Preventing the ‘over-success’ of the High Line

Is the High Line park spurring too much development, pricing out the locals, and increasing density? The co-founder of Friends of the High Line explains how the famous park makes sure it remains a public space for all New Yorkers.

720 projects were submitted as proposals for The High Line park in 2003, including concepts by Steven Holl Architects and Zaha Hadid Architects.

New York’s High Line park is arguably the most widely used example for reclaiming public space. Buildings designed by star architects keep popping up around it, including Zaha Hadid’s first residential building in New York, scheduled to be completed soon. Many credit the exponential growth of the adjacent neighborhood to the “High Line effect,” while others suggest that the changes were inevitable with or without the park. Each year, High Line wannabes rush to replicate the designs and the economic development models generated by the park. What often gets overlooked is that the High Line is not just an incredibly successful design, but also has a complex management structure.

Owned by the City of New York, the High Line is a public park maintained, operated, and programmed by Friends of the High Line, in partnership with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Friends of the High Line raises 98 percent of the park's annual budget. Attentive to all its visitors, it tries to make sure the High Line remains first of all a public space for locals.

Strelka alumna and senior project associate with the Project for Public Spaces Anna Siprikova talked with Robert Hammond, co-founder and executive director of Friends of the High Line and a producer of the film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, about his attempt to kick start a network of projects that are going to transform the future of our cities.

Co-founder and executive director of Friends of the High Line. An area resident, he co-founded the nonprofit in 1999, rallying public support for the park.

– The High Line is extraordinary, not only in terms of design and its success, but in your openness to embrace diversity, inclusion, challenges, and things that you would have done differently. You have recently established the High Line Network. Can you tell me more about the goal of this project?

– We started the High Line Network because so many people came to us for advice and we were trying to figure out how to structure it. Different people with similar issues have done different things. The guy who started Bryant Park is a consultant [Dan Biederman]; you can hire him and he has advised on a lot of different projects. Central Park has a Central Park Institute where you can go and take free classes from them on how to manage large public open spaces. Lincoln Center: you can also come to them and they have started a consulting business where cities can go and hire them to figure out how to build a cultural center. But what we found is more interesting is not just learning from the High Line but learning from each other. That is why it is very specifically a network. We started it and we are leading it, but it is not just learning from the High Line; it is learning from each other, learning from the challenges and from the things we might have done differently, things that we are continuing to work on, and what we learn from them. So that was the emphasis behind it, and it has a real emphasis on social equity: these projects all have economic benefits, but what about the social benefits? So we are really trying to get people look at these issues in their beginning, in the early stages of their projects. Right now, the network is just 19 projects in America. But we are looking at expanding it within the US and also, potentially, internationally.

The High Line has influenced the surrounding neighborhood in many ways:the Median Market Value grew 103 percent between 2003 and 2011 for nearby properties.
Installed on the original rail lines, these reclining chairs allow people to closely connect with the urban landscape, as William Whyte studied in 1980.
The Standard Hotel, designed by architect Todd Schliemann of Ennead Architects, formerly the Polshek Partnership. It resembles a giant book, which opened a few months before the High Line in 2009.
The High Line has influenced the surrounding neighborhood in many ways:the Median Market Value grew 103 percent between 2003 and 2011 for nearby properties.

– The mayor of Seoul came to New York to look at the High Line and said, 'This could work'. Now the city of Seoul has its own Skygarden, designed by MVRDV. But how do you prompt others to look at the equity and inclusion components of the Highline? In retrospect, what was the success formula for the Highline? Design, management, activists, programs? Or a combination of these factors?

– This is a big open question, and is the reason we have not expended our network internationally. There are a few differences: in the Network, they are all private-public partnerships. So there is a private component that in most cases is leading the project. We [the High Line] are not part of the city, we are not a public agency, whereas most international projects are all led by the public sector, by the city, the state, the government. And so it is very different: you are dealing with bureaucrats, you are dealing with different goals, and they are often not as interested in taking risks, but they are also all better funded. The government is writing the check, they don’t depend on whether they raise money. And they can often happen more quickly internationally, because when the government is behind them there are less regulatory and legal hurdles. One of the issues is how do we get some of these things to apply. How do you maintain these spaces, how do you build them, what are the programming uses? Because the building is only а small part of it: more important is how you program it, not just maintain it: what are the activities that people want?

"For a city to be successful, it has to keep changing"

One of the things that drives these projects is that there is a new demand for the way public space is used. No longer is it just about having a park: there is so little space, urban areas are becoming so successful, but in the urban core they need to do double-triple-quadruple duty. They need to be a park, they need to be a museum, they need to be a botanical garden, they need to provide social services, they need to provide entertainment. And so it is this new hybrid, and that’s what people do not understand: that is the success of the High Line, not just the design, but it is hybrid in nature. That is applicable to all High Line Network projects. So we can be learning from each other on that. 

I think a lot of international projects want to raise more private money, they recognize there is a need for that. But the real question is: what if we do a project in Moscow, does it go against those values of equity? If we do a project in certain Asian countries or in the Middle East, will this inherently go against those values, or is it still valuable because you are going to help flex that muscle, even if it is very small. Those are the questions that we are thinking about right now.

"No one wants more density in the neighborhood, but I think it is part of the future of a healthy city"

– You talked a lot about the importance of programming: how do you select appropriate programming for each season? Do you experiment with events before scheduling them in the regular program? Do you plan events and activities based on actual visitors, or in an effort to attract underrepresented groups?

– We do not feel that things have to work, so being able to pilot things and test them is very important. Sometimes we get suggestions like Salsa Night, which is on Wednesday: it’s a fun one, which was a suggestion we got from the local community.

– New York has a very high density and Chelsea has not only residents, but a lot of visitors, office workers, daily commuters, etc. In a place as diverse as New York, how do you define the community for the High Line?

– Our primary focus is New Yorkers: tourists are fine, but we always prioritize New Yorkers. And within that the priority will be local New Yorkers, and underserved audiences, people that might not already think the High Line is for them. People of color are the real focus for us now. Over 50 percent of the people that attend our programming are people of color.

Baker & Williams Warehouse: In the 1940s, this cluster of buildings was used as a top-secret government facility for storing tons of processed uranium, which was studied as part of the research effort that led to the production of the atom bomb.
HL23 – the first work of architecture to be named after the park. Designed by Los Angeles architect Neil Denari.
Seating elements include the park’s signature “peel-up” benches and riverview sundeck chaise lounges.
Baker & Williams Warehouse: In the 1940s, this cluster of buildings was used as a top-secret government facility for storing tons of processed uranium, which was studied as part of the research effort that led to the production of the atom bomb.

– In 2015, 7.6 million people visited the park – nearly six times the number of visitors from the park’s first year. The High Line has its own predictive algorithm to estimate the number of visitors. Can you tell me a bit more about how you developed it, what its limitations are, and how it has helped you manage the High Line?

– To measure the demographics on the High Line, every two years we do a demographic survey four times in that year, a survey that was scientifically designed by an outside party. And then last year we started to do measurements on programs. We do surveys at every program, asking people for information. We also have people counting visitors. We think there is maybe a margin of error of 5 percent.

– Hard data is crucial, but what other anecdotal evidence do you find important? For example, in one of your talks you mentioned that people were holding hands, which is unusual for New Yorkers. Are there any other signs of a good public space that we need to look at?

– There are a lot of engagements and wedding photos taken on the High Line. I think that people just slow down on the High Line. I think that is one of the things that frustrates some New Yorkers, because people are walking slowly and some New Yorkers want to continue to walk quickly.

"Just because the space is public and free does not mean everyone feels comfortable coming"

– How do you maintain the High Line which has more visitors than any New York museum? Do you have any issues with amenities? For example, do you need to provide additional tables, chairs, or umbrellas each year?

– The number of visitors to the High Line is higher than any New York museum. And that increases our cost. Because it means a lot more trash, a lot more things to worry about. The biggest issue is logistics because you have a 1.5 mile long park, and we have all of our facilities on one end. Normally in a park you only have to walk half a block, but here you have to walk a mile. So it is very inefficient because of the space.

Food trucks flock to this location due to its proximity to the High Line and Whitney Museum of American Art.
Volunteers play a critical role at the High Line, connecting with people who share similar values while getting exposed to new opportunities and skills.
Food trucks flock to this location due to its proximity to the High Line and Whitney Museum of American Art.

– Are there any educational programs that are training the local community advocates that you need? When you hire for the High Line, what programs do you look at?

– The Central Park Institute is starting a new program with CUNY, a place management course. Most people that come to work with us come from other public open spaces or elsewhere. It depends on the area. The gardening, the level of planting, is very high, so a lot of people come from botanical gardens. And then the custodians usually come from other public spaces. And the admin staff comes from a variety of different backgrounds.

– Good public spaces do increase property values, and that is why cities build new parks. The High Line is often blamed for spurring new development and pricing out neighborhood residents. One of the ways to keep housing affordable is to build more density. You recently released the movie Citizen Jane, where she is fighting to preserve the West Village, which has now become a very expensive neighborhood. Do you think there is any solution that can bring in new development without displacement?

"I do not think Jane Jacobs was against this new city, or against new buildings; what she argued for was a mix, which I think you can see some of here: there is a mix of old and new"

– For a city to be successful, it has to keep changing. So what you hope for is to mitigate the negative circumstances and then change as much as you can. And this neighborhood is going to change with or without the High Line. I think that the High Line in some way has accelerated that change, but it also brought a public open space that 2 million New Yorkers use, which we would not have otherwise. So those are the trade offs.

– Do you think density is going to increase even more?

– This neighborhood has limits. We have four historic districts, so the Hudson Yards will have incredible density, but this neighborhood here is almost fully built out. Chelsea is getting close to being fully built out. So you are not going to see the same extent of new buildings that you see now. The Hudson Yards are going to change and add incredible new density up there. And I do not think Jane Jacobs was against this new city, or against new buildings; what she argued for was a mix, which I think you can see some of here: there is a mix of old and new.

But to deal with affordable housing is very hard. If you do not add more density the city will get more and more expensive no matter what you do. So no one wants more density in the neighborhood, but I think it is part of the future of a healthy city. Building density specifically around public transportation is the key. And then you have to invest in public transportation, and that is where we have not done a good job. We built more density and we have not invested in what we need in public transportation. And this is where sometimes other countries are doing a better job.

There is a great chapter on “over-success”, where Jane Jacobs actually talks about what happens when neighborhoods become so successful they lose some of the vitality that made them so successful. It is all just wealthy people or all very expensive retail. So she stressed it even back then.

Robert Hammond’s favourite High Line feature – an amphitheater over 10th Avenue.
Robert Hammond’s favourite High Line feature – an amphitheater over 10th Avenue.
Robert Hammond’s favourite High Line feature – an amphitheater over 10th Avenue.

– Do you think “over success” is also applicable to public spaces?

– Yes and that is why you need to think about programming. How do you make sure it is not just for a certain group of people? Just because the space is public and free does not mean everyone feels comfortable coming. That is why we had to do more with our programming and that has changed the demographics. When we opened, there were 22% people of color among the New Yorkers visiting, now it is 44%. That is I think because of the programming.

– On the elevator up to your office, I noticed that there are a few food trucks around. William Whyte said, “If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food.” How do you manage food vendors at the High Line? Do you do any specific surveys to curate the number/variety/hours and help the vendors? Do you have any success stories of small food vendors expanding to brick and mortar locations?

– We can’t control the food trucks: they are technically on the street. But food is the number one thing people do in a public space. We have vendors at Chelsea Market, and we are actually rethinking that program and how to use it to attract a more diverse audience. There are a few success stories: La Newyorkina was a Jewish-Latino woman who started the business selling fresh popsicles and now she has a storefront and several locations; the High Line was her first location. Bluebottle coffee had their first New York location here. La Sonrisa, southern empanadas, a really small, family-owned business, became brick and mortar.

We are doing vendor surveys and we want to rethink the food and what the next generation of food will be.

"Different cities and different neighborhoods have different needs and they change over time"

 What ‘ingredients’ should be in the mix of a cutting edge public space? A fitness or lounge zone, co-working space, open air museum, educational platform, social services, etc?

– I think it is different: this is public use, this is not workspace, and it’s not private space.

Different cities and different neighborhoods have different needs and they change over time. The needs that this neighborhood had when we started the project in 1999 were very different from what they are now in 2017, and they will be different in 2027. And I think that is why the organization has to be willing to change with the city and with the needs of the neighborhood. And that is hard because organizations tend to get stuck in one thing, so that is our challenge.

– Do you see the same challenge with the High Line Network project?

– Yes, that is one of the reasons we wanted to do a network, to spur ourselves on.

– For example, one of the High Line Network projects, the 11th Street Bridge Park in DC, has an Equitable Development Planthat insures that local residents have housing and get priority hiring for construction of the park and after, and has a special program for small businesses. It is almost too good to be true. Do you think that cities today recognize that once they become overly attractive (like New York, San Francisco, Boston), the narrative flips over and they become the victims of their own success?

– It is almost too good to be true, and that is again why we started the network: to call attention to those kinds of projects, specifically this project. They are the one project that is the farthest in, and I do not think most projects would go that far, but what I hope is that they help move people in that direction, even if people don’t get all the way there: they can develop parks that are equitable. Could this be a model for international cities?

Text: Anna Siprikova
Photos: Istockphoto.com