Yard Meets Garden in High Line Phase 3

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High Line Phase 3 / All photos by Allan Pollok-Morris

Getting to know the High Line in New York City over the last year, it has been lovely to discover the back story: the heroic efforts involved in saving the rail yard structure; the development of the park, with its effective design and the accomplishments of the construction; the involvement of the local community; and the raised aspirations of planners everywhere for what a small area of park might achieve in a big city. As someone from the UK, the use of the American word “yard” instead of “garden” never sits entirely comfortably, as it has a more industrial meaning, but we understand each other very clearly here in the High Line’s third phase in the Rail Yards.

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Any lover of naturalistic planting and contemporary hard landscaping can marvel at how literally millions of people are being funneled through an exquisite experience. However, leaving aside the overwhelming praise for the existing sections, the first reaction on seeing the new section is the makers, James Corner Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, have clearly taken on board the park’s more functional deficits and have expanded the park in new directions.

I’ll always remember landscape architect Charles Jencks’ words that the motivation for his Garden of Cosmic Speculation began by wanting somewhere for the family to swim, and that good design always begins with a function. The third section of the High Line capitalizes on its role as a latter-day addition in the life of the project by offering more practical functionality. In terms of usability, new features include tables, see saws, xylophones, a children’s play area, and a wheelchair/buggy-accessible area of track.

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For those wanting the authentic High Line experience, there are areas of the original rail tracks left to self-seed with wild plantings. A fence that acts as a stark barrier between the asphalt and area of nature is very noticeable, but I’m told it will come down eventually, although it leaves you with the suspicion there may be more development to come. This area is not lit at night and will be closed earlier than the rest. It builds on the experience of the place by providing more themed nostalgia for the abandoned aesthetic of the rail track prior to the redevelopment. Does this represent affectionate nostalgia, or a sense of loss?

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Being there for the opening, I got to hear the High Line experiences of people from all walks of life. There was something very special in talking to someone, now in their 60s, who has supported the project the whole way but used to come and play here as a kid. This was the story I heard most: tales of what it was like to sneak in and mess about when it was still a rail yard, what it looked like in its derelict state. The sense of discovery and adventure in these experiences was visceral. There was something people valued in having a space not laid out by planning convention, but a raw experience.

I met Mitchell J. Silver, the new commissioner for New York’s parks, a week earlier and discussed the further development of the open areas around the High Line. The rail yards that the new phase circles will all be covered and developed over a 5-10 year period. The city is planning a number of significant new high rises the length of the park, and another ground-level green corridor of wider parks will lead north from there.

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The success story for the city isn’t so much one of recreation, but the wider regeneration of the area and increase in property values to the point where the world’s best-known architects are now seeking permissions, which can only further exaggerate the High Line as an oasis in city life. This park has also created new opportunities for people with similar infrastructure around the world.

This guest post is by Allan Pollok-Morris, a landscape photographer. His most recent book is Close: Landscape Design and Land Art in Scotland.

How to Combat Gentrification

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Green Village Building in Chicago / Blacks in Green (BIG)

Equitable urban revitalization means new development doesn’t displace existing communities. If we agree with this definition, what’s occuring in Washington, D.C. and many other American cities can’t be viewed as fair, said a number of African American community activists at the EcoDistricts Summit in Washington, D.C. Many blocks in historic African American communities are becoming fraught, contested ground as they rapidly redevelop and gentrify, with huge numbers of African Americans getting pushed out to due to higher rents and property taxes. The solution seems to be more community empowerment from the bottom, and more thoughtful, respectful urban planning from the top.

For Naomi Davis, CEO of Blacks in Green (BIG), city leaders need to take a more inclusive approach, because “what’s good for the African diaspora is good for everyone.” She said “increasing household income in inner-city communities helps both rich and poor people.” To boost the long-term sustainability of these communities, Davis calls for creating “green villages” that will transform waste to wealth, create new jobs, celebrate culture, and circulate wealth among local businesses. These green villages can only be built by respecting the local culture. Given culture is highly local, “true, long-term community sustainability must be built mile by mile.” And it has to be a bottom-up process: “We can’t wait for the government to save us.”

As an example, Davis described her work in West Woodlawn, “in the hood” in Chicago. There, she engaged community members in creating a new master plan, with layers of greening programs. A new orchard has come out of “the dust of 30 years of disinvestment.” 2012 was the “year of the tree canopy,” so West Woodlawn undertook a major campaign of adding new street and park trees. 2013 was the year of the backyard garden and using “private land to feed ourselves.” There are now orchards, gardens, root cellars everywhere.

For Dominic Moulden, Organizing Neighborhood Equity (ONE) D.C., “gentrification is a crime. It’s violence couched in white supremacy and aimed at uprooting black communities.” His group, a “multi-issue, multi-class, multi-ethnic” coalition, aims to critique the urban development culture of D.C.

He said many of the white tenants moving into historically African American communities seek “authentic local culture, but end up destroying it, which is a violation of our civil and human rights.” Moulden argued that African American communities — like plants that have suddenly moved — are undergoing “root shock.” With a decaying local ecosystem, social networks are failing.

Moulden says the answer is “to develop people and then place.” That way, “the community controls the plan.” As part of this goal, his group is trying to stop what he sees as illegal gentrification. They sued an African American church in Shaw for trying to displace its 50 residents in large, affordable housing units. ONE D.C. also played a role in ensuring the new Marriott Marquis hotel next to the convention center spent $2 million to train local workers and hired 700 local D.C. residents as Union employees with “living wages.” Moulden said “that’s equitable development.”

Wadi Muhammad, 270 Strategies, discussed changes he has seen in Roxbury, one of the historically African American communities in Boston. As that area gentrifies, swarms of college students are moving there. There has been nearly $100 million in investment there in recent years, leading to a new luxury condo where studios go for $2,500 a month. Muhammad said Roxbury is now for the extremely rich or poor. “Where do those in the middle go?” The community is working on a new master plan, with a long-term vision for sustainability.

To add some additional perspective, David Hyra, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., said we must be careful what we wish for with “the new wave of urban revitalization,” less we further destroy the communities there now. One product of revitalization is new people moving in. “And all these newcomers into inner-city communities are expressing preferences that are different from those of the existing communities.”

For example, newcomers in D.C. seem to want more bike lanes, while long-time residents are less positive about them. The majority of new bike infrastructure in D.C. has come into the historically African American U. Street and Shaw neighborhoods of D.C., creating a flash point with the old-timers.¬†For them, these lanes are sign that a neighborhood has gentrified. “In the last D.C. Mayoral debate, none of the candidates would admit they used the bike lanes, even though I know some of them are bikers,” Hyra laughed.

In addition, it seems African Americans also avoid D.C.’s bikeshare system as well. “88 percent of bikeshare users are white; just 5 percent are African American.”

While newcomers to African American communities typically want more bike lanes and dog parks, they don’t understand these amenities may be perceived as a “threat to long-term African American residents.” Walter Fauntroy, with the New Bethel Baptist Church, who was credited as saving Shaw from urban renewal in the 60s, recently told Hyra his feelings about the new wave of urban revitalization in Shaw: “I’ve given up, quite frankly.”

To combat further gentrification, Hyra said, “we need to preserve affordable housing and community political representation and minimize cultural displacement.”