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New York’s High Line: A Green Way to Experience a City by Pepijn Zaagman

This week our Talking Cityzen is Pepijn Zaagman. He has a bachelor degree in sociology from the University of Westminster in London. He works as a trainee at the The Hague Municipality and at EMI. In his blog he writes about the successful High Line park in New York.

Zaagman: When I visited New York City last spring, one of the first sights my American friend wanted to show to me was not a Broadway show, the Statue of Liberty, or a baseball game at Yankee Stadium. It was the High Line, a public park built on an historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. Inspired by the Promenade Plantée, an abandoned rail line in Paris which has also been turned into a highly successful park, the High Line is an example of how space can be creatively re-used to make cities greener and more sustainable.

Built in the 1930’s, the original High Line was part of an infrastructure project which lifted freight traffic 30 feet in the air, removing dangerous trains from the streets of Manhattan’s largest industrial district. It carried meat to the meatpacking district, agricultural goods to the factories and warehouses, and mail to the Post Office. In recent decades, as industrial uses have declined in New York City, many of these warehouses and factories have been converted into art galleries, design studios, retailers, restaurants, museums and residences. When the High Line itself was under the threat of demolition in 1999, community residents began an initiative to have it preserved and turned into a public park. The initiative was a success, and the first section of the park opened to the public in 2009. Since then it has grown to become the world’s most successful new city green space, attracting more than three million visitors a year. 


Highline in action
Source: High Line Flickr pool

The High Line offers a unique way of looking at New York City. You are still surrounded by the tall skyscrapers and can still hear the noise of traffic. One section of the High Line also has an observation deck where pedestrians can sit and look at the street life happening below. However, you are witnessing these sights from a spacious, green structure that rises 30 feet above street level. This makes you feel connected to city life but far away from it at the same time. Next to attracting tourists visiting New York, the High Line also offers the local citizens of Manhattan’s Westside a place where they can escape from the busy and hectic everyday city life.


High line now
Source: High Line Flickr pool

Those involved in the project believe it can serve as a model for adaptive reuse and sustainable practices for other parks and planning projects around the world. In fact, projects similar to the High Line are already in their early stages in many other cities. For example, the city centre of Rotterdam was once a bustling district but is now dominated by speeding traffic. To give pedestrians more space in this area, project ‘I Make Rotterdam’ is building a temporary wooden pedestrian bridge to reconnect the city centre with the northern districts. The project is financed directly by the public. Participants can donate a contribution in exchange for having their name written on a plank (approximately 17,000 are needed to complete construction), piece or component of the bridge. London also recently held a competition for a High Line-inspired project. The winner was a design that will see abandoned rail tunnels turned into glass fibre sculptures and a fungal garden. 

Through offering creative and sustainable solutions for unused city space, the High Line and these other initiatives all contribute to making cities more pleasant and beautiful places to live in. The fact that ordinary citizens are directly involved in these initiatives shows there is an important social aspect to them as well. The projects not only bring local communities together, but also attract a large number of tourists. Hopefully these visitors will be inspired by what they see and be triggered to undertake or support similar initiatives in their own cities. 


You can contact Pepijn Zaagman by sending him an e-mail.

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