With Reclaiming the High Line, the Design Trust imagined the extraordinary potential of what a decommissioned rail line could become. Now, 15 years later, our Under the Elevated project is reclaiming the millions of square feet underneath elevated infrastructure as New York City’s next development frontier.

complementary projects, distinct goals

Arguably, the zeitgeist of early 21st century urbanists will be seen as transitioning cities away from automobile-centric systems to more pedestrian, bicycle and public means of mobility. While climate change adaptation is perhaps the primary reason for this sea change, elevated highways and rail lines are now seen as an enemy to community-centric neighborhood design. As with many matters of urban design, New York City presents a unique case study in this dialogue on how to adaptively reuse the various forms of obsolete or troublesome infrastructure. The city’s legacy of Robert Moses’ ill-placed highways and aging transportation systems, taken together with our high density and land scarcity, necessitate new forms of development to create quality public spaces for all New Yorkers.

For well over a decade, the Design Trust has championed the NYC's outlier status as development potential generated not only by projected real estate returns, but equally from the energy of residents to transform the train lines in their neighborhoods, or streets below them, from liabilities into assets. The Design Trust project Reclaiming the High Line imagined the spectacular potential of what a decommissioned rail line could become, and now 15 years later with our Under the Elevated project, we are exploring the land underneath the city’s elevated infrastructure as our next development frontier. With these two projects, the Design Trust is establishing New York City as a global leader in the design of poly-functional transportation infrastructure.

planning for the extraordinary

In 1999, the nascent community group Friends of the High Line partnered with the Design Trust to create a feasibility study to propose alternatives to the Giuliani administration’s plan to tear down the last 1.45 miles of the old 10th Avenue elevated train line. The resulting Reclaiming the High Line publication convinced the City to convert the line to parkland rather than demolish the decommissioned track. The study was presented to Mayor Bloomberg in 2002 and, over a period of ten years, the High Line we have come to know and enjoy was realized. While the Design Trust is seldom acknowledged for our role, we were critical to jumpstarting the project and determining the High Line’s ultimate use.

Today the High Line is seen as an extraordinary success story, and has spurred many cities worldwide to construct one of their own. However, decommissioned train lines are not commonplace in an urban environment. Aside from the current Queensway project, New York will most likely have not have the opportunity to create another High Line. What we do have in abundance, however, is the (often) congested and litter-strewn street below active train lines and roadways.

planning for systemic change

In fact, removing the High Line’s “gritty underbelly” from West Chelsea was a main argument of those in favor of demolishing the structure. In 2013, the Design Trust launched Under the Elevated in partnership with the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) to make the reclamation of the millions of square feet under elevated infrastructure by community organizations possible. A main goal of the project is to ensure the interests of residents living near—actually using these spaces—are prioritized. In New York City, increasingly steep competition for limited public space endangers the city’s economic health, as well as the connectivity of the city’s diverse social and cultural components. Often, land uses under the elevated are an afterthought when a decision is made to construct an elevated highway. Without a thoughtful and concerted effort toward design and use, these segments of developable land lose their potential to be productive public spaces, especially in New York City’s undervalued neighborhoods.

While the rest of the world's cities are looking to the High Line as a precedent for adaptively reusing their viaducts, our Under the Elevated project team is looking at how other cities have reclaimed their urban dead zones into lively public spaces (see the below slideshow of precedent projects from around the world). Policy Fellow Douglas Woodward is paving the way for systemic change by creating a mechanism for DOT to allow residents to reclaim these spaces, a policy move that could resemble the agency's widely successful Plaza Program.

In a recent article in Metropolis, writer Karrie Jacobs describes the intent of our project as re-imagining aspects of our built environment that are no longer functional into structures with economic and aesthetic value:

But there are features of our cities that we commonly regard as eyesores that should instead be valued as part of our unnatural natural environment. We can find ways to immerse ourselves in these oddities as if they were the uncanny rock formations of some southwestern canyon. Even the most obstructive, no-man’s-land-generating form of urban infrastructure—the elevated expressway—can, with skill and imagination, be incorporated into metropolitan nature.

Karrie Jacobs, 2014, Metropolis Magazine

Project Area: Five Boroughs

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Seattle's Fremont Troll is the low-cost, high-impact result of a public art competition to rehabilitate the area under the Aurora Bridge.

Photo: DeviantArt

The city of Birmingham commissioned LightRails to make the active walkway under their 18th Street Viaduct a safer passage.

Photo courtesy of Alabama Local News 

Urban Plaza / Media Garden by La Dallman Architects under the Marsupial Bridge in Milwaukee is flexible enough to host screenings and informal gatherings.

Photo: La Dallman Architects

A8ernA by NL Architect created 8 distinct public spaces under an elevated highway in the Netherlands, including an active dock, skate park and supermarket.

Photo: NL Architect

Toronto's Underpass Park by Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg provides quality public spaces for the West Don Lands, an emergent neighborhood along the waterfront.

Photo: Waterfront Toronto

2K540 Aki-Oka Artisan in Tokyo is a complex between two elevated train stations that houses galleries, artist studios, shops, and more.

Photo: Tokyobling

lessons learned

Importantly, transformative public space design and management does not just happen.  Cities are complex organisms. Creating catalytic solutions to multifaceted planning, policy, and development challenges requires the ability to engage diverse stakeholders, and tap into multidisciplinary expertise. James Corner, principal of James Corner Field Operations, the architecture firm that designed the High Line with Diller Scofidio and Renfro, articulated this sentiment best in a 2011 New York Times article, “It’s not just, ‘Build a cool park and they will come.’ It’s, ‘Build a cool park and connect it to a framework.'”

Comparing these two complementary projects with distinct goals provides insight into how the flexibility of the Design Trust model is essential for creating spectacular public spaces out of under-appreciated features of our built environment.

do not drop the ball- pass it to the team

Reclaiming the High Line established Friends of the High Line as a strong nonprofit organization now able to fund 70% of their operations. Considering that the High Line is just a mile long, the potential impact of making millions of square feet throughout the five boroughs available for a variety of public uses is unparalleled. By partnering with DOT, the primary landholder of space under the elevated, our project will create real strategies for the agency to instigate real change.

meaningful community engagement builds constituency

A turning point in our High Line project was the 2001 Public Space Makers symposium, an event that convened West Chelsea residents with State and City officials to brainstorm feasible alternatives for what the High Line could become. A key outcome of this symposium was the first iteration of the West Chelsea rezoning plan, which allowed for property values rise above borough-wide averages in 2011. Our approach with Under the Elevated is to engage communities with multiple events on a much smaller scale. To date, we’ve hosted workshops at three sites to capture the experiential knowledge of residents who use these spaces on a daily basis, and hear their suggestions for improvements needed. Additionally, our project team selected study sites with strong community collaborators, or organizations actively working to transform a problematic section of their neighborhood.

deliverables are not an end, but a means for instigating change

Joshua David, co-founder of Friends of the High Line, reflected on the importance of the Reclaiming the High Line feasibility study: "If you look at the planning study now, it’s remarkable how much it described what would happen in the years to come. It created a kind of road map for the High Line’s transformation." Similarly, Under the Elevated will culminate in a publication that contains actionable recommendations not only for how this land can be best utilized in the short and long term, but also a guide for how to overcome all the possible obstacles to making it happen.