Monday, April 29, 2013

The High Line vs Gansevoort Plaza: Experiments in Public Space

In New York City's Meatpacking District, amongst its renovated warehouses and cobblestone streets mostly paved over, are two public space projects that represent opposing philosophies in urban design. While one, the High Line, is much more popular amongst the general public due to its vibrant contrast with the surrounding neighborhood and its beginnings as the brainchild of a group of locals; the other, Gansevoort Plaza, is less popular amongst the public due to its location in the shadow of the High Line South Terminus, and its smaller size.

 The High Line is a greenway built upon a now defunct elevated rail line that once served the industrial center of West Side Manhattan. After years of disuse and proposals by the Bloomberg administration to demolish it, a select few locals recognized the potential of preserving the collection of grasses and shrubs that established themselves along the tracks in the form of an elevated pedestrian walkway that showcased plants native to the region.

The High Line

Until recently, the intersection of Gansevoort Street and 9th Avenue was a wide open cobblestone intersection. With the addition of benches, tables, and bollards to help define traffic flow, Gansevoort Plaza has become a unique asymmetrical public space, amongst the gridiron of New York City with caf├ęs, apartments, and offices defining the plaza. 

Gansevoort Plaza

To complete the nearly 1 ½ miles of greenway atop the High Line, a total of $50 million was needed. While Gansevoort Plaza, though significantly smaller, required a total investment from New York City of $90,000.

With this level of capital investment it is important to examine the returns. Public space if designed correctly can significantly increase property values, strengthen community, and increase public health. 

The public's use of the High Line is heavily controlled, with any special event requiring planning and permission from it's private managers. The limited events allowed on the High Line mainly include modernist art installation unveilings.

Public use is limited solely to lounging and walking amongst art installations on the High Line.

In such a controlled environment, it is difficult for humans to feel comfortable. Managing a sterile environment like the High Line compared to the organic and real experience of an urban plaza like Gansevoort is difficult and necesitates a strong effort by the High Line managers to control individual actions.

The rules below are taken from the High Line website.

Park Rules

Park rules prohibit:
  • Walking on rail tracks, gravel, or plants
  • Picking flowers or plants
  • Throwing objects
  • Sitting on railings or climbing on any part of the High Line
  • Bicycles
  • Use of skateboards, skates, or recreational scooters
  • Amplified sound, except by permit
  • Solicitation
  • Commercial activity, except by permit or otherwise authorized
  • Littering
  • Obstructing entrances or paths
  • Drinking alcohol, except in authorized areas
  • Film or photography requiring equipment or exclusive use of an area, except by permit
  • Events or gatherings greater than 20 persons, except by permit
  • Smoking

Dogs not permitted

  • Dogs are not allowed on the High Line due to the limited area of the pathways and the fragility of the plantings.

Both Gansevoort Plaza and the High Line have generated increased income amongst surrounding commercial interests. However, the intangible benefits that Gansevoort Plaza provides community members is significantly more valuable than what is provided by the High Line, even while the plaza is significantly smaller in size.

Free concerts are among a variety of events held in Gansevoort Plaza.

Gansevoort transforms into a night club.
Community choir in the Plaza.

Proponents of the High Line and landscape urbanism proclaimed the need to highlight the presence of native plants on the High Line and showcase them in a way that attempts to replicate a “natural” experience. However, in doing so, the High Line has become an exhibit of what would be if the city withered, a monument to urban decay. Along some stretches of the High Line, a visitor is encouraged to leave the city in a subconscious approach as he/she avoids low hanging branches of small trees along a narrow path. In a subversive manner, the high line facilitates the shunning of the city. While there are numerous examples of poor urbanism that should be shunned, the High Line advocates for a dismantling of traditional urban environments in favor of vegetation.

At the same time, Gansevoort Plaza encourages all to interact with each other while making no attempt to fool visitors with where they are, to the contrary, it allows everyone to celebrate the city, to not be ashamed of their home. It provides a space for streetside cafe's and numerous daily activities. 

While in general the High Line does not live up to the numerous requirements community members should ask of it, the unique circumstances surrounding its inception and the success of its fundraising efforts and administrative model does demand a certain level of respect. It is not inherently bad, but could have been designed better. 

Many cities with defunct elevated rail lines have begun to invest large amounts of capital in similar greenway projects, capital that would make a larger impact if they were devoted towards many smaller urban public space projects. The duality and proximity of the High Line and Gansevoort Plaza serve as an experiment in public space. Municipalities that view the High Line as a model of what could be developed in their communities should take into consideration the message that investing in a greenway with public funds in the middle of their city sends to its citizens, that the city itself has given up and that nature can provide better urban public space than people are able to construct.


  1. Both of these spaces are experiments in urbanism. However, both of the areas provides different uses, as defined by that which the city's (and by extension, the electorate's) needs. I believe what you’re doing here is comparing public space with green space, both of which are different from one another. Green space maintains certain aspects of the natural environment while providing a place where settlers can to connect with nature and can be considered, but is not always, public space. On the other hand, public space, is aimed at providing communities with a gathering place to develop and maintain culture, but it does not necessarily have to be "green".

    Green space (in this case, The High Line) provides urban New Yorkers with the ability to escape to a more natural environment that is inevitably connected to the urban infrastructure. Parks are going to be an increasingly important part of cities leading into the future, especially as understanding of the effects of sprawl and unsustainable development have had unconscious of the effect it has on environmental health has had on the human population. The high line is a way for the city to incorporate new forms of transit, environmental health, and green space into urban areas without compromising the desires of the community. The high line also provides a defined use through its rules, which aim to give a sense of place to the urban context set up by the community.

    Gansevoort Plaza (GP) is indeed public space, but it does not necessarily maintain the environmental benefits that the High Line does, nor does it establish rules for the ongoing uses. GP does provide for an important context for the city through a place for people to protest, discuss, be entertained, and many other activities. This is an important distinction between the two places. GP, and many other places like it are incredibly important in the urban context. Public Spaces have contributed to the development of society as a whole in a large way, think Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Revolution. Without this place, Egypt would not see the advancements in human freedoms it is fighting for now.

    The importance of understanding what green space is in its relationship to public space is incredibly important for the urban context. Would a group goto the high line and protest human rights? No. There isn’t space for it, that’s why you need more open spaces like GP. GP provides the space for something like a protest to occur, for people to come together to discuss the next big thing, to have a nightclub in the urban space. Personally, I believe that natural settings with water features, diverse greenery and habitats, and other features are important to the city. Furthermore, I don’t believe that GP provides that, however it does give me a place to be entertained, solicited for ideas, and possibly enjoy a frothy beverage in public at a cafe.

    While both of these places are important in the urban context, they are different in nature, uses, and benefits to society. The environmental benefits that the High Line provides are unknown, but parks and greenways in general provide for social, mental and physical health benefits for humans in almost every way. The cultural benefits provided by the GP are also vital, nobody knows the worth of social capital in the context of what this space provides, but it is also vital to a vibrant district in a high-energy city. Ultimately, you cannot compare apples to oranges, nor can you pit public spaces against green spaces as attempted here.

    1. I appreciate the distinction you make between urban space and more natural green space, Brian. It should be noted that there are several more categorical distinctions that can be made between natural space and urban space. It is by no means limited to a choice between natural and urban, there are many categories in between. Each category of public space belongs to a category of urban setting. By combining types of public space that would otherwise not belong in a certain urban setting, the relationship between the two becomes estranged. Such is the case of the High Line. One of the reasons it is so popular is because it does not belong, because it is odd. and people recognize that. They marvel that it was possible to build grasslands and woodlands in the middle of a neighborhood in Manhattan. There is a place for natural public spaces, it is the responsibility of planners and designers to recognize that, in general, it should not be in the city.