New York, Berlin, Copenhagen: Old railroad tracks across the world are reemerging as parks. Everyone is pleased with the extra green areas, but many fear the consequences.
Less than 15 years ago, New York’s High Line was nothing more than a disused railroad viaduct. Weeds grew between the 22-meter-high tracks that wound their way from 34th Street to Gansevoort Street, and the homeless found shelter beneath them. The vagrants were pushed out long ago. Between 2006 and 2014, a park came into being right in the middle of Manhattan’s West Side. Elegant boardwalks, sound and art installations, wooden benches and tall grasses that sway in the evening breeze replaced the rampant growth of weeds. The tracks, out of service since the 1980s, are now a promenade, a second-story ecosystem, a space for joggers, people out for a stroll, tourists and hedonists. Take a walk on the High Line and you will see people with selfie sticks capturing holiday memories as they pose in front of glass tower blocks containing some of the most expensive apartments in the world.
Since the High Line project designed by New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with the landscape planners of James Corner Field Operations was realized, it has been hailed as a showpiece of urban planning, an example of the trend toward transforming our noise and air pollution-racked inner cities into livable places.
Cities all over the world are now attempting to emulate the High Line. Derelict railroad tracks abound. Atlanta is currently in the process of turning the BeltLine, a 35-kilometer stretch of railroad that circles the city center, into walkways and cycle trails; the first section was inaugurated in 2010. In Chicago, the 4.3-kilometer 606 Trail opened in summer 2015 on onetime freight train tracks. At the same time, the final section of the Gleisdreieck park was opened on a former three-way rail junction in Berlin – a 26-hectare site steeped in history between the Kreuzberg and Schöneberg districts, between the eastern and western sections of the city, that lain waste since 1945. Barcelona’s answer to the High Line are the Sants elevated gardens, a boulevard built over a disused rail track, which over the next five years will be extended to become a five-kilometer green corridor. And in the South Korean capital, the Seoul Skygarden is currently taking shape atop what used to be an elevated highway. In Miami, where the Metrorail tracks are still in operation, a 16-kilometer walkway and cycling trail is being laid down beneath the tracks and adorned with works by local artists. Known as the “Underline,” it aims to encourage the population to walk or cycle more often – instead of always taking the car – through neighborhoods that until recently were regarded as the most dangerous in the USA.
The New York High Line role model: rediscovering public space
So things are really happening in the big cities. Starting in the 1950s, the urban planners were committed to the modernist dogma of optimizing road traffic conditions and keeping the suburbs and the city center, the places where people lived and worked, separate. Now we are seeing an emphatic about-turn. From Paris to Melbourne, bicycle rental systems are being installed, and pedestrian zones and cycle trails are being created where automobiles once parked – all in the name of making downtown areas more attractive. No one openly criticizes the trend toward people-centered as opposed to automobile-centered urban planning, but acclaim for the new green areas is not universal. That’s because every positive development appears to encourage further gentrification, which is already a problem in many major cities.
Danish urban planner Jan Gehl, who helps cities around the world to choose smarter ways of improving their public spaces, offers this explanation: “Wherever we have helped to improve quality of life, we soon noticed a pattern emerge. People who would normally move out of town and into the suburbs as soon as they start a family are now preferring to stay in the city because distances are short, they can cycle to work and they like city life. In the places where many people want to be, however, market forces cause real estate prices to rise. At some point, a level is reached that only the wealthy can afford – and the less well off are pushed out of the neighborhood.”
The High Line is a textbook example of such processes. The city council had only just drawn up its new zoning plan in 2005, and already you could see the West Side undergo a rapid metamorphosis. When the first section of the High Line Park opened in 2009, tire dealers and diners moved out, making way for new apartment blocks designed by the likes of star architects Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel and Zaha Hadid.
According to a study published by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, prices for properties near the High Line rose by 103 percent between 2003 and 2011. Jeremiah Moss, a blogger and New York Times columnist, raged against the High Line, describing it as a “tourist-clogged catwalk” and a “catalyst for some of the most rapid gentrification in the history of the city.” Prices rose considerably last year, too. By the end of 2016, the average price for a two-bedroom apartment in West Chelsea was 2.95 million U.S. dollars, 40 percent up on the previous year.
This puts the High Line in a new category of green spaces. Whereas previously, parks were created to provide the population with opportunities for rest and recreation; the new generation pursues another goal: upgrading. The converted viaducts are literally high-flying social platforms. Cafés with names like “Fig & Olive” wear a global look that works as well in New York as it does in Barcelona or Seoul. Anyone who doesn’t fit into the picture – homeless people, junkies, or simply those unwilling to shell out six dollars for a cup of coffee – is marginalized. And the morbid charm of the empty industrial buildings that were once the key attraction of the Meatpacking District has now also evaporated.
“You might ask whether we ought to stop improving cities in order to halt such developments,” says Gehl. For the 80-year-old, who has been committed to creating people-friendly cities for the past 50 years or so, that is not an option. Instead, the solution is to place the needs of the population over the wishes of the project developers.
Gehl’s native Copenhagen led the way: In multiethnic Nørrebro, a socially challenged area of the Danish capital, the architects of the Bjarke Ingels Group worked alongside the landscape planners at Topotek 1 and the artist group Superflex to develop the Superkilen Park on a former railroad site. Surveys had shown that many immigrants missed the parks and public spaces of their native country. This gave the planners the idea of importing design elements from more than 60 countries. Superkilen, which opened in 2012, now has Russian neon signs, a Moroccan fountain, a Japanese slide and fitness equipment like that found on Muscle Beach. There are certainly plenty of incentives there to start exercising – a factor that Gehl sees as all-important in modern urban planning: “The human being is an animal designed for movement.”
The plan worked; the locals love their park. But even in Nørrebro, the inevitable is happening and a first breeze of gentrification has begun to blow. These days, travel guides are listing Superkilen among Copenhagen’s top ten tourist attractions. The first vintage stores and hipster cafés are opening nearby. “Prices will rise here, too,” Gehl suspects, “we designers cannot solve that problem.” But he does have a suggestion to put forward: “If we can make one neighborhood more attractive with parks, then let us simply create more of these places all over the city, and especially in those areas inhabited by people whose lives are not so easy.”