By Steve Dwyer
As cities become denser and land for traditional parks becomes scarcer, thinking outside the box for solutions is vital to bring greenspace to neighborhoods and allow residents to reclaim underutilized assets.
Former rail line redevelopments—ground level or elevated—are one potential solution, but they can be rife with challenges. One decade after going live as part of an ambitious multi-tier redevelopment blueprint, the New York High Line Network continues to be regarded as the gold standard of railfield reuse done masterfully.
It’s not an easy undertaking: Recently, we reported on successful railfield projects that have capitalized on an opportunity. In Cambridge and Somerville, MA, for instance, a former rail freight yard owned by Guilford Transportation Industries was transformed into a 45-acre mixed-use development, with some property set-aside devoted to greenspace and a regional bicycle trail. Ultimately, the initiative integrated an underused industrial property to the communities around it.
Indeed, railfield redevelopment has had a chance to expand more each passing decade, all due mainly to the significant reduction of miles maintained by the consolidated U.S. rail system, which has decreased by at least 50%. In its wake is an extensive legacy of underutilized, contaminated, and sometimes abandoned rail properties.
I recall 10 years ago, while serving as editor for the former Brownfield Renewal magazine, hearing the auspicious comments at the USEPA Brownfields conference in New Orleans about The High Line, a 1.45-mile-long elevated linear park, greenway and “rail trail” created on a former New York Central Railroad spur on the west side of Manhattan in New York City. The rail system became obsolete in 1980.
A collaboration between James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf, the abandoned spur was redesigned as a “living system,” drawing from multiple disciplines, which include landscape architecture, urban design and ecology. Since opening in 2009, the High Line has become an icon of contemporary landscape architecture. (Editor’s Note: The New York City Brownfield Partnership held a terrific event a few years ago that included a guided tour of the High Line and a description of the remediated and redeveloped brownfield sites adjoining the park. The tour was led by the New York City Office of Environmental Remediation and NYCBP members who worked on the adjoining sites).
Built on the southern viaduct section of the New York Central Railroad line, The High Line was inspired by the 3-mile-long Promenade plantée (tree-lined walkway) in Paris, which was completed in 1993.
The first phase of High Line opened in 2009, with the final three components going live by 2014. What High Line has done is serve as a model for other similar projects to proceed more confidently with a working roadmap for success in place, including the aforementioned Cambridge/Somerville Guilford Transportation Industries effort.
(NYCBP also recently chronicled the Nassau County railfield effort that’s in the works if it gets the green light from state regulators, and located at the Inwood LIRR station.)
The High Line’s success has inspired cities throughout the United States to redevelop obsolete infrastructure as public space. Moreover, the project has spurred real estate development in adjacent NYC neighborhoods, increasing values and prices along the route, in what could be described as “a halo effect.”
Projects in the High Line Network transform underutilized infrastructure into new urban landscapes—redefining what a park can be. And to think it all started as an unlikely plan to save an elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side.
These days, working in partnership with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, Friends of the High Line manages and operates the park, raising nearly 100% of its own annual operating budget.
The High Line hosts more than 400 free programs a year and hosts rotating world-class art exhibits through its High Line Art program. In 2016, the High Line saw more than seven million visitors—one third of them New York City residents.
As part of its ongoing commitment to the neighborhood surrounding the park, the High Line offers employment opportunities that give teens important training in professional skills—from horticulture to environmental justice.
Environmental X Factor
Don’t sleep on the environmental challenges these types of efforts bring. The environmental piece can be a minefield on a railfield. Looking at the historical protocols, a majority of rail companies often perform environmental reviews on every property transaction as an evaluation process to determine if there are significant contamination concerns.
Similar to other brownfields redevelopment projects, liability concerns over incidence of contamination, such as arsenic and mercury, are a common roadblock for rail companies in addressing properties. Rail companies often recommend that local governments work with them and state environmental agencies on liability issues. Often, if contamination is found during the investigation process of the project, liability rests with the rail company, which creates a major disincentive for them to proceed.
Rail companies have an interest in working with municipalities during the planning process, allowing companies to provide early input into reuse options since they have valuable knowledge about potential contamination concerns. Rail companies recommend that local governments spend significant time exploring whether the end use is appropriate based on the cleanup level prior to planning redevelopment.
The High Line Network collaborated with an array of community leaders, organizations, elected officials and supporters to create an extraordinary public space together.
And, in June 2017, the High Line Network publicly launched a new website (network.thehighline.org) that includes profiles of the 19 projects that are part of the network. The site is the first of its kind to collect news from across the web on the growing field of infrastructure reuse, and showcase it in one place.
It will be interesting to see where this evolving footprint goes during the next 10 years of its existence. As they say, stay tuned!