into some of the most expensive square footage in the world. It is now flanked by architectural tours de force: condominiums commanding prices up to $2000 a square foot, exclusive galleries and high fashion headquarters. This isn’t a new phenomenon. The same thing happened around Central Park. In cities dominated by concrete and brick valleys, people actually like living next to nature. But in a city of rising inequality, who gets to live near our best places of nature?
Is it a park that is not, at some level, a city park? The High Line is a designated city park, but run by Friends of the High Line, a non-profit, private foundation initially formed to garner support for the reuse of the elevated rail line, and now tasked with maintenance, programming, and fundraising for the ongoing planning, construction, and up-keep of the park. The park hews closely to the prevailing method of public-private partnerships to bring us everything from low-income housing to recreation spaces. But shouldn’t a city take care of its residents as a matter of course, without the potential complications of private management and financing?
Is it a park that is literally elevated, separated, a public space that is discontinuous with public rights-of-way, protected by clear points of control? The High Line’s unique strength is also, to me, a point of concern. I remember the lines during opening day last fall, crowds waiting at the entry stairs to gain access. Its strict directionality too makes it particularly ill-served as a space of meandering, chance encounters, informal gatherings and spontaneous actions. What does it mean when it is easier to access a city park from your condo building next to it than from the public sidewalk below?
The other much talked about park lately is the Brooklyn Bridge Park (85 acres), a huge swath of waterfront green space with perfect views of Lower Manhattan. Designed by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, the park is current de riguer landscape design, showing off sculptural berms, generous events spaces, and a stormwater garden feature. The park continues the city’s gradual reclamation of its waterfronts from their post-shipping decay.
Last month Tamiko and I went to the first Celebrate Brooklyn! event at Brooklyn Bridge Park with our friends Irene and Maya to watch Maceo Parker do his Funk Dance Party thing. It was still quite cold, and after a couple of sets we retreated to a nearby Dumbo bar, but not before taking in a breathtaking urban site – the multiple levels of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and Brooklyn Heights Promenade on our left, Manhattan skyline so close you felt like you could touch, Statue of Liberty in the distance.
The Brooklyn Bridge Park is unique, in that it has been planned to be “self-sustaining,” maintenance funding coming from money-making ventures in the park itself, including planned residential buildings. When those are built, this will be the first city park to include private housing development within the park itself. Not too dissimilar from the High Line, the Brooklyn Bridge Park will be a city park that’s operationally connected to the wealth of the residents living, in this case, literally in it.
The High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Parks epitomize the city’s emphasis on elite parks (term borrowed from Sharon Zukin), showcases that are described by terms like “world class,” and tied to massive amounts of money, necessarily linked to privatization, ownership and commodification. For Brooklyn Bridge Park, the city has promised an additional $50 million of the estimated $350 million it will take to complete the park. This at a time when it is again proposing to close public swimming pools because of budget shortfalls. For the projected $153 million High Line, already the most expensive park to maintain in the city, Friends of the High Line is considering further privatization in the form of a business improvement district to raise sufficient funds.
Finally, this weekend Tamiko and I joined a group of friends post-dim sum in Columbus Park (2.76 acres) in Chinatown. Not big, not particularly grassy, it could be easily missed in the hustle and noise of the surrounding streets. We each had a scoop from the nearby Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. This day, throngs of park users were crammed into every corner of it. On the diminutive playing field youth recreational teams tried to outdo each other in sack races and hula hoops as one boy sat forlornly with a red balloon. A game of Chinese chess had drawn a large crowd (all men, why?!). We stopped to watch some musicians. Columbus Park has none of the glitz and glamor of the elite parks, yet is fully and well used, multi-generational, multi-purpose, and inextricably linked to its neighborhood and community.
So what kind of park do we want? The answer is both, or all, I think. But how do we get them? What do you think?
* An interesting fact: there is approximately 1 NYC park or recreation space for each of the 1700 people allowed to be on the High Line (at the least the first phase part) at any one time.