The Highline's Next Balancing Act

The famed “linear park” may be a runaway success, but it’s also a symbol of Manhattan’s rising inequality. Can its founder help other cities learn from its mistakes?

When Robert Hammond first conceived of turning a disused elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side into a high-design “linear park,” he thought it would attract maybe 300,000 visitors a year. He and co-founder Joshua David didn’t really think about what the High Line could do to the neighborhood, apart from adding a little extra breathing room.

“This was right after 9/11,” Hammond says almost two decades later, sitting in his glassy office perched above the now-famous planked pathway. On a February afternoon, walkers are admiring views of the Hudson River and park greenery hushed grey by winter. “People were worried about buildings falling apart, and whether the stock exchange would leave town,” he says. “New York’s future was not guaranteed.”

In 2016, seven years after it opened, nearly 8 million bodies would flock to the High Line—that’s more visitors than to any other destination in New York City. With those visitors came riches the park’s founders never predicted: Between the glossy condos, eateries, and museums that have flowered around its steel girders, the High Line is set to generate about $1 billion in tax revenues to the city over the next 20 years.

By these measures, the High Line is a runaway success. But by one critical metric, it is not. Locals aren’t the ones overloading the park, nor are locals all benefiting from its economic windfall. The High Line is bookended by two large public housing projects; nearly one third of residents in its neighborhood, Chelsea, are people of color. Yet anyone who’s ever strolled among the High Line’s native plants and cold-brew vendors knows its foot traffic is, as a recent City University of New York study found, “overwhelmingly white.” And most visitors are tourists, not locals.

“We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighborhood,” says Hammond, who is now the executive director of Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit that funds, maintains, programs, and built the space (New York City owns it, and the parks department helps manage it). “Ultimately, we failed.”

Now he’s course-correcting. Hammond is striving to bring in more diverse park-goers to the High Line’s narrow pathways, and to new public spaces around America. On top of changes to how FHL engages with neighbors, Hammond has founded the High Line Network, a coalition of designers and planners building “adaptive reuse” parks in the High Line mold. Leaders from 17 projects at different stages of life in the U.S. and Canada—think Atlanta’s rails-to-trail BeltLineDallas’ highway cap park, and the 51-mile L.A. River overhaul—have been meeting over the past year to share insights on how to turn disused infrastructure into bustling public amenities.

A lot of the conversation focuses on nuts-and-bolts topics, like capital financing and marketing strategies, attendees say. But at every convening (there have been four since June, in New York, D.C., Toronto, and Houston), Hammond and others have opened up the question of equity—“sort of like a Trojan Horse,” he says—and driven at it hard, to figure out strategies for keeping public parks inclusive.

It’s harder than it should be, and the stakes are much higher than visitor statistics. The network of project leaders is tackling a long overdue conversation about how to improve neglected neighborhoods, without pushing away the very people they intend to serve.

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Chris Alexakisart, parks