By Eve Lettau
When I tell people that the High Line is my least favorite park in New York City, their jaws instantly drop. I am aware that some view my opinion as blasphemous, but when we critically assess the High Line’s impact, it’s clear it wasn’t designed to benefit all New Yorkers.
Please, don’t get me wrong, it has some very good qualities. It has reinvented adaptive reuse as glamorous and inspired countless cities to revive their abandoned spaces. And yes, for those who only care about looks, the High Line is breathtaking. However, my disdain for the High Line is because City Hall has used parks and open space as a tool to rebrand neighborhoods as luxury. This only attracts more wealthy newcomers and displaces and excludes native New Yorkers.
The creation of the High Line began in 2004 when then-Mayor Bloomberg supported the creation of the West Chelsea Special District.[i] This zoning change cemented the High Line into the city’s zoning map and allowed for it to begin developing as a park. Coincidentally, it was during this time that Bloomberg and the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYEDC), the city’s economic development arm, also began a covert operation to rebrand New York as a city of opulence.[ii]
The goal of the rebranding was to attract key investors and residents to the city. Bloomberg’s development strategy viewed New York City as a product with a distinct brand. Bloomberg and NYEDC decided — without input from New Yorkers — upon a brand of luxury.
As Julien Brash writes in Bloomberg’s New York: Class and Governance in the Luxury City, “If New York City is a business, it isn’t Wal-Mart…It’s a high-end product even a luxury product.” Knowing that rebranding was the principal economic development strategy during Bloomberg’s tenure, it isn’t hard to see that the unprecedented public spaces that have been created since are a direct manifestation of that policy.
Some may protest, “But public spaces and parks are good! We should be building more!” And they are completely right. However, the city should build parks in neighborhoods like Mott Haven and Bushwick, which the non-profit New Yorkers For Parks has found to be vastly underserved by open space.[iii] Instead, the city develops extravagant parks in places like Chelsea and Brooklyn Heights, which aid in rebranding entire neighborhoods and ultimately displaces families.
Governments should create parks to provide necessary open space to existing residents, not to catalyze real estate investment and attract a wealthier class. Since the High Line opened in 2009, the median household income of the surrounding area has increased from $80,747 to $141,672.[iv] This is an increase of about 23%, while the overall household income of New York City has only increased by 7%.
Anyone who visits the High Line (including the 7,000,000 annual visitors) can see this.[v] When walking along the path, one would expect to see beautiful views of the Hudson. In reality, it’s hard to see anything other than the backside of countless million-dollar apartments, which have sprouted up mere inches from the rail. This is not to mention the fact that the park has now finished its final stretch, which circumvents Hudson Yards, the largest real estate development in the history of the United States.
I’m sure the designers and community activists who fight tirelessly for these parks are well-intentioned. Unfortunately, what the High Line and many of New York’s other luxury open spaces say, is that only individuals in the highest income bracket are entitled to well-designed, highly programmed open spaces. What makes this statement even more gut-wrenching, is that it’s not just real estate developers and billionaires saying this, the city is too.
In 1961, Jane Jacobs wrote, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”[vi]
This directly translates to how the city should use parks and open spaces. The High Line and others like it, were developed because a small group of people decided what the city should be and who it should serve. However, public space is meant to be shared by the public—everyone.
To achieve this, parks and open space planning should be more participatory, focusing on the needs of every person in that community. Secondly, open space interventions should also be developed in areas that truly need them, not high-income neighborhoods in Manhattan. Lastly, both administrative and community-led tools like downzoning, rent controls, and 197A plans should be implemented to make sure that amenities like parks don’t displace existing communities.
Now, the next time the city promises a new park, regardless of where it may be, I hope you pay attention. Because at the end of the day, it is up to us, New Yorkers, to reclaim our public spaces.
[ii] Brash, J. (2011). Bloomberg’s New York: Class and governance in the Luxury City. University of Georgia Press.
[iv] U.S. Census Bureau; American Community Survey, 2015-2019 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Table DP03. American FactFinder.
[v] Sim, J., Bohannon, C. L., & Miller, P. (2020). What Park Visitors Survey Tells Us: Comparing Three Elevated Parks—The High Line, 606, and High Bridge. Sustainability, 12(1), 121.
[vi] Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Eve Lettau is a second-year Master’s student in City and Regional planning, studying equitable economic development. She’s passionate about how good jobs create access to good housing opportunities and vice versa. Originally from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, she received undergraduate degrees in Economics and Public and Urban Affairs from Virginia Tech. In her free time she spends time hiking with her 2 year old puppy or taking care of her much-too-large plant collection.
Edited by Amy Patronella
Featured image courtesy of Trey Ratcliff