Social Equity Becomes a Top Priority
On a breezy late summer day, so perfect that you could wrap your arms around it, the street underneath the southern terminus of New York City’s High Line is full of people. Brightly colored café chairs are scattered about in the shade under the trail and the sidewalks are bustling with people and activity. The streetscape is eclectic and eye-catching, ranging from the prestigious Whitney Museum to food carts and art vendors doing a brisk business. The old bones of the original warehouses rising above the Meatpacking District are hardly visible anymore amid the construction scaffolding, tower cranes and urban renovation that is taking place at a furious pace.
All about are tourists taking selfies and each other’s pictures. Conversations are taking place in Russian, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese and a half-dozen other languages. Luxury tour buses thread silently through the narrow streets like excursion steamers might have on the nearby Hudson River a century ago.
The High Line
A trail that might never have been built is now estimated to be responsible for $2 billion in impact.
It is difficult to believe that little more than 10 years ago New York City’s Meatpacking District was a somewhat depopulated urban area with minimal economic activity and almost zero social vitality. While conditions may have been ripe for revitalization due to a zoning change that enabled redevelopment, one catalytic structure gave an identity to the profound change taking place: the development of the High Line.
The High Line is one of the most significant and transformative urban park projects in a generation. The project has garnered design awards and gained international acclaim. It is the progenitor of creatively repurposed urban infrastructure that provides recreation, stimulates redevelopment and gives an iconic identity to a city. And, it has produced extraordinary economic benefits. According to several estimates, the High Line has created more than $2 billion in economic activity since it was opened.
Many other cities are now looking at, or have already begun, reconstruction of abandoned or underutilized industrial and transportation infrastructure to create new public open space. The Atlanta BeltLine, Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Trinity River Park in Dallas, The 606 in Chicago, The Underline in Miami, Philadelphia’s Rail Park, Waterfront Seattle and the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C., to name just a few of the emerging projects, are all looking to unlock the potential of reimagined industrial and transportation infrastructure and the extraordinary benefits it can bring to their cities.
One of the greatest challenges for these projects is not raising capital or establishing the public-private partnerships necessary to complete them, but rather how to deal with the social impacts that these projects inevitably bring. Social equity impacts, once far down the list of important priorities, have surged to the forefront of the most important considerations for virtually every project now in planning or under construction.
Social equity was not a top priority for the founders of the High Line or for New York City. The conversion of the abandoned elevated West Side rail line was proposed by Robert Hammond and Joshua David, area residents who became champions for saving this peculiar industrial remnant, along with a fledgling group called the Friends of the High Line.
Adrian Benepe, senior VP and director of city park development for The Trust for Public Land (TPL) and the former commissioner of parks and recreation in New York City when the High Line was conceived, says, “Social equity was not an issue that most people considered. Largely speaking, the High Line does not go through a residential neighborhood. The city and the proponents of the trail were more concerned at the time with just saving this infrastructure and turning it into a park.”
Benepe says the notion of the park started as a kind of rebellion. The city was absolutely against the idea of the trail. Demolition crews were in place to tear down the rail line, and the advocates had to sue the city to keep it from ripping the line apart. “The High Line emerged more from a park equity frame of reference than a social equity perspective,” Benepe points out. “This was one of the worst districts in the city in terms of park access, especially before the creation of the Hudson River Park.
“Certain parks can hasten gentrification,” Benepe says, “but I don’t think you can blame parks solely for gentrification. In this case, much more powerful forces were in play. The rezoning of Chelsea had a much bigger impact on future development than the High Line did.” Hammond, co-founder of the Friends of the High Line with David, says, “The High Line sometimes gets too much credit — and blame — for what has happened around the trail in Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. Gentrification was already taking place. It was very hard for us to argue that we were going to be as successful as we were, especially considering we were just coming out of a major recession.” Hammond cites an important lesson they learned in the early days of the High Line: “Once value was created, we learned that it is almost impossible to take it back. When your project is going to result in economic success, you must have a way to capture that value and return it to the city to allocate that value for all.”
Today, the most important considerations for large urban park projects include much more than their potential for enhancing economic development. “Historically, large urban parks were a spur for economic development, especially real estate,” says Benepe, “but now, many other factors have come into play, including resilience, community health impacts, community cohesion, climate change response and, especially, social equity. Parks can no longer be looked at in isolation,” he asserts. “We must be much more careful in looking at the consequences of decisions, both intended and unintended. Parks must be a force for public good. We must look at how urban parks can maximize public health, community cohesion and resilience.”
The Bloomingdale Trail
Awareness of social equity impacts grew rapidly as the Chicago trail project came online.
In Chicago, community-driven desire for more parks led to plans for reuse of an abandoned, elevated heavy rail line as a linear park. The planning and construction of the Bloomingdale Trail, a 2.7-mile-long park was announced in 2011 by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who declared that he wanted to ride his bike along the completed trail by the end of his first term in office. From the outset, the trail, also called The 606, was on a fast track, and the city and the Chicago Park District, in partnership with the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, were spurred by the mayor’s interest and commitment.
Ben Helphand, co-founder and current president of the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, says that equity was a motivating force from the beginning and that this desire came from the community members, because they wanted the trail for the people who live there. “That is what pushed us and that is what motivates me today. This trail is about community health and social cohesion, not about real estate speculation.”
However, events were happening that were largely out of the control of the Friends and even the city at the time the trail planning was underway. Helphand says no one could foresee that there would be such a rapid recovery from the Great Recession and that the influx of capital would be rapidly followed by gentrification. “In the aftermath of the recession, we were just trying to keep the project alive. That was our reality. I wish we had more foresight and were more proactive, but it was really difficult to untangle the forces at work,” he says.
“The communities on the west end of the trail were reeling from the effects of the foreclosure crisis,” says Caroline O’Boyle, TPL’s director of programs and partnerships for The 606. “There was a great fear that property values would not come back up. There certainly was not much worry about runaway inflation of home prices or gentrification at that point in time.”
O’Boyle notes that the trail was planned and built in just four years. “However, shortly before the trail opened in 2015,” she says, “housing organizations began to say, ‘Oh no, what is happening here?’” TPL and other partners brought in experts on housing affordability, property valuation and other aspects of gentrification and displacement. “Today,” says O’Boyle, “the need for that type of planning is very clearly recognized and in the forefront of consideration of large urban park projects.”
O’Boyle believes that some of the barriers to achieving social equity goals were the extremely short timeline of planning and constructing the park. When changes began occurring in the community, a sentiment from some in the residents was, “You didn’t build this park for us.” She adds that ensuring affordable housing remains in place, guaranteeing that residents are hired, and other aspects of workforce development and community acceptance are a long-term process. In addition, it is important to use the lead time for such projects to have a process in place to ensure equity when planning and construction commence. “Creating an authentic partnership with the people who bring the social glue to the table — schools, churches, housing organizations, healthcare and others — is so important, and it should be done as early as possible,” she emphasizes.
Vivian Garcia, manager of The 606 for the Chicago Park District, says that they have engaged the community through a continuous process of dialogue. She says that there is a growing movement based on the experiences with The 606 to look at the larger impacts on the whole community, including unintended consequences, rising gentrification and displacement. These lessons learned are being applied on other trail projects of the Chicago Park District, including a new rail-trail conversion, called the Paseo, in the largely Latino community of Pilsen.
“Anytime there is a large public investment,” Helphand adds, “we need to look at who will profit the most from it, and who will be affected. What are the tradeoffs? Let’s account for them and capture the benefits for the public good.”
11th Street Bridge Park
A park where planning for social equity is the top priority
Perhaps no signature urban park project now under development in the country places higher importance on social equity goals than the 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, D.C. A public- private partnership is repurposing the structural piers of the former 11th Street Bridge into an innovative deck park that will connect the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods near Capitol Hill with the city’s most-disinvested community east of the Anacostia River.
The vision for the 11th Street Bridge Park began with Harriet Tregoning, the far-sighted former planning director for the District of Columbia. Tregoning proposed reusing the piers of the former bridge, which were still sound, into a wholly new kind of public space. Scott Kratz, the director of the 11th Street Bridge project and VP of the nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River, says, “Social equity was one of the goals of the bridge project that most viscerally connected with the communities on the other side of the river. When Harriet took this idea to the community to ask them if it was a good idea and should we do this, there was a giant trust deficit. Many promises had been made to this community and many were broken. Asking for permission was a really important first step.”
Those first meetings, and the more than 1,000 subsequent meetings with members of the community, brought out not only ideas for the park, but also needs that were much deeper — adequate housing, workforce development and economic development for the community. “We said that is really not our responsibility,” Kratz says, “but since we played the role as conveners, we realized that this was an opportunity to think about infrastructure in a wholly different way.”
According to Kratz, the southwest area of the District is rapidly transforming because of a white-hot real estate market and rapid economic development. Today, you can count 13 tower cranes on the west banks of the Anacostia River. Long established neighborhoods are nearly unrecognizable. “We asked ourselves, who is this development for? And, who is this park going to be for?”
Key to any vision of success by the partnership for the park was keeping residents on the east side of the river in their homes. When they considered what actions would be necessary to achieve that goal, they settled on four areas of strategy: housing, workforce development, small business enterprise and, most recently added, cultural equity. Each of these priorities, says Kratz, came from the community and local nonprofits.
“Will these strategies stop displacement?” asks Kratz. “No, but they are important steps that are critical to the future of the community.” The partnership for the park has developed a community land trust (CLT), a separate nonprofit that will own property and sell deed-restricted homes to residents at significant discounts on long-term mortgages. With philanthropic and corporate funding, including a $5 million contribution by JP Morgan Chase, it has initiated the Washington Area Community Investment Fund to make community loans, incubate small businesses, help with child care and many other ways to promote equity and economic opportunity in underserved neighborhoods in southeast D.C.
Since urban agriculture was a high priority for the community and food is very much a conveyor of culture, Building Bridges Across the River partnered with the faith community and now there are seven urban farms underway. In fact, the ideas for food in the park that came from the community led to design changes to accommodate food stalls.
The 11th Street Bridge Park plans led the nonprofit partnership to develop an equitable development plan in 2015, one of the first of its kind, which was just updated this year.
Kratz says that without thinking about equity as a first principle and asking the question, “Who is this park for?” they never would have accomplished as much as they have.
The High Line Network
A network of adaptive reuse urban park projects seeks to share lessons learned
In a 2017 interview for CityLab, Hammond acknowledged that despite the overwhelming success of the High Line, many of the residents of the surrounding communities who are people of color do not use the trail or participate in the many programs and events the Friends sponsor. “We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighborhood. Ultimately, we failed.”
In recognition of falling short in that goal, Hammond founded The High Line Network, a group of representatives from 17 adaptive reuse projects around the country whose purpose is to share knowledge and experiences that help these kinds of infrastructure reuse projects reach their full potential.
Ana Traverso-Krejcarek, manager of The High Line Network, says that they have shared many lessons learned from the experiences of the High Line Trail with representatives from other cities and other partnerships developing trails, cap parks and infrastructure reuse projects. For the High Line, Traverso-Krejcarek says they have focused on creating a system that focuses on making social equity dimensions sustainable. “Having an open, honest dialogue with communities and being willing to adjust your perspective is critical,” she says. “Being intentional about creating opportunities for engagement and insisting that wealth is shared throughout the community is essential. You must meet the community on its own terms, and this must happen from the outset, even at the concept stage. Value must be captured from the beginning and shared widely if projects are to have true success.”
The experiences of The High Line, the Bloomingdale Trail and the 11th Street Bridge Park show that social equity is no longer something to consider in hindsight but, rather, to be regarded as the most important priority of large-scale urban park projects. Adaptive reuse projects around the country that are repurposing industrial and transportation infrastructure to create exciting and innovative public spaces will only succeed fully if they embrace social equity and live by it as a guiding principle.
Richard Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Strategic Initiatives.