Friday, February 12, 2016

Cutting Edge May Be Cool, but Not the Best Use of Resources

In my last post, I wrote about how the High Line project in New York City is affecting the conversation about parks in North Bay cities. Some citizens suggest that North Bay cities should be capable of High Line-type projects.  However, the suggestion ignores the uniqueness of both the High Line setting and the deep pockets that were available in Manhattan.  The suggestion also overlooks that North Bay cities are facilitating park improvements that, when measured on a cost per resident basis, aren’t dissimilar from the High Line.

But it’s not only in the small to medium-sized cities where the High Line has undermined rational conversation about park priorities.  Metropolises, which might actually have the resources to chase after the High Line chimera, have also been influenced.  Below, I’ll offer three examples of big city projects that are trying to follow in the footprints of the High Line but which, although I’m sure I’d enjoy visiting the resulting parks, could well become poor uses of resources.

The Garden Bridge in London would be a pedestrian/bicycle crossing of the Thames, with much of the bridge deck dedicated to various forms of greenery, including theme gardens.  After an initial flush of enthusiasm, public ardor for the bridge soon began to fade as costs climbed, security rules were established, and periodic closures for corporate events were suggested as a way to balance the books.

In New York City, a proposed $130 million garden park on piers over the Hudson River has been dubbed “Treasure Island” by citizens.  (If the link doesn’t work, this Google search should have the article as its first result.)  The public response seems uncertain and the funding source isn’t obvious.

Lastly, with an idea that has dual parentage in the High Line and the closing of Times Square to cars, a New York City architecture firm is proposing the conversion of forty blocks of Broadway into a garden belt for pedestrians and bicyclists only.

I think all three of the ideas would create enjoyable places, but I’m not convinced that any would be a good use of funds.  As a comparison, consider South Cove Park on the Hudson River side of Manhattan, near the tip of the island and adjoining Battery Park.  (All the photos are from South Cove Park.)

South Cove Park is a more conventional park, although still expensive because it’s occupying valuable real estate and because construction is always expensive in Manhattan.  Although not cutting edge like the High Line, it’s comfortable, well-used, and seemingly well-loved.  Also, it’s now part of the Big U of parks intended to help protect Manhattan from the surge of climate change-enhanced storms like Sandy.

Overall, South Cove Park may seem unexciting and conventional, but seems a better and less risky model for cities to follow, whether New York City or Santa Rosa, London or Petaluma.  The High Line is fun and creative, but many fun and creative projects are better left as one-offs.

I spent the earlier years of my career in the field of hydroelectric development, at a time that the rules for the permitting of hydroelectric projects were changing greatly.  One afternoon, I chatted about the evolving rules over a beer with an attorney for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.  His words about those eager to take advantage of the changing regulatory environment were “Those on the cutting edge often bleed.”

The High Line was a remarkable accomplishment, but attempts of others to seek similarly remarkable outcomes may result in blood at a time we can’t afford to bleed.

For my next post, I’ll return to induced traffic.  It’s a subject on which I’ve touched many times, but remains worthy of revisiting, especially as new information comes forth.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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