The High Line

14 February 2012 – Who has planted 20 million trees, and has the largest, most diverse park system of any city in the UK?

The parks look healthy and well-kept. Over 1.2 million visitors a year go there.

Milton Keynes, a charity, runs and funds the parks, not a council.

It was established in the early 90s by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, which was being disbanded after building a new city. The charity has property assets worth £50 million (A$73.5 million) given to it by the Corporation. From these assets it receives an annual income of £3.1 million (A$4.6 million) a year to keep its parks. Its sole purpose is to own and run the parks.

When it set up Milton Keynes, the Corporation also gave the rest of its assets such as buildings and playing fields and other open spaces to a new local council that took over its work. The new council decided to sell these assets and spend the proceeds on other projects, so it lost the revenue stream to properly maintain its remaining park assets, which declined in quality.

But the parks run by the Milton Keynes charity have blossomed. It’s the best park system in Britain.

A similar story with a different cast and set is being played out in New York.

One of New York’s growing national and international attractions is the High Line garden. It was created by accidents of commerce and nature and community pressure, not by council planning or a vision the council  had for a new park.

As inner city manufacturing and commercial businesses declined the once-busy industrial elevated railway line called, The High line, ceased to operate. It was too expensive for the owners to demolish and there was no profit in doing so, hence the owner’s request to council to demolish it at its cost.

Ignored by its owners, and left to the attentions of nature, the rail line gradually acquired wind-blown silt and soil and seeds and fertiliser from birds and animals. Over the abandoned decades native plants and introduced species grew there, as did the numbers and varieties of birds and insects.

Meanwhile, from 1979 to 1999 various interests fought legal and political battles to save or to demolish the line. A rail line buff, Peter Obletz, bought the line for $10 and lobbied to keep it and turn it into a garden. He set up the West Side Rail Line Development Foundation to attract funding and support.

Initially, lobbied by the owners, the New York Council resolved to demolish it. But a body set up to lobby to keep the line, called the Friends of the High Line, kept lobbying and won councillors’ support, eventually reversing the council decision.

Now, planted out by volunteers and council, and celebrated by all as a garden, the line has become so successful it’s generating new hotels and other developments nearby Developers pay to put in access ramps and lifts to the High Line to make their site more business-worthy. The increasing array of plants and birds and insects and the beauty of the park winding up high through the heart of the city is amazing for those who walk and sit there or drive their cars below or work with a view of it.

At the summer 2009 opening of the garden, one of the city’s politicians, Senator Hillary Clinton wrote, “But none of this would have happened without the advocacy of Friends of the High Line . . . So the real credit goes to those of you who carried the banner to save the High Line, and to envision an entirely new kind of park in an extraordinary city…”.  High line Opening Summer 2009 p43

The story of how the council of New York took over 20 years to understand the potential of a highly visible piece of land and the asset there, and how it took an accident of nature to show the way – birds and winds creating the park – is the story told wherever there’s government running parks and roads.

The lesson is repeated in the Milton Keynes example.

Parks and roads take up about a third of our cities. We play there, walk, talk and, where possible, pause to eat, drink and get from home to work or be with friends.

It’s our land, held on trust for us by our governments for our benefit.

Why are our roads and a large number of our parks the least attractive part of our cities?  Why are so many of our playing fields as hard as rocks, unpleasant for our kids to play on? They’re typically in decline,­ noisy, dirty, unkempt, unloved, badly designed, squandering rainwater, and given the bare minimum of council attention.  And some are too hot because they don’t have enough trees.

Roads make our cities 4-8 degrees hotter than they need be – the black tar absorbs and gives off the heat day and night so they cause us higher energy bills for airconditioning. In some areas we citizens expect little of and don’t care for our roads and parks. There are some great exceptions but far too many parks and gardens can be a tawdry, self-perpetuating cycle.

More money, and the priorities of governments, go for the car, which is its true first class “citizen”.

How do we make it common, as Senator Clinton put it, for we, the 99 per cent, to enjoy parks, footpaths and roads and have it accepted practice for us “to envision an entirely new kind of park in an extraordinary city”?

Burr will tackle this question next installment.

Michael Mobbs’ book, Sustainable House, is the best selling account of how to build a sustainable project, what works and doesn’t. The book shows how Sustainable House has recycled more than 1.5 million litres of sewage in a five square metre garden in Sydney’s inner city Chippendale since 1996, uses rainwater for drinking, solar power for energy and provides accommodation for four people for utility costs of less than $300 a year. See also www.sustainablehouse.com.au