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Learning from, but not copying, New York’s High Line


The proposed pedestrian-cycling bridge to connect West Queen West and Liberty Village

In 1980, the last train ran on an elevated corridor on the west side of Manhattan known as the High Line. Originally built in the 1930s, the trucking industry had made these trains obsolete and service was halted.

At this point, neighbouring property owners began to lobby for the demolition of the High Line, as they no doubt saw it as an opportunity to increase the value of their land holdings. But thanks to local residents — most notably a man by the name of Peter Obletz — the 1.45 mile-long elevated rail corridor was saved from demolition.

In 1999, Joshua David and Robert Hammond then decided to form a non-profit with the goal of both preserving and reusing this unused rail corridor. The group was called 'Friends of the High Line'.

By the early 2000s, Friends of the High Line had successfully made an economic case for transforming the rail line into a public open space and things started moving forward. Initially, it was thought that a public park of this sorts would attract about 400,000 people annually and generate upwards of $286 million in new tax revenues over the following 2 decades (Globe and Mail).

With these expectations in mind, construction on the new High Line Park began in 2006. The first section opened in 2009 — a decade after Friends of the High Line was formed. And the third, and last section, opened just two weekends ago at the end of September.

Today the High Line Park attracts 5 million visitors a year and is believed to be directly responsible for about $2.2 billion in new economic activity. The increased tax revenues over the next 2 decades are expected to reach about $980 million. Without a doubt, the High Line has been a huge success. It has become the 2nd most visited cultural attraction in New York (Globe and Mail).

Which is why every city now wants their own High Line. Philadelphia wants one. Chicago wants one. Mexico City wants one. Seoul wants one. And the list goes on. Here in Toronto, we’ve recently proposed one called the King High Line, which will connect the Liberty Village and West Queen West neighbourhoods across a rail corridor.

While I do believe that this is an important connectivity problem to be solved, I worry about how explicit the references are to the actual High Line. Even the street furniture is the same in their promotional video.

I worry not only because it means we’re clearly taking on the role of follower, as opposed to leader, but because an elevated park isn’t going to work in all urban contexts the same way that the High Line worked in Chelsea. This is similar to how Frank Gehry can’t magically turn your city into the next Bilbao.

So while I have shown my support by becoming a “Friend of the King High Line" (and I would encourage you to do so as well), it’s important to keep in mind that the problems we’re trying to solve here aren’t necessarily the same ones that New York had to deal with.

The High Line — from the start — was designed to have an intimate relationship with its surrounding buildings. The tracks rain directly through them so that the trains could easily load and unload their cargo — that was the whole point. So when the High Line was redone, all of a sudden these buildings were able to reconnect themselves to the park in a way that they were already accustomed to doing.

But in Toronto’s situation, and perhaps in your city, that’s not the case. We’re talking about stitching together two completely disconnected neighbourhoods. It’s a noble goal and certainly one that I wholeheartedly believe we should pursue. But I don’t think we should assume that it’s a problem that has already been completely solved for us.

Originally posted on brandondonnelly.com.

— Published November 12th, 2014 —