The High Line and its imitators are examples of “landscape urbanism,” a growing design movement that places green space in collision with old infrastructure. As the abandoned railways, ports and bridges of the 20th century rust and grow over with grasses, a group of architects has dreamed up seductive new ways to use them. Landscape architect James Corner, a designer of the High Line, has said the park is “a lot like a gallery and a museum” where “the city is now the exhibit.”
It’s true that these spaces are like museums: What’s on display is a powerful, nostalgic vision of the urban wilderness, now tamed. In districts that were derelict just 20 years ago, millions visit to gawk at the attractions. “We made the crazy credible,” said Robert Hammond, co-founder of Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit that runs the path. “We’ve also proved that these things create value.”
But for whom? To the bureaucrats who promote them, landscape urbanist designs create a benevolent veneer of public space. Their funding, though, derives largely from private developers and investors, and they’re hardly a public good. They often arise in low-income and middle-class communities of color, edging out longtime residents. If these spaces were making room for vital new communities, maybe you could write off this displacement as an unfortunate side effect of healthy urban growth. Instead, they’re remaking whole neighborhoods as supervised bourgeois playgrounds that only superficially resemble actual urban life. They’re shaped for novelty, a far cry from promoting the “natural, continuing flow of life and use” that Jane Jacobs, doyenne of urban studies, identified as a hallmark of true public space. They’re not quite public, and they’re not quite parks.
Rehabilitation projects follow a familiar playbook, aestheticizing the labor of the past even as they support a gentrified future. Chicago revived the elevated Bloomingdale freight line as the 606, a 2.7-mile corridor that connects four transforming neighborhoods with landscaped lanes for walking, jogging and cycling, and a curious concrete spiral that overlooks Chicago’s industrial vestiges. On Atlanta’s BeltLine, built on three miles of a 22-mile rail loop, visitors can stroll around a pond beside a terraced grass-and-concrete overlook — a sort of glorified putt-putt water trap — that Corner helped design.
All around both projects hunker freshly built condos, pricey vendors and new boutique apartments, and property values near the paths have skyrocketed. While neither stimulated these surges alone, both accelerated them. On the west side of the 606, housing prices have increased 48 percent since construction began in 2015. Along the BeltLine, median housing prices rose by as much as 68 percent between 2011 and 2015, more than anywhere else in the city. The spring season apparently sees a 50 percent “BeltLine premium.”
But green design can also grow inequality. The 606 and the BeltLine cut through historically African American and Latino neighborhoods where longtime residents, faced with rising rents and property taxes, are fighting to remain in the communities they built. A recent study of Chicago showed that some of the greatest displacement pressure in the city is squeezing low-income residents on the western half of the 606, while in Atlanta, housing advocates report serious concerns about neighborhood dislocation near the BeltLine.
“For people who live along that corridor and those parts of the West Side, this is not exciting. This is not, ‘Wow, a new way for us to exercise,’ ” said C.J. Jackson, a resident of Atlanta’s Washington Park, a historically black neighborhood that sits along a new section of the path. “It’s something that is happening to us, and not for us.”
The worst of these effects may be unintended, and some projects’ stewards have sought to protect the people whose homes the new green spaces have threatened. The Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, for example, has helped develop affordable housing plans and, more recently, an anti-displacement tax fund. But only about half of the promised 5,600 affordable units have materialized. All told, solutions of this sort have been an afterthought — a technocratic, rear-guard remedy for people whom cities have forgotten in their rush to design yuppie catnip to lure developers.
Such missteps could be forgiven if these spaces were truly vibrant and community-oriented. What they are instead is a Disney-fied simulation of vibrancy, their environments highly programmed and patrolled. Visit them and you might catch a scheduled yoga class, dance night or public art performance. You’ll see clusters of suburbanites emerge from SUVs to push fancy strollers or go on dates to new cafes and brewpubs under the watchful eye of security staff and cameras. But they make little room to linger or live, let alone for community gatherings. Narrow and crowded, their designs demand we tour them and leave. The park rules on the 606 — “stay to the right, pass on the left, step aside if you stop, encourage your children to do the same and keep your dog on a short leash” — remind us as much. They are spontaneous like a museum is spontaneous, which is to say not very.
Still, they are spawning. Soon, the 11th Street Bridge Park will bring landscape urbanism to Washington. High-concept architect Rem Koolhaas has been selected to transform a 1.45-mile stretch of bridge into a “world-class public space for recreation, arts and environmental education.” In severe angles of glass, grass and fresh concrete, the project will connect Anacostia, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, with Capitol Hill, one of the richest, by way of a glittering new Navy Yard, dotted with condos, stadiums and high-end dining. Real estate speculation is already vibrating in Anacostia, where housing prices ascend by the year and landlords have begun to promote the park in their listings. What could go wrong?
It’s hard to see what benefits these projects offer that more democratic ones — with less grotesque investment — couldn’t improve on. But the logic of late-capitalist city planning demands that every nook be not just profitable but also designed to delight us. Landscape urbanism has become a reliably delightful brand, placing a glossy sheen on the inequality that comes along with private ownership of public space — even as it hastens it along.
Where does this all lead? It’s not as though the problems with this style of planning have gone unnoticed. The “just green enough” movement, for example, says neighborhoods should build simpler green spaces without all the precious amenities that spur gentrification. Other neo-traditionalist designers dismiss landscape urbanism altogether as style over substance. Meanwhile, the recently minted High Line Network, a coalition of about 20 similar projects across the country, is scrambling post-hoc to address growing problems of inequality. Hammond has pointed to Washington’s Bridge Park as a model of inclusive planning.
The Bridge Park is certainly a model of something: By taking the elements of green planning to an extreme, it reveals the way these projects justify their existence. Hundreds of community-input meetings went into generating consent from Anacostia’s mostly African American residents for a project that will ultimately happen with or without their cooperation. Millions of philanthropy dollars will ply the community with housing protections that can’t possibly meet its needs. In the project’s design graphics, a bizarre projected hologram of Frederick Douglass graces a waterfall — a gesture at representation, one supposes. It’s almost artful how culture, as conceived by capital, will sell us a gleaming vision of our past even as it steals our future from us.
Somehow, though, cities never ask themselves the simplest question: Why not build real public spaces instead? In practice, that would mean creating projects without private funding and with little of the curated greenness that landscape urbanism exalts. For a model, we might look to Berlin, where Tempelhof, a former airfield, and Gleisdreieck Park, a former railway, prove that the public can adapt disused infrastructure under precisely those conditions. Both make space for lively, if unglamorous, activities like picnics, barbecues and communal gardening. The threat of gentrification has not been wholly absent. But residents have successfully resisted calls to develop the airfield itself, and the parks are situated within a city that is serious about controlling rents.
In America, true public spaces remain unlikely, since they mean lost profits for the preposterously wealthy. That’s why, in the end, no design movement alone will serve community needs. If we want democratic cities, we must imagine — and fight to preserve — space that’s inclusive and improvisational, where we can work and live together, not just green monuments for tourists and the creative class. At the moment, that space is dwindling.