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What kind of park? Thoughts on the High Line and other NYC parks

June 8, 2011

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.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Stephen permalink
    June 8, 2011 3:39 pm

    I really connected to this article – as someone who is on one side of this question professionally, and the other side personally, this is something I think about everyday. Shouldn’t our city be able to provide quality public spaces for its residents (and tax payers)? and what happens when that is not the reality and privatization is the only way to provide ‘quality’ spaces? are we essentially selling our public spaces to the highest bidders? the largest donations get the largest plaques on walkways etc.

    i think for myself i’ve concluded that the issue is a matter of priority. we don’t need private citizens or corporations or philanthropies raising money to repave our streets. why do we need it to maintain our parks? public space is the most important kind of space in an urban environment, and parks are the most important kind of public space, so why the huge disconnect between the dollars provided and the needs of the populace? i think i’ll have to go sit in the park and ponder this one…

    • June 8, 2011 4:21 pm

      Thanks, Stephen! I think you the nail on the head. What are our priorities, and, as a community, what is our commitment to public space? I also agree that the best way to think about this is by chilling out in the park.

  2. June 9, 2011 1:36 pm

    Excellent post. I think you raise some good issues, apart from just the architectural language, that must be raised in any public project. I think socioeconomic inequality and segregation is the most crucial issue in New York and most other large cities in the world today, and it is up to designers and planners to bring these issues to light. However, parks like the High Line are not in and of themselves exclusive, so they do serve all constituents, who can even point and stare at the adjacent affluent residents. In a way, the High Line democratizes a neighborhood that it helped gentrify, and brings attention to some of these issues. Let’s hope city officials and planners pay attention to the lessons at hand.

    And thank you for reading my article on Inhabitat!

  3. June 16, 2011 10:11 am

    May I offer a little history as context? Modern urban planning rises from the City beautiful movement that was essentially a republican women’s movement concerned with the need to bring green to our cities. Thus private initiative within a public domain is the essence of where American planning and design originated. It is also this dichotomy that explains why more centralized European governments have a more institutionalized system of planning. My view is that I have not traveled anywhere in the world where there was not social class. I have spent time in China and my favorite city, Tianjin, has superior open spaces organized along it’s rivers. Yet access, while not restricted during operational hours, still reflects social class with those better off and living in proximity having the priority position. My point is that in a free society, there is always going to be greater access to amenities for the better off. in 20 plus years in Florida, i often lamented at how many beaches were often only available to owners or renters (even by the night) of beach front property. The examples of public beaches, Fort Lauderdale and Daytona were the best examples of public spaces. However even these beaches are defined by high value developments at their edges. All the other beaches i refereed to as our version of the Great Wall, mile after mile of concrete horizontal man made developments blocking all us of lesser means from nature. So if may not be social justice but it is urban reality and we need to address in our dialogue how we partner with these efforts within the private realm to make them more accessible. As part of development review and permission, requiring defined points of access may be one approach.This could be linked with cross access easements running with the land.

    • June 16, 2011 6:49 pm

      Hello, Don. Thank you for the comment! I certainly agree that there are existing social class structures at play. But I think as designers and planners we have an opportunity (and obligation?) not to reinforce the status quo. You mention the City Beautiful movement. I would say that modern planning has as much origin in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities movement, which, at its heart, concerns labor rights, health, and radical ideas about collective ownership.

      I’ve not been to Tianjin or Florida, unfortunately, so can’t comment on those. I can point to many examples in Europe, like the Borneo Sporenburg waterfront development in Amsterdam, that take neighborhood diversity and social housing as an integral part of its planning. As you say, they do have more institutionalized planning in Europe. But my point in the post above is precisely to point out the potential shortcomings of a more free-market-based planning model.

      I’m interested too in examples in South America. Like in Medellin, Colombia, where government planning initiatives like a cable car system and public “library parks” in what used to be some of the most violent barrios are accompanied by both social and economic resurgence in the city.

      • August 22, 2012 9:03 pm

        public municipal parks are fundamentally tied to real estate development and gentrification. This was the case with Central Park and Prospect Park; Rosenzweig and Blackmar’s book does a great job digging in to this- “The Park and the People, A History of Central Park”.

        I also have my complaints about the High Line, but I think the history of municipal park-making is being romanticized a bit here. Very good points however- why can’t parks be cheaper? To take the case of roads which the first commenter offered- maintaining and repaving asphalt (literally the cheapest and most durable paving material ever) with public funds is seen as much more frugal than horticultural specimens, fancy stainless steel-and-ipe furniture, whimsical fountains, and custom oversized paving systems. Don’t get me wrong, I think these things have a place in public parks, but it is a different conversation than paying for utterly utilitarian, low-maintenance materials such as asphalt roads.


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