18 April 2013 // Thoughts

The Business of Culture: Creative Placemaking Part 2 – Livin’ The High Line

Yesterday, we introduced the concept of creative placemaking and how the smart planning of cultural assets can mean big financial gains for cities of all sizes. Today and tomorrow, we’ll offer two diverse examples of creative placemaking in motion and how it has affected the surrounding community. First up – Manhattan’s High Line development.


The High Line is a one-mile linear park built on a former spur of New York Central Railroad on Manhattan’s Lower West Side. The original High Line opened to trains in 1934, and the last train (stuffed with frozen turkeys), made its way through this section of rail in the 1980s. It was slated for demolition in the 1990s, but in 1999, two residents of the High Line neighborhood, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, founded The Friends of the High Line to save what they considered to be an asset worthy of preservation. David and Hammond were inspired by the Promenade Plantee in Paris, a 4.7-km, tree-lined parkway following the old Vincennes Railway Line. In a 2011 interview with National Geographic, David explained his motivation: “New Yorkers always dream of finding open space – it’s a fantasy when you live in a studio apartment.”

Promenade Plantee in Paris.  Photo courtesy www.promenade-plantee.org

In 2002, New York City passed a resolution in support of the High Line, and, in keeping with the placemaking tenet of incorporating community input, Friends of the High Line held an open design competition for creative suggestions in 2003. The competition, called “Designing the High Line,” attracted 720 entrants from 36 countries, and the results were posted in Grand Central Terminal. A year later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg committed $43.3 million to establish the proposed park (the city would go on to invest a total of $115 million), and in 2005 the US Federal Surface Transportation board allowed the City to move most of the rail line from the National Railway System.

The first phase of the park was completed in 2009 and constituted the section from Gansevoort to 20th Street, with the subsequent 2011 expansion extending the park to 30th Street. The entire park includes naturalized planting, including 210 indigenous species inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew on the abandoned railway tracks. The park also includes a concrete plank walkway, a sundeck with wood chaises angled toward the sunset and an amphitheater. It was built with sustainability in mind, including Brazilian hardwood for benches and LED cove lighting. Even the food vendors must be sustainable: according to Friends of the High Line’s website, they must be “good for the people eating the food, good for those who grow it, and good for the land.” The High Line hosts a variety of temporary art and sound installations and has its own curator who commissions art projects of varying scales, directly soliciting proposals from the artists and letting them pick the space. Most importantly, access to The High Line is free.

The Huffington Post offered this evocative description of The High Line at its opening: “it unfolds the city’s buildings like giant sculptures, and presents a stage where the New York of cars and cement is viewed aloft amid soft wood and silenced behind glass.” Indeed, the accolades from the press and public were immediate and effusive. According to The Wall Street Journal, early adopters were so numerous that at times the line of visitors stretched all the way down to the West Side Highway. In their article “All Aboard The High Line,” WSJ particularly praised The High Line for overcoming potential planning pitfalls:

The same issues of dereliction, prohibitive cost, initial real-estate opposition and community doubts that plagued Central Park played out here – and were resolved with the same combination of private initiative, mayoral support, creative legislation, brilliant design and a willingness to risk the unpredictable that underlies all modes of great urban development.

The New York Times agreed, lauding it as “one of the most thoughtful, sensitively designed public spaces built in New York in years…[David and Hammond] have given New Yorkers an invaluable gift.”

The immediate economic impact of The High Line was almost as dramatic as the public praise. By the end of 2009, more than 30 projects were planned or under construction nearby. Attendance hit 2 million visitors in its first ten months and 3.7 million in 2011 alone. Developers reveled in a submarket that did not exist five years previously. According to NYT, at the opening of the second phase, Mayor Bloomburg proclaimed that “preserving The High Line as a public park revitalized a swath of the city and generated $2 billion in private investment surrounding the park.” That economic impact came from an infusion of deluxe apartment buildings, art galleries, restaurants and boutiques, some designed by the likes of Gehry, Nouvel and Denari. It created 8,000 construction jobs and added a total of 12,000 jobs to the area. It also skyrocketed property values: in one building adjacent to The High Line’s lower section, the price of apartments doubled after the park’s opening, reaching $2,000 per square foot. Bloomberg’s $115 million investment turned into big money for the Chelsea neighborhood and has inspired similar reinvestment projects in Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis.

New York Magazine attributed the The High Line mania to being the right project at the right time:

It’s also the end-product of a perfect confluence of power forces: radical dreaming, dogged optimism, neighborhood anxiety, design mania, real estate opportunism, money, celebrity and power. In other words, it’s a 1.45-mile, 6.7 square-acre, 30-foot high symbol of exactly what it means to be living in New York right now.

But according to the project’s critics, the Chelsea of “right now” has become gentrified, expensive and sterile as a result of The High Line. The New Yorker deemed it “touristy, overpriced and shiny,” and many others derided it as a celebrity pet project. An NYTcontributor opined The High Line as a “tourist clogged catwalk and a catalyst for some of the most rapid gentrification in the city’s history…another chapter in the story of New York City’s transformation into Disney World.” He then went on to offer several examples of decades-old businesses that have had to shutter their doors in the face of the meteoric rent increases spawned by The High Line, and said the park was “destroying neighborhoods as it grows” and “doing it by design.” According to Markusen and Gadwa’s Creative Placemaking, which we covered in our last post, one of the greatest challenges in placemaking is avoiding displacement and gentrification, and it appears on the surface that, while the transformative economic impact of Tcannot be ignored, neither can its social consequences.

At least to co-creator, Roger Hammond, the benefits of seeing something on those abandoned railroad tracks has outweighed the costs. In the 2011 Nat Geo interview, Hammond said he thought he would miss the way it was, a secret hideaway reserved for those adventurous enough to go looking for it. But “The High Line’s overwhelming success…has given him a satisfaction far beyond the pleasures of seeing the old steel structure empty.”

Next week, we’ll travel across the world to Taguig, Philippines, where we’ll investigate how The Mind Museum and surrounding Bonifacio development are re-shaping the city, before offering some final thoughts on the impact of cultural institutions on creative placemaking.