Posted on 30.10.2012

The case of the High Line gives a prime example for community action.

The High Line was originally an elevated railway carrying freight into the heart of Manhattan. The final goods train rolled down the line in 1980 and by 1999 the line was derelict; the top-side overgrown with self seeded vegetation and the underside a home for nesting pigeons. The Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, wanted it pulled down and most of the local community would have been happy to see it go. However, having heard about the plans for demolition, two local residents, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, found themselves sitting next to each other at a community meeting and decided that that they wanted to try and save the High Line.

The two men are happy to admit that they had “no money, no plan and no expertise”, so how did they manage to turn a rusting derelict liability into a world renowned urban amenity and $5M a year business?

The High Line is a great example of the power of seeing things from a different angle – recognising the potential asset of a new public space in the current liability of a crumbling railway. Whilst it is clearly rooted in its local New York context there are many lessons that smaller and (currently!) less well known community projects could draw on:

Present A Positive Opportunity

Using pro bono support from a graphic design company and photographer Joshua and David created a campaign to raise public awareness of a green space out of sight, above people’s heads.  People are unlikely to care about something they’ve never seen or experienced: helping them visualize what might be possible is crucial.

Find A Precedent

They discovered that Paris has already converted an old urban railway into the Promenade Plantée. It provided a simple riposte to those who said it couldn’t be done. They also found a useful governance model in the Conservancy established to manage Central Park.  Finding precedents of successful community run projects can give confidence to both the doubters and the people pushing the project forward.

Find A Suitable Funding Programme

The US Federal Government has two active funding programmes designed to enable old railway lines to be converted to new uses and prevent them being lost to development. Even if there isn’t such an immediately obvious funding programme, getting creative about how to raise money will be crucial.

Get Political

Mayor Giuliani wanted to tear down the structure but the City Council were keen to see it retained. The first action Joshua and Robert took was to establish an organisation that could raise funds and take legal action against the Mayor.

Be Aware Of The Wider Context

When Mayor Bloomberg took over from Giuliani in 2001 his focus was on the regeneration of the city. The campaigners for the High Line gathered evidence of the economic benefits of urban green spaces, in particular how property prices rise in the areas around well maintained parks and the knock on benefits to the city via tax revenues. Post 9/11 there was also a strong sense of people wanting to rededicate themselves to the city, keen to engage with a positive, inspirational project (a spirit that will surely re-emerge following today’s devastating floods).

Engage, Persuade, And Fight!

Not everyone was behind the project. As Richard Hammond said at the Garden Museum event, “If you polled people in the neighbourhood at the start they would probably have voted for it to be pulled down”. They sought to engage people from the beginning, however they also had to advocate and fight for their vision, not assume they could build a consensus around it.

But… How Do We Capture Value?

The High Line is a shared asset with shared governance. It is owned by the City who provide the Friends of the High Line with a license to operate and maintain the area. The City also provides the security for the site and indemnifies against all liabilities.

In their initial financial modelling for the Mayor, the Friends of the High Line estimated that an investment of $100M would result in $200M of extra revenue to the city over 20 years. Today they estimate that the $112M spent will result in over $900M in new revenue through property taxes and visitors.

Despite this success it receives little public funding to run its operations, relying on philanthropy and fundraising to pay 90% of the $5M annual running costs.

This is a challenge that faces many successful community management projects. While surrounding landowners and the state may benefit from the increased property values and visitor numbers, the project itself doesn’t get a share, continuing to need to fundraise for the management and replenishment of the asset.

At Shared Assets we hope to develop models that capture the value of our environmental assets, and find ways of recycling that value to help communities and landowners create innovative, well managed projects that are sustainable.

Where will the next High Line be?

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