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Photo by Liz Ligon

We Came, We Talked, We Learned: The First High Line Network Symposium

By High Line Network | November 5, 2019

From October 16 – 18,  the High Line Network convened the largest gathering of North American infrastructure reuse project leaders in our first ever symposium, Beyond Economic Impact: Charting the Field of Infrastructure Reuse. As cities grow, the pressures of density and high costs of land are increasing the need for public green space. Infrastructure reuse projects (for example, highways, railways, bridges, industrial riverfronts, or waterways) provide an opportunity for a new generation of parks, which frequently cite the High Line as an example of what’s possible.

People walking on a loop shaped parkThe 606

For the Network, this symposium was an experiment: it was the first time we expanded our annual Network convening beyond our 19 members. With over 60 projects of all stages in attendance, the convening was a forum for community leaders to address important questions on the role of equity in our work. Because even though public parks are, in principle, inherently democratic spaces, in reality, they can reflect and even amplify the inequality that exists (and that is rising) in our cities. As new public space ideas emerge, people are increasingly asking, “how do we move beyond the asking “how much” economic value can new public open space create, to “who benefits?”

Groups of people walking along a path

Dequindre CutPhoto by Pravin Sitaraman

We weren’t sure how it would go—would project leaders find the same value when there were so many more people in the room? Could we still foster the meaningful connections and honest dialogue that are so important to our mission?

It turned out that the experiment was a success—that growing the diversity of voices, projects, and perspectives allows for richer and more meaningful conversations. That the appetite for sharing, learning and collaborating was evident throughout the full days of panels, workshops, and one-on-one conversations, covering topics such as equitable community growth principles, public private partnerships, and leveraging online social media tools.

A cityscape against a river

Buffalo BayouPhoto by Jonnu-Singleton

While the three days provided a wealth of takeaways, here are our top lessons learned:

  • We’re all working to do better by our local communities, we just might not have the right tools or language yet. Some people were at the very beginning of conceptualizing their open space projects, while others have been in operation for decades. In every case, participants were actively grappling with the potential social, environmental, and cultural contributions they are and could be making to their local communities. It was clear that the age of public open spaces as simply “nice-to-have” amenities is over. Sessions such as “Ask the Experts,” which provided one-on-one access for addressing practical how-to questions, and “Programming as a Tool to Connect Communities” helped symposium participants fill in some of those gaps.

    A panel discussion in front of a screen

    Symposium wrap upPhoto by Liz Ligon

  • Talking about equity can be uncomfortable, but necessary. With powerful keynotes from leading voices such as April De Simone on Undesigning the Redline and Marc Bamuthi Joseph from the REACH at the Kennedy Center, participants were challenged to confront the realities of how past policymakers and designers have shaped a legacy of racial inequities in our cities. It’s not easy acknowledging these often difficult facts that shape personal experience. But their talks, as well as other symposium conversations, helped participants understand how to reframe their own roles in defining public spaces.

    April De Simone presenting in front of a group

    Designing the WE’s April De Simone presenting How Can Design Address EquityPhoto by Liz Ligon

  • Often we are isolated in our local communities and don’t realize how many others are tackling the same challenges. Frequently, infrastructure reuse starts as the dream of ordinary people in their own communities, without the tools to connect to others seeking to do the same elsewhere. It’s so important to know you’re not alone in the process, and that others may already have a template to get you started. The symposium included an afternoon for “Inspiration from the Field,” where 30 projects were invited to deliver five-minute presentations to their peers, offering a sense of the inspiring range of infrastructure reuse projects taking place across North America. Says one member, “The biggest takeaway from the symposium was people feel a sense of relief that they are ‘not alone’ and can gather inspiration, excitement and support to continue their hard work.”

    A person asking a question and raising their hand in a group

    A session discussionPhoto by Liz Ligon

  • We learn more from honest acknowledgment of failures and challenges than we do from success stories alone. We started the Network to create a space to learn what’s working and what’s not, which requires a willingness to share so that others can do better. This isn’t always easy, or safe. It’s a testament to the generosity and openness of symposium participants that they were so open to sharing their own experiences to help others learn in panel conversations such as “Lessons Learned in Infrastructure Reuse Development” and “Confidantes and Confidence: Untold Secrets of Fundraising.” Says one staffer, “There was openness about challenges, lessons learned, and pitfalls. It is a remarkable, generous and trusting community which can only be explained by the tone the founders have set.”

    A discussion at a table

    A panel session in progressPhoto by Liz Ligon

There is so much beauty and possibility in creating new public spaces for our cities. The symposium offered the opportunity to renew and inspire project leaders to keep up the good fight—that their work is important, and has the potential to create lasting change for future generations.

These conversations we had over two days cemented what we suspected: the infrastructure reuse field is growing, and the Network can help. We’ll take these lessons forward, and look to expand our learning community in the coming months; visit our Network news page or follow us @highlinenyc for updates.


Lead support for the High Line Network is provided by The JPB Foundation. Program support is provided by Amanda and Don Mullen.

JPB Foundation

High Line Network’s Beyond Economic Impact symposium is made possible by lead support from The JPB Foundation. Additional support is provided by Knight Foundation, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and The Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston.

JPMorgan | Knight Foundation

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