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Coming Down From the High Line: Billionaire-Backed Public Space Projects Are on the Outs

September 18, 2017

Last week, plans were put to rest for New York City’s Pier 55, a $250-million, 2.7-acre floating park intended for Manhattan’s west side. The imaginative proposal was nixed due to both escalating costs and associated controversy regarding the project’s predicted gentrification. Pier 55, designed by British architect Thomas Heatherwick, has faced a number of hurdles during pre-production, including rising costs, legal battles, and personal vendettas, and its fate is not unique — The Garden Bridge, a pedestrian walkway crossing the Thames River and connecting the Temple and South Bank neighborhoods in London, was shot down last month due to a supposed misuse of public funds. Both of these failed proposals suggest a looming end to the era of “benefactor-led boutique urbanism” — the public-private partnerships supported by wealthy donors for projects like the High Line. Although the High Line was economically successful, it has been cited as a source of increased economic inequality in its neighborhood and is seen as an impetus for the area’s gentrification. The similarly-projected futures of both Pier 55 and The Garden Bridge likely played a large part in each project’s failure to launch. Benefactor-inspired projects like these often suffer from a lack of incorporating their community in the planning process, instead focusing on the singular perspective of the wealthy party who is “gifting” the park to a neighborhood. In response to this changing ethos, the High Line is working to rebuke its namesake effect with the establishment of a knowledge-sharing network to help ensure that new public space is equitably built with the public’s interests in mind. In order to achieve this, community feedback, co-creation, and public review is essential. Other cities have already taken steps to ensure a similar mindset is upheld in the course of their public projects — Washington, D.C., is aggressively addressing gentrification concerns in its 11th Street Bridge project, and Houston included extensive community review in its initiative to create a master plan for Memorial Park. Click here to read more.

Image courtesy of Fast Company.

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