Parks In the Sky Are All the Rage

By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED-AP

The High Line is a wildly appealing park-in-the-sky that altered our thinking about public space and urban revival. It represents the interaction of three urban phenomena: the reuse of abandoned infrastructure, quality-of-life investments as economic growth strategy and the rise of public-private funding partnerships.

The High Line – Moynihan Connector is an L-shaped 1,200-foot-long extension of two ADA-accessible bridges. In the foreground is the Woodlands Bridge, in the background is Timber Bridge, a Warren-truss design. Credit: Brian J Pape, AIA.

The High Line really began in 1929 when the city, the state and New York Central Railroad agreed on the West Side Improvement Project, conceived by New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. The 13-mile project, worth about $2.56 billion in 2022 dollars, eliminated 105 street-level railroad crossings, added 32 acres to Riverside Park and included construction of the Westside Elevated Highway, as well as the elevated railroad in lower Manhattan.

The national rails-to-trails movement was also influential. It was launched after an eight-year battle with railroads and property owners to turn a 61-mile network of unused railroad near Chicago into walking trails. Finally, in 1971, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton created the Illinois Prairie Path. Within a couple decades, Chattanooga, Washington, D.C., Portland, Houston, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Boston soon followed.

As a direct inspiration for the High Line, in 1993, Paris opened the Promenade Plantée, a 2.9-mile development of shops, paths and gardens built on the old Vincennes elevated railway, becoming the world’s first green belt on an elevated rail line.

From Abandoned to Most Popular

At a meeting in August 1999, Joshua David, a freelance travel writer, and Robert Hammond, an entrepreneur, met to discuss the future of the abandoned NY Central rail tracks and later formed the Friends of the High Line organization. In their High Line designs, landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations and design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro with Piet Oudolf, a Dutch landscape architect and Robert Silman Associates, engineers sought to retain the world of wildflowers on the abandoned rail tracks and largely succeeded. Their vision sparked millions of dollars in donations and support from celebrities like media mogul Barry Diller, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, both of whom have business establishments nearby, as well as actor Edward Norton.

Initially opened in 2009 for the first phase, followed by additions in 2011, 2014 and 2019, the High Line is one of New York City’s most popular attractions, pulling in nearly 9 million visitors in 2019 and ranks among the most influential public works projects of the past half-century.

Nearby, at the end of 13th Street, Little Island opened in 2021 to rave reviews. It is not quite the same as a park-in-the-sky, since it is built over the river where Pier 55 was and rises from street level to a 70’ high corner viewing spot. However, it is a complement to the attraction of the High Line. As a public-private partnership project, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg led the funding, with state and local government funding support.

“I hope the High Line will encourage people to pursue all sorts of crazy projects even if they seem, as the High Line once did, the most unlikely of dreams.” Robert Hammond and Joshua David, founders of Friends of the High Line.

It is joined by the 80,000 square foot rooftop Park opened to the public in 2022 in the historic, circa 1952, Pier 57 at 15th Street. Led by RXR, Youngwoo & Associates, The Baupost Group and Jamestown, the consortium of partners embarked on a $410 million redevelopment of the Pier where Google serves as anchor tenant. Indoors, a new 7,400 square foot public gathering place called the “Living Room” provides seating and tables with extraordinary views of Little Island and Lower Manhattan. Pier 57 is the only pier with a concrete basement resting on the riverbed.

World Wide Inspiration

The High Line has influenced cities all over the world to do something similar, hoping for similar results and benefits. Chicago is planning for a multi-use trail linking the neighborhoods of Bucktown, Wicker Park, Logan Square and Humboldt Park, called the Bloomingdale (about 16 feet high) estimated at $91 million or about $35 million per mile — less than a fourth the per-mile cost of its Manhattan cousin. As designed by the New York and Cambridge, Mass.-based firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, five anchor parks will provide green space and access, while the trail itself will include a concrete bike path, a softer jogging and walking path and an array of flora-heavy areas with benches and art installations.

Wuppertal, Germany, hopes to turn an old railway into a 10-mile cycle path to spark renewal. Rotterdam officials are looking to transform a downtown elevated train track into a park. In Shoreditch, East London, officials may build an elevated park atop the Braithwaite Viaduct, one of the oldest railway structures in the world. Officials in St. Louis and Philadelphia have similar visions for aging elevated viaducts in their respective downtowns.

Meanwhile in Manhattan

Back at the High Line, June 2023 saw the grand opening for the newest extension of the park-in-the-sky connecting to the five-building Manhattan West office development and the Moynihan Train Hall near Penn Station. Called the “High Line–Moynihan Connector,” it is an L-shaped 1,200-foot-long extension of two ADA-accessible bridges. The span above 30th Street uses a “V”-shaped sub-structure, called the Woodlands Bridge, containing 5-foot-deep planting beds for trees. The walkway of Corten steel decking (watch out for hot feet) then turns north to 31st Street across the Timber Bridge, a Warren-truss design of Alaskan Yellow Cedar Glulam, able to span larger distances 40’ over the street below.

The kaleidoscope twinkling lights that were under the protective sheds between the Manhattan West high-rise buildings have now been removed, leaving the plaza open to the sky with lots of shade trees and benches. The plaza slopes down to Ninth Avenue where there is still street construction. It will soon be finished and include stoplights for the crosswalk to Moynihan Train Hall.

The $50 million project was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and James Corner Field Operations and developed in a public-private partnership between Empire State Development, Friends of the High Line and Brookfield Properties, and built by Turner Construction Company.

Brian J. Pape is a citizen architect in private practice, serving on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Executive Committee, the Landmarks Committee, the State Liquor Authority Committee, and Quality of Life Committee, (speaking solely in a personal, and not an official capacity), co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, and Historic Buildings and Housing Committees. He is a LEED-AP “Green” certified architect, and a journalist specializing in architecture and urban subjects.