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Not being seduced by the precedent of the High Line

The High Line in New York City

The High Line in New York City

Perhaps because I wasn’t yet writing this blog so wasn’t yet attuned to urbanist news, or perhaps because I simply wasn’t paying attention, New York City’s High Line sneaked up on me, both figuratively and literally.

It was a sunny Saturday morning in the summer of 2010.  Several of us had arrived a day earlier for a guys’ week of minor league baseball and hanging out.  To burn time until the last members of the party arrived, we were wandering Greenwich Village and the Meatpacking District.  As we turned a corner, my cousin asked me what I knew about the structure overhead, which seemed to be a mid-air park on a former elevated railroad.

Being a dedicated and informed urbanist, I responded, “Darned if I know.”

Luckily for us, we had lunch a few days later with a niece who was a thorough New Yorker.  (Calling my niece an urbanist would be like calling a fish an advocate of gill breathing.  Despite growing up in a prototypical drivable suburb, she was born to live an urban lifestyle, later moving from New York City to London and then to Berlin where she now lives with her husband and two sons, rarely using the family car, instead using transit, walking, and bicycling to travel within her adopted city.)

After our meal, she took my cousin and me for gelatos and a walk on the High Line.  Lemon gelato has never tasted as good as it did on that day, exploring the High Line and chatting with my niece.  I only regret that I’d left my camera in my hotel room.

I love the High Line and am thrilled that it exists as an example of creative urbanism.

At the same time, I often cringe at how the High Line has distorted the conversation about what’s possible in towns that aren’t New York City.

Several folks have asked me why we can’t do High Line equivalents in North Bay cities.  I generally offer two responses, which may seem mutually exclusive but are both valid, “You’re underestimating the unique circumstances of the High Line” and “How do you know we’re not doing North Bay High Lines?”

On the first, a comment I’ve heard is that what drove the High Line was the vision, with the remainder of the process quickly falling into place once the vision was found.

That suggestion is nonsense.  Yes, the High Line vision was startling and audacious.  All hail the vision.  But the visionaries also had perhaps the best rolodex in the world for civic improvements.  And they rode that rolodex hard, being willing to put other aspects of their life on hold while doing the fundraising.

Thomas Edison said that invention is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.  If one replaces “inspiration” with “vision”, the same equation can be applied to cutting edge parks.  And the folks behind the High Line showed their willingness to perspire with their tireless fundraising work.

Here in the North Bay, I’ve heard a few ideas that, if not High Line equivalents, are creative and intriguing.  But very few folks have rolodexes the equivalent of the High Line team and even fewer are willing to truly perspire.

Instead, we have folks willing to say “Here’s the vision.  Now someone else can implement.”  It’s an approach that neither understands the reality of the High Line nor can be successful.

On my second point about whether we might already be doing High Lines in the North Bay, it’s instructive to look at some numbers.

The cost of the first two completed High Line phases was $152 million.  The population of New York City is 8.4 million.  Thus, the High Line phases cost $18.10 per city resident.  Obviously, that doesn’t mean that everyone paid that amount.  Instead, much of the total came from large contributions and numerous grants.  But cost per person is a still a good yardstick of the size of a project relative to its community.

Walnut Park in Petaluma

Walnut Park in Petaluma

Recently, the Petaluma Service Alliance, a collaboration of seven Petaluma services clubs, completed a facelift to the 130-year-old Walnut Park at the south edge of downtown Petaluma.

(Note: As a member of the Petaluma Recreation Music and Park Commission, I had a role in vetting the Service Alliance work.  There was occasional testiness on both sides during the process, largely as the result of organizational structures that have since been addressed.  I still believe that the facelift could have been even better than it was, but also respect the efforts of the Service Alliance.)

The cash fundraising goal for the project was $122,000.  Including the value of contributed materials and labor, plus the cost of the Parks employees who participated in the construction, it’s possible that the total value of the project may have been close to $250,000.

For the 58,000 people in Petaluma, that would be a cost per person of $4.30.

The cost per person is well less that for the High Line project, but if there were four Walnut Park-type projects, the total would start coming close.  And there are currently two other citizen-driven Petaluma park improvement projects moving toward implementation.  If one more can be added to that tally, Petaluma comes close to matching the High Line as measured by investment per person.

I expect that other North Bay cities can tell similar stories.

At the bottom line, the High Line was a unique opportunity in a unique setting.  Transplanting the idea elsewhere such as the North Bay is likely a dubious idea.  Nor are there many people willing put forth the level of effort expended by the High Line team.

But, if we change how we measure park improvements, the North Bay may still be getting High Line equivalent enhancements.  As the Rolling Stones sang, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes well you just might find you get what you need.”

The North Bay isn’t the only place where the lessons of the High Line have been misinterpreted.  Metropolises have also fallen under its false sway.  I’ll share some stories in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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