Mixed Messages of Inclusion on New York City’s High Line

Walking along the High Line over the streets of Chelsea on a sunny day, it’s easy to see why the repurposed rail bridge has gained such fervent acclaim in design circles. The High Line is an innovative example of adaptive reuse, made possible by the organized efforts of Friends of the High Line. Despite its triumph as a design project and as a green space, how the park functions in its context points to flaws in its creation as well as flaws in the city itself.

Visitors gather on tiered benches at the High Line

Affordability

The creation of the High Line had an explosive effect on property values near the park. Real estate prices skyrocketed after the High Line’s construction, primarily within a couple of blocks of the park’s location. Josh Barbanel reported on this ‘halo effect’ in his 2016 article for the Wall Street Journal. This kind of boom is to be expected near an amenity like a new park, especially in such a dense city. Unfortunately, the majority of housing around the High Line is market-rate, leaving out anyone who can’t afford a luxury apartment. In one apartment building next to the park, a studio apartment starts renting at $3,215. An apartment in the Spears Building sold for $350,000 in 1997, $2.2 million in 2008, and $3.15 million in 2016.

Participation

The High Line’s design process did not effectively include the community because it did not take into consideration how the park could meet local residents’ needs. While there were participatory elements in the design process, the input residents were asked for was not oriented around their needs as a community. The executive director of Friends of the High Line, Richard Hammond, discussed the flawed process and the group’s new approach an interview with CityLab’s Laura Bliss for her 2017 piece on the High Line.

The flaws in the High Line and its effect on the surrounding neighborhood emerge from both a poor inclusionary process for the original community and the failure of New York City to protect and provide for low-income residents.

Inclusion

The High Line also operates on a contradictory logic of inclusion, at once advocating for an inclusive public space yet explicitly monitoring and restricting who should have access:

Informational signs encourage visitors that they are welcomed, but warn against giving money to panhandlers

The message of the first sign is essential to ensuring inclusive public space, and is admirably explicit during a time of increasing social and cultural division. All people should be able to freely access and benefit from public space as equal members of a community and a city. Why, then, should the needy be excluded? Why should poverty be criminalized even in spaces that tout philosophies of inclusion? The exclusion of the needy from the public realm can only lead to greater bias against and fear of those in poverty or suffering from homelessness, and prevents communities from the self-reflection necessary for positive change.

Andy Merrifield, quoting Marshall Berman, identifies public space as an environment in which “a whole society might begin to confront its collective repressions to call up the specters that haunt it and look them in the face.” One of the specters that residents may be called to face in unrestricted public space is the existence of those in need.

Merrifield asserts in his own words that “a democratic and ‘open-minded’ public space would ensure the shock of recognition” of the existence of poor people. Berman calls this confrontation a way to ‘grow up in public.’ Shared space calls on people to truly share their world and bear witness to its realities. Through this confrontation, communities can begin to critique and improve their social conditions. If the High Line is yet another tool in the city for policing the homeless and impoverished, attempting to erase them from the public eye and cementing their image as a threat, it can’t possibly serve its community and city as a truly public space.

Excluding impoverished people from public spaces denies those people the recognition they deserve as legitimate city residents, while also denying entire communities the responsibility and opportunity of self-reflection and improvement presented by confronting their own realities.

Work cited: Andrew Merrifield, Metromarxism: A Marxist Tale of the City, 169–170. 2013.

This piece was originally written in Summer 2018.

Psychedelic Design in Seville’s Casco Antiguo

Seville has a sizeable historic district, which contains twelve different neighborhoods as well as three different UNESCO World Heritage sites. The district is known as the Casco Antiguo, or ancient district (although one could also translate this as “ancient shell,” to add a bit of romantic intrigue). Among the many landmarks and monuments worth a visit in the Casco Antiguo is an installation called Metropol Parasol, though it is more often recognized as Las Setas (The Mushrooms), or Las Setas de la Encarnación, for the plaza where the work is located. Las Setas is the product of a design competition initiated by the local city council amid efforts to renovate Plaza de la Encarnación in 2004. The winning design, submitted by Jürgen Meyer-Hermann, was inaugurated in 2011, seven years after it was selected.

A curving walkway guides visitors around the top of Las Setas, here offering a panoramic view to the south.
Visitors observe the sweeping view of the city from the uppermost observation deck at Las Setas de la Encarnación.

Given the rich history of its center, the Seville’s willingness to incorporate a modern and playful installation into a major plaza is a lesson for other historic cities grappling with questions of modernization and looking to reinvigorate an existing public space. Las Setas is nothing if not innovative- at the time of this writing, the Metropol Parasol is the largest wooden structure in the world. The figure provides a striking contrast to the colorful, flat-faced buildings surrounding it, ballooning out of a plaza that offers reprieve from the narrow, winding streets that weave through the city center. Despite its size, Las Setas has a strangely DIY feel, as its wooden frame appears to be constructed from simple balsa wood pieces that have been notched and fitted together like some kind of psychedelic model airplane.

Winding walkways allow visitors to absorb the Seville skyline and its monuments from many different vantage points.

While massive sculpture-building appears to dwarf the architecture that surrounds it, the scale of Las Setas does not prevent it from engaging with and even complementing its context. The sloping lines of the stairways leading towards the central figures offer a natural line of sight that guides the viewer’s impression of the installation. The abstract, curved forms of the setas themselves offer a gentle contrast to their rectilinear surroundings while paying tribute to the meandering, curved streets which converge on this plaza. Furthermore, the gridlike pattern created by the work’s interlocking pieces complements the many right angles of walls, windows, and balconies that decorate the plaza’s border.

View of Las Setas from street level.

That Las Setas was allowed to exceed the height of neighboring attractions, such as the nearby Iglesia de la Anunciación, is significant. Some European cities have adopted regulations to ensure that new structures cannot exceed the height of a given historic monument, most often a church. For instance, Budapest’s Saint Stephen’s Basilica as well as its Parliament Building are each exactly 96 meters, and no building is allowed to exceed this height. This policy is in large part a result of the city’s specific history, as the area that would become Hungary was first settled in the year 896. Beyond Budapest, deliberation over height restrictions has permeated policy debate in many other European cities as modern demands challenge historic, human-scale urban fabrics.

View of nearby Iglesia de la Anunciación from Las Setas.
The northeastern view of Seville from Las Setas.

The striking scale of Las Setas, then, might be read as an indication of the city’s priorities. Notably, Las Setas is not a skyscraper. It is not residential or commercial, but rather, a creative endeavor that represents an aesthetic departure from the historic, medieval typology that dominates the Casco Antiguo. At the same time, this design object is also a major tourist attraction in an already heavily visited city. The city’s selection of a non-Spanish designer for the work may also have been meant to indicate Seville’s international sensibility and appeal. International reputation is important for the city, as tourism generates around 15% of Seville’s income, making it an essential local industry.

As with any city, extra money in the coffers likely provides Seville more fiscal flexibility, which could result in better local services or further design innovation, among many other possibilities. However, when tourists become too much of a priority, the local character of a city is threatened. Furthermore, efforts to extract value from previously overlooked or underinvested spaces- the site’s neighborhood is described as “run down” here– can threaten existing residents, as has been witnessed at varying scales in plenty of cities around the world. Plus, the work is not without its technical flaws.

Steep staircases are among the design flaws at Las Setas that have been criticized for being inaccessible.

From a design perspective, the height of Las Setas may present the city to tourists as something to be consumed rather than engaged from street level or inspected up-close. Despite the physical and visual distance of the viewer from the street, however, the monument’s modern, innovative form offers tourists a new mode with which to observe the city. Whereas church towers would typically offer the most expansive view of a medieval city like Seville, Las Setas acts as a more flexible, expansive, secular alternative.

The cloudlike structures appear lovingly incorporated into their plaza home, animating yet never threatening the space. Las Setas encourages viewers to imagine what the future may look like for a historically and culturally significant city like Seville. It is then the responsibility of the city to ensure that Las Setas gives to the city and its people- both socially and economically- more than it takes.

Illusory Inclusion at Copenhagen’s Superkilen Park

Nørrebro’s Superkilen park, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group, Topotek1 and Superflex attempts to design for integration in the most diverse neighborhood in Copenhagen. The architects chose to represent the diversity of the area surrounding the park using symbols of the many different nationalities present in Nørrebro. For example, the park is furnished with a Portuguese tiled bench and a small collection of palm trees from China. The park offers a variety of activities for different users, like assorted play structures for children and a row of chess tables partially sheltered by small trees. The park is visually striking, particularly in the Black Market section, contributing a modern aesthetic to a neighborhood with otherwise older building stock. The park also connects two busy streets running through the neighborhood, Nørrebrogade and Tagensvej, providing an interactive and interesting route for cyclists and pedestrians on their ways home or to other parts of the neighborhood.

The Black Market at Superkilen Park

While the park’s distinctive visual statements appear to operate on contrasts and representations of a wide range of objects and cultures, they are a central tool to the park’s intended message of inclusion and unity. However, according to Brett Bloom’s critique of Superkilen, the park’s design process was much less inclusionary than the park’s widely publicized origin story would indicate. Bloom claims that designing the park, heralded by the city administration and BIG Architects as a highly participatory process, curated an image of participation rather than involving the community on a radical or tangible level (Bloom 15). 

The park’s design also seems to disregard the demands of its physical environment, where rain and snow are to be expected and adaptive design is increasingly important for cities facing the impacts of climate change. The majority of the park is paved, which leaves much less room for the green space that residents requested.  The Red Square, for example, was paved with bright materials not intended for outdoor use, resulting in constant need for repair and a walking surface that became hazardous in rainy or icy conditions. The surface has since been repaved with brick, although this change still leaves that section of the park covered with hard, heat-absorbing material.

This design choice also has negative consequences for the trees in the design scheme, as rainwater cannot permeate the paved surface. The palm trees in particular are poorly suited to the environment regardless of pavement type, because they are not native to Denmark and are unlikely to survive the next couple of years. The durability of imported materials is questionable for many other symbols in the park. For example, the Portuguese bench mentioned earlier is currently in a state of disrepair from enduring a much harsher physical environment than the one it is native to. 

Dust blows into the bicycle lanes during reparative construction on the Red Square at Superkilen

Representation generally is an issue in the park, although Superkilen was conceived as a space for integration and multiculturalism. While the aim was to represent the more than 50 cultures present in the surrounding neighborhood, there are multiple monuments from the United States while there are very few American immigrants living in Nørrebro, particularly as compared to immigrants from the Middle East. This indicates a possible rift between the intended inclusionary effects of the park and what choices were made purely for aesthetic reasons. 

A bench tiled with Portuguese tile, heavily eroded

In Rem Koolhaas’s treatise on the ‘generic city,’ he critiques how cities become oversimplified images of themselves, over-preserving their historic core and abandoning complexity in order to become ‘logos’ of themselves (Koolhaas 218). Through this process, a city verges on becoming generic, rather than remaining dynamic and interesting. The reduction of culture to specific visual symbols in Superkilen is a similar process, threatening the over-simplification of non-Danish cultures and failing to acknowledge the complexity of those cultures and their role in Denmark, which has built its society on assumptions of cultural homogeneity (Jespersen 79). While the park makes a visually and conceptually bold tribute to the diversity of the most culturally and ethnically diverse neighborhood in Copenhagen and provides important recreational space for residents, its execution has not ensured the level of inclusivity that was intended in its conception. 

Cited

Brett Bloom, “Superkilen: Participatory Park Extreme!”

Rem Koolhaas, “The Generic City.” The City Reader.

Knud J. V. Jespersen, “The Danish Model of the Welfare State.” A History of Denmark. 

October 2018

Welcome to People City

People City is made up, but you’ll recognize pieces of it from where you’ve already been. If you’ve sat in the sun in a public plaza, listening to the fountain bubble and musicians play for passersby, you’ve been here before. The widest sidewalks and bike lanes you’ve ever navigated are here, too. The crowd of protesters downtown, who carried their painted signs rolled up on the subway en route to City Hall, are still chanting through the streets. If you’ve congregated with your neighbors on your front porch, stoop, or outside the local corner store, you’ll find yourself doing the same here.

People City represents a vision of the city as it might be, but not as a utopian dreamscape. My goal here isn’t to imagine away the realities of city life but rather to celebrate moments where cities do good by their people while critiquing where they fall short. I’m a student of cities, so this process is as much about learning for me as it is about sharing. This is a sketchbook of ideas, a journal of drafted thought. I hope you’ll bear with me.

The relationship between the city and its people is historically fraught. Industrial urbanization subjected masses of people to disastrous living and working conditions, yet made large-scale organizing (against those same conditions) possible. As the city grew to bursting it became a physical manifestation of structural inequality under capitalism. And in the post-WWII United States, those structural inequalities were demonstrated more viciously as white people fled to the suburbs, taking their privileged tax base away from inner cities and leaving already systematically oppressed citizens to fend for themselves. More recently that pattern has shifted, as wealthy and predominantly white suburbanites ‘rediscover’ the value of the city and move into spaces made available to them by the displacement of more vulnerable longtime residents.

As the gap continues to grow between the poor and the wealthy, the city likewise becomes polarized as a home for both. This along with the increasing privatization of formerly public goods and services means that the line between space for the people generally and space for the consumer specifically has become hazy. We are finally recovering from freeway-dominated mid-century planning practices, but those highways remain, and we still struggle with creating equitable and human spaces. We’ve seen towns and cities adopt principles put forward by New Urbanism, but are still deeply entrenched in an inequitable economic structure so that even something as simple as walkability becomes an issue of wealth and class.

Ultimately, though, the city can be a rich and vibrant place where all sorts of very different people can mix, which is why public space and human-centered design are so massively important. The potential of the city is that of communication, exposure, celebration, protest, and all that people as individuals and as a collective can bring to it. People City is that city: animated, yet imperfect, and above all allied with its people.

Summer 2018