Today, New York City opened the second segment of its High Line parks project. Roosevelt Sustainability Studies professor Carl Zimring toured the High Line this week and provides his impressions below.
As cities grow, they develop increasingly elaborate infrastructure to provide goods and services. We see evidence of this infrastructure every day; just looking down at the ground in front of Roosevelt University’s Michigan Avenue entrance is sidewalk, with gutters draining stormwater beneath asphalt streets that allow thousands of commercial and personal vehicles to transport people and goods across Chicago. Much more infrastructure is hidden from view; few Chicagoans knew an underground series of tunnels connected downtown until an accident in the Chicago River produced a massive flood in those tunnels in 1992.
Those tunnels were long disused, an example of obsolete infrastructure that provide challenges to cities as they age. Economic and technological changes may cause users to abandon expensive, elaborate structures. Sometimes these are removed; as the cell phone became a mass consumer object, phone booths disappeared from the urban landscape.
Other abandoned infrastructure is more difficult to remove. In Manhattan, one example of this is the High Line, an above-ground rail network built in the 1930s to transport produce and manufactured goods to and from businesses on the west side from 34th Street to St. John’s Terminal. As trucks supplanted rail for ground shipping after World War II, rail traffic on the High Line dropped. Portions were demolished, and the line closed in 1980. For more than two decades, this hulking mass of metal loomed above the streets of some of the most expensive real estate on Earth, unused relics of a bygone era seemingly destined for the wrecking ball (and perhaps, scrap metal to be used in the construction of the new skyscrapers always transforming Manhattan’s skyline).
The remaining line, however, was not demolished. Over the past decade, preservationists have worked to reimagine the old rail network into public open space. Over the years, foliage grew along the abandoned rails; the Friends of the High Line worked to redesign and cultivate these green spaces into something more controlled and accessible to pedestrians.
Two years ago, the first segment of New York’s newest park opened. Evidence of its past life is obvious throughout, as walkers can see the rails along the plants and paths. Long, narrow benches rise from (and parallel to) the rails, emphasizing the long, narrow shape of the park. Everywhere you walk, you are reminded of the trains that used to move through this park. The redesign is a tribute (memorial?) to a transportation system that served the city through depression and war, but faded from use in the postwar expansion of the interstate highway system and its endless stream of trucks linking cities and businesses without the limits of rail.
The High Line has entrances at several intersections, including some wheelchair-accessible spaces with elevators. We entered the park at its southernmost entrance at the stairs on Gansevoort Street and worked our way north. Once above the ground, observers go along pathways that show gradually changing built spaces and plantings. At places, one can sit in an observation theater above the street and watch traffic, admire one of Frank Gehry’s recent buildings, sit and listen to a sound installation of bells, rest on wooden deck chairs fixed atop rail tracks, or simply walk above the streets. The redesign feels highly constructed, akin to Chicago’s Millennium Park, but with a strong sense of preserved history. (Both the High Line and Millennium Park relate to the railroads, but while the latter is a green roof hiding railyards, the High Line explicitly draws upon the site’s heritage and former function.)
While the second segment expands the High Line from 20th Street to 30th Street, redevelopment is not finished. The line snakes across 34th Street, and eventually that will be completed, providing both new public open space and preservation of the existing built environment. The High Line is a creative example of preservation and reuse in the postindustrial city, and one option other cities might consider as they take stock of their aging infrastructure.
The historical dynamics of urban form never stop. Sometimes, threatened infrastructure retains its use, as is the case with the El stops in downtown Chicago saved from destruction around the same time the High Line finally closed to rail traffic. While the High Line did not survive as a rail system, it has new life as open space.
The decisions to preserve or transform the urban environment are themes evident in Roosevelt University’s seminar SUST 320 Sprawl, Transportation, and Planning, currently being taught at the downtown campus by experienced city planner Dudley Onderdonk. If you are interested in taking this or any of our courses, please contact your RU academic advisor for registration details. If you are not currently a Roosevelt University student, we encourage you to investigate our degree options, and our course listings. For more information, please visit our Sustainability Studies website, call 1-877-277-5978 (1-877-APPLY RU) or email applyRU@roosevelt.edu.