Why is New York's High Line so crime-free?

  • Surveillance camera

    Surveillance camera

    The High Line is intensely watched for misconduct.

    Photo: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

New Urban Network

In mid-May I wrote a piece arguing that Manhattan's High Line park — which has just expanded by another 10 blocks — is unlikely to be a model for many other cities, in part because a circulation route that's well above ground level is hard to keep secure from crime when the crowds are sparse.

The High Line, whose first segment opened two years ago, is full of people walking the approximately one-mile route from Gansevoort Street to West 30th Street. But, I asked, how many elevated routes outside Manhattan can attract large numbers of people day after day, from morning to night? If crowds thin out, as they do in most of America's urban areas, crime could easily become a problem.

Thanks to a "Crime Scene" column by Michael Wilson in the June 11 New York Times, we now have a clearer idea of why the High Line has, so far, been a refuge from attacks and thefts.

The record along the High Line has been impressive. Says Wilson: "The police, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation and the founders of the High Line all say there have been no reports of a major crime — assault, larceny, robbery, worse — since its opening."

Why is this promenade an oasis of safety? Wilson suggests these factors:

• "It is strenuously policed. Parks Enforcement Patrol officers walk the High Line all day. They have written, as of Wednesday, 362 summonses for quality-of-life infractions, roughly one every other day. A vast majority were for drinking. Others were for dogs and bicycles, also forbidden." (The rate at which officers hand out summons in Central Park is only half as high, when measured against the number of visitors to both of these parks. Whether that means that Central Park is better-behaved — or that officers are simply more vigilant in the new linear park — is unclear.)

• There are a limited number of entrances and exits — fewer than one per block. Under ordinary circumstances, I would argue that long distances between exits make people more vulnerable to crime, not less. But with many officers assigned to patrol the route, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly says, "This is a much more controllable space." The patrolling is further helped by the next factor:

• Surveillance cameras abound. Officers can watch just above everything and everyone. (I'm guessing that these scenes are being watched in real time, and generating close-to-immediate response. From convenience stores and banks, we've learned that robbers are often not deterred by the cameras themselves.)

• Access points are locked at 11 PM in the summer, which limits the opportunity for bad things to happen in the hours of darkness.

• Buildings closely border the park, and there are plenty of windows from which residents can spot any untoward activity. Wilson goes so far as to say: "The park’s designers turned to the late, great Jane Jacobs for guidance on keeping out crime, adopting her 'eyes on the streets' theory, in which windows facing the street bring a feeling of security."

I'm happy that the High Line is doing so well. It's fun walking that route (though I wish the city had not let a developer erect a building over a short stretch of the first segment, creating a wind-tunnel effect that must be fierce in the dead of winter). The High Line is a testament to New York as a whole; this is one of America's safest big cities. The horrific crime epidemic of 20 years ago is, for many New Yorkers, just a memory.

All in all, the High Line has turned out to be a shining example of civic imagination. 

Nonetheless, I stand by my assertion of a month ago: that what works on the crowded island of Manhattan is not necessarily applicable in cities with far lower density and much less public activity.

About 200 miles down the coast from New York is Baltimore, a city that has been removing the open-air pedestrian passages that were built above street level about 30 years ago. "My understanding is that people did not use them," Tom McGilloway, a designer involved in downtown Baltimore planning recently told me. "My own experience as a resident," he said, "is that I preferred to be on the sidewalks with other people."

In most of urban America, street level is where our circulation routes belong.