The limitations of the High Line

Philip Langdon, New Urban Network

The High Line, an abandoned, elevated rail line reborn two years ago as a linear park, has become the most talked-about walking route in New York. It's an aerial greenway offering unusual landscape touches, views of old factory and warehouse buildings, and exposure to some of the city's most of-the-moment architectural creations.

Traditionalists will not love everything along its route — why do so many residents of new apartment buildings seemingly want to put their private life on view to passersby, through walls of glass? — but the High Line has a lot of imaginative things to offer.

The High Line's first section, from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to 20th Street on Manhattan's west side, opened in June 2009, and the second section, from 20th to 30th Street, will open next month. In some quarters, this elevated route is being held out as an example of "Landscape Urbanism."

Witold Rybczynski, author and professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, writes in a New York Times op-ed piece that "High Line-type projects are being discussed for Chicago (the Bloomingdale Trail), Philadelphia (the Reading Viaduct), Jersey City (theSixth Street Embankment) and St. Louis (the Iron Horse Trestle)."

"Advocates would like to see the High Line model take off nationwide in the same way Central Park was copied in the 19th century," Rybczynski writes. He doesn't think that's likely to happen. Neither do I. 

In Rybczynski's view, much of what makes the High Line memorable and successful is its crowded juxtaposition of interesting old and new buildings. In addition, the density of Manhattan makes the High Line's green outdoor space much needed by those who live in small apartments. 

Because very few American cities "can offer the same combination of history and density" as Manhattan, Rybczynski argues that a project of this sort will probably have a much harder time elsewhere.  

Expense is another obstacle. The first two phases of the High Line cost $152 million, of which $44 million was raised from private and corporate sources, Rybczynski observes. Maintenance costs, which could be considerable, are to be covered partly by the city and partly by a proposed tax on local businesses. In most cities, that kind of money is hard to come by.

Still another limitation to the High Line as a model, one not mentioned by Rybczynski, is public safety. How are people strolling up above the streets supposed to be protected from crime? The High Line has a limited number of stairways to the street; there isn't an exit or entrance at every block. And even if there were plenty of stairways and elevators, those are not much help if someone tries to mug you in the middle of a block.

My hunch is that the High Line works well because it's in a part of the city's that's already relatively safe, and because there are so many people out walking. In other cities, and even in some other parts of New York, that isn't the case. 

Walkways, parks, and plazas that are much removed from the streets and sidewalks have had a problem of vulnerability for many years. Some 30 years ago, a great urban observer, William H. Whyte, pointed out that plazas and green spaces built much below grade or above grade have had a problem in attracting enough use. And the less use an urban space gets, the more likely it is to be commandeered for antisocial or criminal pursuits.

Only once in my life have I stopped a bicycle theft. It happened years ago on a pedestrian bridge in Delaware Park in Buffalo, where, while I was out jogging, I came upon two boys trying to wrest a bike away from its owner — a boy who had made the unlucky decision to ride across the bridge. When I saw what was going on and intervened, the would-be thieves gave up. The perpetrators undoubtedly chose that site for their attempted crime because the cyclist wouldn't have been able to summon help from anyone who wasn't already on the bridge.

That experience, and Whyte's instructive observations, made me forever skeptical of public spaces removed from the streets.

So far, the High Line is performing well. Perhaps it will continue to do so for years to come. Nonetheless, two years of operation isn't enough time to tell whether the High Line will prove vulnerable. 

There are good reasons why we build the vast majority of our public green spaces at street level. As a society, we have learned that some kinds of spaces turn dangerous when the crowds thin out. I hope this hard-won lesson is not lost upon those intent on doing new things with urban landscapes.