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The legacy of the High Line

The legacy of the High Line

The High Line has become an iconic New York destination. Photo: Iwan Baan/Friends of the High Line

Darryl Moore examines new international public landscape projects inspired by the Manhattan miracle

Soon after the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao designed by Frank Gehry opened in 1997, it became apparent that the idea to use culture and architecture to revive a flagging post-industrial metropolis had proved an untrammelled success. Cities around the globe tried to emulate this with a proliferation of starchitect-designed museums intended to put them on the map, raise their cultural cachet and resuscitate local economies, creating a phenomenon known as the ‘Bilbao Effect’.

A similar thing has happened in the footsteps of the unanticipated popularity of The High Line in New York. Since opening in 2009, the park has become an iconic destination, bringing significant return on its initial investment through revenue from taxes and tourism, as well as starting a wave of regeneration in the neighbourhoods it passes through. It has put gardens, landscape, horticulture and design at the forefront of urban agendas, raising the importance of high-quality green civic spaces and the benefits they provide socially, economically and ecologically.

‘The High Line Effect’ can be discerned in the profusion of recent international landscape projects looking to share the limelight. Despite their seeming differences, they all incorporate in various ways the core characteristics that have proved successful – creating parks by repurposing transport infrastructure, uniting communities, creating linkages and attracting revenue.

The High Line is the most prominent example of reusing decommissioned train lines for public use in the US, but ‘Rail to Trail’ conversions have been championed by local and national organisations for decades. But what marks it as distinct is a design-led approach based upon initial community activism to generate support and raise funding.

Plan for the Underline in Miami. Photo: James Corner Field Operations

A fine line

Taking a similar route, The 606 in Chicago, a former elevated rail line transformed into a linear park and multi-purpose bicycle trail, began with a friends group campaign before gaining traction with municipal bodies and enlisting the design services of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. The concerns of the project, which opened in 2015, are less horticultural than social, with the 2.7-mile trail aimed at making important connections between the four neighbourhoods it passes through.

The Underline in Miami was designed by Field Operations, the landscape architects on the High Line. While being rail related, the intention is actually to construct a 10-mile linear park beneath the existing elevated metro line, restoring over 100 acres of natural habitats, providing a mobility corridor for pedestrians and cyclists, and a canvas for outdoor art installations.

London\'s Lowline

Also working at ground level in London is The Lowline, which aims to create a trail alongside the existing elevated rail line cutting across the South Bank and Bankside areas from London Bridge to Vauxhall. Stitching together three proposals by Business Improvement Districts, Team London Bridge, Better Bankside and Vauxhall One, the idea is to integrate it with Network Rail’s development programme for the railway arches. While the scheme is firmly focused on urban greening, it intends to also enhance local character by trying to ensure regeneration doesn’t turn into gentrification, as happened in New York.

Seoul\'s Sky Garden

From the ground up

Also in London, the grassroots community project The Peckham Coal Line has ambitions to transform the disused coal sidings in South London into a 1km park running between Queens Road Peckham and Peckham Rye stations. The aim to enhance amenities and create a quality public realm is marked out by passionate local activism. So far, funding from City Hall and Southwark Council, alongside a crowdfunding campaign, has enabled them to engage architects Adams & Sutherland to carry out a feasibility study before proceeding to the next stage.     

On a larger scale and in line with Singapore’s official mission to become ‘a city in a garden’, plans are afoot to turn an abandoned rail line running across the island into a 24km trail connecting a series of suburban areas, funded by the government department, the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The masterplan for the Singapore Rail Corridor, developed in 2015 by Japanese firm Nikken Sekkei, divides the line into eight distinctive sections with 122 access points and 10 key nodes featuring cycle paths, climbing walls, nature reserves, seating areas and water features.

Reusing roads is also becoming a popular trope and the Seoul Skygarden looks to do this in a big way, overhauling the closed 938m Seoul Station Overpass into an imaginative elevated linear park with a pedestrian pathway, cafes, flower shops, libraries, and a greenhouse. The competition-winning Dutch team of architects MVRDV, design studio Studio Makkink & Bey and landscape architect Ben Kuipers have responded to the government’s aspirations to become one of the world’s most eco-friendly cities, with a plan pushing horticulture to the fore, boasting 254 species of trees, shrubs and flowers planted in pots and the road itself.

London\'s Garden Bridge. Photo: OMA & Luxigon

Mind over matter

Bridges also figure prominently in the contemporary park palette. The 11th Bridge Park will use piers remaining from a removed bridge spanning the Anacostia River in Washington D.C. to create a new destination. The combination of innovative design by architects OMA and landscape architects OLIN, and fully integrated community input, sets the project apart in terms of agenda and benefits to stakeholders.

The 11th Bridge park in Washington DC. Photo: Garden Bridge Trust

Almost diametrically opposed in approach is the Garden Bridge in London, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, which will create an entirely new structure rather than repurposing an existing one, something that has lead to questions being raised regarding its necessity. It draws upon the iconoclastic aspect of The High Line and its ability to attract tourism as its raison d’etre, rather than local economic regeneration. It failed to engage wide-ranging stakeholder support or community integration at the outset, and instead proceeded with an air of inevitability that raised the ire of many, particularly those in architecture. There has been surprisingly little vocal support from the world of horticulture and design, given that it will be an ambitious flagship for gardens and will feature planting design by Dan Pearson MSGD.

Despite the influence of ‘The High Line Effect’, all these projects have specific ambitions and approaches. Those that succeed will be the ones that have learnt from both the strengths and weaknesses of that project. Those which infuse creative design that works on both local and global levels, fulfill community and municipal needs and bring people together with plants will be the fitting descendants of the Manhattan miracle. 

Inspired design

Some more High Line-inspired projects in the planning stages right now include:

• The Queensway in New York, a community-based proposal to turn the abandoned Rockaway Beach Branch into a 3.5-mile park.

• The Atlanta BeltLine, a circular trail following the old train routes around the city, will interact with new tramways and a series of multi-functional parks.

• At a decidedly smaller scale, The Flyover in Liverpool proposes changing the Churchill Way flyover into a pedestrian and cycle-friendly promenade in the sky. It is currently at the concept stage and in ongoing negotiations with potential stakeholders. 

• Like the Garden Bridge, Pier 55 is a waterside project by Heatherwick Studios. It will be a public park and performance space on the banks of the Hudson River in New York. Largely funded by Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenburg, major supporters of The High Line, it will feature mushroom-style stilts emerging from the river to support an undulating 2.7-acre landscape.

• Nearby, The Lowline on the Lower East Side also aspires to cash in on The High Line’s kudos albeit in a very novel way, creating a subterranean park from a disused underground trolley terminal.

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