Civilizing the Neighborhood: The High Line Park Creates Economic, Social and Environmental Value
By AV Goodsell
Issue 10 Winter 2012
In a follow-up to Catalyst’s first article on the High Line Park in 2008, Manhattan’s “Park in the Sky” has taken the world by storm. This past June, 2011, High Line opened its second section (an additional half-mile stretching now to an entire mile on the city’s west side). With this recent addition, the park has seen a surge in visitorship and has served as a success story for public space initiatives across the country, including the Bloomingdale Trail, Jersey City’s “Embankment” and countless others. The High Line has addressed a new paradigm of business practices requiring an integrative approach that considers all facets, including community and the environment.
The High Line, Manhattan’s mile-long “Park in the Sky,” filled with over 300 free public programs, and visitors from every country, has propelled a new sort of economic system for a sustainable future. Based on a desire to create community engagement through an integrative and sustainable program, the park has become a symbol of innovation and prosperity in these tough economic times. The High Line has addressed a new paradigm of business rules by demonstrating that what defines economic success is not only the bottom line of generating profit, but a more integrative approach that considers all facets of the stakeholders and the environment.
Based on a desire to create community engagement through an integrative and sustainable program, the park has become a symbol of innovation and prosperity in these tough economic times.
Frequented by more than four million visitors since its initial opening in 2009, the High Line, stretching from Gansevoort Street to West 30th in Manhattan, has become known as one of the coolest places to visit in New York City. It has transformed the Meatpacking District and Chelsea areas into more attractive neighborhoods and development opportunities. While the park itself is a breathtaking spectacle with its incredible views of Manhattan peeking through lush foliage, this aesthetic is not the reason people have come to love it. The High Line has come to life because the community was given the freedom to voice their ideas and make them a reality.
Back in 1999, when local residents Joshua David and Robert Hammond decided to start the nonprofit, Friends of the High Line (FHL) to save an abandoned rail structure – not knowing how they were going to achieve that goal – they decided to trust their instincts and reach out to the community for their ideas, expertise and buy-in. This made the High Line what it is today. The thriving sense of community and the people behind its existence – the volunteers, gardeners, donors, and staff – have exercised an integrative thinking approach to provide a new perspective on how to grow the economy and define success through the creation of this park.
The project has raised over $220 million in public and private funds and recruited over 200 volunteers to greet visitors, give historic tours, pull weeds, and manage food events like the High Line Soup “Social Experiment” in October 2011. The park just keeps getting better as the community of supporters becomes even more engaged, and those who are already benefiting keep generating new ideas to continually grow the organization. Whether they realized it at the time or not, Joshua and Robert were introducing a new and innovative way to approach business creation and transformed an old business paradigm focusing solely on profits into a new economic model that brings economic, social and environmental value to an organization and creates competitive advantage.
In true communal fashion, at the High Line Food Open House in March 2011, guests were asked to provide input on food availability in the park. Feedback was critical as it established the parameters and expectations of the park’s bustling 2011 season aligned with those who are most often involved in the experience. With a band of food trucks, vendor carts, ways to enjoy a beer garden and outdoor roller skating onsite, FHL once again proved to have made highly popular decisions to grow the establishment and increase participation, further illustrating how their success is a direct result of their dedication towards engaging and expanding their community audience base.
With that said, Joshua and Robert have brought together an incredibly talented team to continue to dream and to implement those possibilities for the park. This open-minded and democratic structure is what created the membership and merchandise cart program that has quickly sold over $300,000 in t-shirts, books and other takeaways and provided an additional access point of information for visitors during Summer 2011. At the suggestion of a high school intern, FHL decided to “experiment” with selling memberships and t-shirts in the park only one year earlier. Other successful programs started as mere ideas from its staff and volunteers, like the Soup “Social Experiment” that invited several hundred friends and new visitors to sit down at one long table and enjoy a meal together on a crisp, autumn day. Many folks left suggesting that this type of event should be held all the time, giving more reason for the park to expand its food programs in the off season.
It’s not just another cool park, but it is the ability of a community to come together and connect their objectives to a framework in a new and innovative way in order to create and distribute economic prosperity.
In addition to consistently engaging users, the High Line works hard to build deeper relationships with its neighbors. 5,000 New York City Housing Association low-income residents live right next door to the venue and the local Youth Corp of teens are employed in every department of the Friends of High Line. The group gives public tours and blog about their experiences. Their feedback has led to the development of even more inclusive programs, such as the Step Festival that showcased the dance skills of local high school students, and the highly popular “Wild Wednesdays” that invites families to learn and play with the bugs that make the park’s plants thrive. When it comes down to it, the real design of the High Line lies in that of its community.
The High Line itself is a rather simple structure — even modest in design. It serves as a skeleton for a place just swelling with horticultural wonder, diverse programs and people from all parts of the world. There is no magic formula in the development of the High Line – its success is based on an easily understandable and sustainable model of community engagement.
However, what is magical is the high standard of design, care and attention the park exhibits on a daily basis, along with the regular swarms of people who have felt liberated to live, work, play and dream in this gem of a place. It exemplifies a new-found freedom from the hustle and bustle of city life allowing many New Yorkers especially to feel a part of something different that is so well-integrated within their ordinary environment just 30 feet below them. As park-goers continue to volunteer, provide feedback, and grow their participation in the High Line, the park can only get better as it has proved the case up to this point.
The High Line has come to life because the community was given the freedom to voice their ideas and make them a reality.
According to the New York City Department of City Planning, in the five years since construction started on the High Line, 29 new projects have been built or are under way in the neighborhood. More than 2,500 new residential units, 1,000 hotel rooms and over 500,000 square feet of office and art gallery space have gone up. The areas around the park, sprinkled with small offices under 200,000 square feet, have become a draw for start-ups and creative companies. Urban planners are realizing that what the cities today might need is more parks, and they see the success of the High Line as an opportunity for them to renovate old spaces, help improve neighborhoods and attract development. But they may be missing the point. While the story of the development of the High Line may be one of the most innovative urban reclamation projects in history, the real story lies in the ability of neighbors, elected officials, artists, local business owners, and leaders of burgeoning movements in horticulture and landscape architecture to come together as a community to create something so well integrated with their existing environment. The framework made up of plants, paths, staircases and vistas is just that, a framework that the community has utilized to bring together social, economic, and environmental value opportunity with respect for their existing space and culture.
Cities around the world are trying to achieve what the High Line has done for New York City on many levels. Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail, Philadelphia’s Reading Viaduct and St. Louis’ Citygarden are working up plans to revitalize their derelict railways. A point in favor of reuse is that it can be cheaper to renovate old rail structures than to tear them down, but despite the High Line’s visibility and help in showing donors and residents nationwide what is possible with an abandoned trestle, most cities realize they cannot simply just mimic it. After all, it is not just another cool park, but it is the ability of a community to come together and connect their objectives to a framework in a new and innovative way in order to create and distribute economic prosperity.
A successful new business paradigm requires an integrated, all-inclusive, triple bottom line approach: business, community, and environment.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Grow your ideas by allowing diversity of opinions
Exercise an integrative approach to grow the economy of a community
Give freedom to the voice of the community
Consider all your surroundings: what you have can be the best opportunity ever
About the Author:
AV Goodsell works as the Office Manager for Friends of the High Line and will be graduating from Pratt Institute’s graduate program in Arts & Cultural Management this May. A transplant from the Pacific Northwest, AV has a strong background in non-profit administration and management in a variety of cultural institutions, including Seattle’s Pike Place Market Preservation & Development Authority and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She hopes to become a leader in strategic management and to further utilize her expertise in working with businesses on developing sustainable organizational practices.
Prior to her graduate studies, AV received her received her B.A. from the award-winning Community, Environment & Planning (CEP) program and Interdisciplinary Visual Arts from the University of Washington.
High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky by Joshua David and Robert Hammond