There goes the neighbourhood

The impact of the New York High Line shows why it’s vital to engage with communities

The High Line against the walls of its host neighbourhood.
The High Line against the walls of its host neighbourhood. Credit: Marcin Wichary via VisualHunt.com (Creative Commons BY-ND)

Robert Hammond, one of the co-founders of the New York High Line, surprisingly revealed in a recent interview with Citylab.com that he considered the project to have ‘failed’ in some critical areas. In particular, he pointed to the neglect of meaningful engagement with local communities from the start of the planning and design process as a grave oversight.

The High Line is a phenomenally successful project, now attracting millions of visitors every year: a massive commercial hit as well as a design milestone, it shows what can be done when historical industrial infrastructure meets imaginative planting and elegant design treatment.

A ‘High Line effect’ has quickly followed, with a wave of disused railways across the USA and the rest of the world being regenerated into stylish new parks, looking to create similarly thriving public spaces and boom times for run-down areas. Industrial chic projects have also truly caught the popular imagination, giving access to previously hidden and off-limits places and showcasing new views of the city.

According to Hammond, the High Line has impacted negatively on its surrounding neighbourhoods, which he believes could have been mitigated or averted by engaging with local communities from the outset. Specifically, he identifies rapid gentrification, which has exacerbated economic inequality, a failure to attract disadvantaged local people, and a missed opportunity to improve the lot of existing impoverished communities. 

‘Instead of asking what the design should look like, I wish we’d asked: “What can we do for you?”,’ he said. ‘Because people have bigger problems than design.’

The key mistakes he notes are, as this quote illustrates, a focus on design to the exclusion of socio-economic and cultural realities, and bringing local people into the process too late. These shortcomings aren’t peculiar to the High Line: they appear in projects of all sizes and types. So what can be learned from the High Line about communication and community engagement?

Gentirfication has followed the High Line.
Gentirfication has followed the High Line. Credit: shinya via VisualHunt.co (Creative Commons BY-ND)

Looking more closely at Hammond’s statement, he indicates that design should not be the primary consideration in projects of this nature, as well as emphasising that designers need to develop a deeper understanding of the social and economic context before considering design issues. Landmark regeneration projects, no matter how high the design quality, have the potential to be divisive and detrimental – which means authentic, inclusive engagement with local communities is essential, including participation in decision-making from the project’s earliest stages.

Moreover, derelict industrial structures tend to be located in disadvantaged areas with high levels of poverty, endemic social problems, degraded urban fabric, and poor amenities. Revamping them to attract visitors and new businesses can mean swift gentrification, with all its adverse repercussions. 

So what can be done? Architects are of course obliged to balance business concerns and client requirements with the desire to create better places. How viable is it then to fully involve local people in the planning and design process, given the potential to add to project timescales and consume staff time and energy – not to mention cost implications?

I’m writing a book – Desire Lines: Placemaking, Consultation and Community Participation – to provide guidance to designers on working with communities. In the course of my research, I’ve interviewed architects, landscape architects, urban designers and community engagement specialists and asked them for their golden rules. I’ve picked out some general advice relevant to any type of project, at any scale, in any type of area, from a New York High Line to a British high street. Notably, they chiefly relate to architects not as designers, but as communicators.  

First of all, look at a scheme from the point of view of the local community or users. Designers should be giving greater consideration to the human aspects of the development and the human scale, and thinking like anthropologists when researching the local area and social context.

Bring local people into the process when their input matters most – that is, at the very beginning before any design work starts. Find out what they want, listen to their fears and aspirations, and build trust from the outset. Designs can then emerge from an understanding of what people want.

Proactively engage with so-called ‘hard-to-reach’ groups, especially as any negative impacts of a development will probably hit them hardest. Endeavour to understand their experiences of the local area, and the potential effects of change for them. Face to face personal contact tends to be more effective in this regard, and again helps build trust and confidence from the start. 

Could the High Line have done more for the city?
Could the High Line have done more for the city? Credit: alisonmeier via VisualHunt.com (Creative Commons BY-SA)

Avoid technical terminology, industry jargon and design-speak. Quite simply, people often just don’t understand what designers are talking about. There’s no need to dumb down – just be clear and use language that everyone can understand. Designers are understandably passionate about their ideas, but need to be clear and concise to get those ideas across.   

Be a good listener. At a public meeting or workshop, for instance, this means talking as little as possible and focusing on what people have to say – not debating with them, expounding the merits of the design or going into technical details, but just letting people speak, paying attention and noting the range of views.

If meaningful participation had been offered to the High Line’s neighbours from the outset, could any negative impacts have been precluded? According to Hammond, yes. For instance, it would have become obvious that entrances all along the route were needed, to create connections – in every sense – with the neighbourhoods through which it passes.

The designers could have used their relationships with funders and city officials to advocate for disadvantaged local communities, if they had listened to them. Local businesses could have profited instead of being priced out. So is it viable for practices to involve local communities in decision-making from the start of a project? Absolutely. Whatever the financial cost of community participation, the long-term social costs of not engaging can be far greater, as the High Line shows.  


The High Line's next balancing act, Laura Bliss , 7 February 2017, CityLab.com

Desire Lines: placemaking, consultation and community participation, Lesley Malone, RIBA Publications (forthcoming)