Feb 3, 2015

Lofty Learnings from the Highline

Rollin Stanley takes a stroll down New York City's Highline

Last American Thanksgiving in New York City was chilly, but the city before Christmas is a wonderful place - particularly the Macy’s store.

The highlight for me was to finally walk the Highline, an abandoned elevated rail line turned park. This effort gets a lot of attention and rightly so. Some folks may remember when it was just an abandoned rail corridor. As the garment district was undergoing transformation back around 2007 I remember staying in one of the hotels at the time as work began, wishing we had the same resources back in St. Louis where we were creating a shorter version.

We were working with the regional parks district, Great Rivers Greenway, to convert an elevated rail corridor into a linear urban recreation area leading across the Mississippi to Illinois. Riding across the river today is a terrific experience.

But back to the Highline. On a cold, grey, late November day, it was busy with visitors. Walking along the now maturing environment there was a lot to see. The draw of this once abandoned rail bridge was strong as visitors lined the entire 2.33 kilometre trail.

The massive, old 550,000 square foot building Google paid $1.9 billion for are part of the new residential uses and commercial activity along the nearby streets and built right up to the Highline with direct entrances.

The spillover from the Highline was evident. Just past the Google building the street had been transformed. Narrowing the traffic right-of-way at an intersection, public space made available to adjacent commercial uses clearly shows how pedestrian space can successfully integrate within the traffic areas. Something many folks here in Calgary feel is a conflict.

The economic benefits are not just for the Google’s of the world. It seems at every elevation change leading up to the Highline there is the more “informal” commercial activity catering to your immediate needs. In this photo my girlfriend is getting gloves for one of our party who forgot theirs. And not only was the merchant a source of warmth, he was also an excellent tourist guide and ambassador for the city telling us the local sites.

All along the corridor it was evident that new “frontages” were opening up three stories above the street level. From balconies to exercise studios to entrances, a variety of new connections have opened up adding to the vibrancy and security of the space.

One of the big surprises was the performance seating right above one of the busier traffic streets. On this day the performance consisted of toddlers running about, but this type of space certainly attracted a crowd.

So there are lots of lessons learned from efforts like these. From bringing ideas to reality: fundraising, to public / private efforts working towards a common goal to overcoming obstacles - How big ideas can result in spaces people enjoy while generating increased revenues for the City to help operate and create new spaces.

Our own Peace Bridge here in Calgary is a great example. Now linked into the cycle track downtown, this connection has certainly exceeded all expectations about use. It has also, however, travelled worldwide as the face of the City. I recently received a book title Velo City, published in Europe highlighting bicycle architecture around the world. The cover? The Peace Bridge. And this is one of several mentions I have heard of people travelling abroad and seeing “our bridge” on a book cover. Strategic public investment in public spaces pays off - not only in public amenity/ enjoyment and public revenues, but in bringing a progressive image to the rest of the world.

And if at the end of the day the users of this space are tired and want to relax, then the space for them to do just that is available, just like the young fellow in the photographs (slideshow).

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