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Photo by Liz Ligon

Reimagining Public Space: Getting to Know the High Line Network

May 11, 2020

As the tagline says, the High Line Network is a group of infrastructure projects — and the people who are helping them come to life. One of these people is the High Line Network’s own vice president, Asima Jansveld. We may not be able to enjoy our public spaces as fully as we’d like to at the moment, but we will again soon—Asima spoke to us about what she does at the Network, why equitable public space matters, and the power of collective thinking.

Can you tell us what you do at the High Line?

I came to the High Line about a year ago to lead the High Line Network, a strategic hub supporting infrastructure reuse projects like the High Line across North America. We’re a peer-to-peer learning community that provides technical assistance and develops new tools and research to support the field.

How did the Network come about? What are its origins?

Our executive director Robert Hammond would get calls from across the globe from people looking to replicate the success of the High Line in their own neighborhoods. While he did frequently offer practical “how-to” advice, these often became conversations around lessons learned–if he and High Line co-founder Joshua David could do it again, what would they do differently? What did he wish they had known then, that they do now?

Eventually Robert saw these organic conversations had a real value, not just for other early-stage projects, but for his own work as the High Line evolved as an organization. He was able to secure initial funding from The JPB Foundation to explore the idea of an infrastructure reuse peer-to-peer network with an initial group of about 15 projects at various stages of development.

With JPB’s founding support we’ve been able to grow and build the Network, eventually adding a local New York City cohort focused on local issues as well. What brought me here, and continues to be exciting, is the transformative potential of these projects to benefit their cities and neighborhoods.

A lecture in front of posters

New Monuments for New CitiesLeonid Furmansky

For someone who has no idea, where is the Network today? What exactly do you do on the day to day, month to month, and year to year?

Today, we work alongside 21 national and 15 local New York City members. We spend about 50% of our time supporting their practical implementation challenges, and 50% helping leaders realize the potential benefits they bring to their communities.

What that means: on a daily basis, we’re responding to specific member questions and sharing information through calls, emails, and private online groups. At this time, this includes a lot of time holding weekly calls focused on navigating COVID-19 and advocating for the infrastructure reuse field in future federal funding.

On a monthly basis, we’re developing in-person policy labs and other convenings for the next year, including lining up experts, designing agendas, and executing their logistics. On a yearly basis, we’re developing the Network’s expansion strategy and strategic partnerships, biannual symposia, fundraising, and developing research and programming that support our values of equity and social impact.

You use the word “equity” a lot. In your words, what does this word mean in relation to urban planning?

I often challenge myself to NOT use the word, since it means so little on its own. For our work, it’s all about who’s impacted by your actions both positively and negatively, recognizing your actions aren’t siloed, and knowing one-size-does-not-fit-all.

In practice—if you build a public open space, who feels safe and welcome to be there? How do you anticipate and mitigate the unintended negative impacts, like displacement and gentrification, your work may contribute to? When you lead with equity, you’re committed to examining your impacts across all realms, including social, economic, cultural, and environmental. In this way, urban planners, designers and architects can modify their approaches to ensure our most vulnerable populations benefit from any new public space development.

On that note, can you define “infrastructure reuse?”

As cities become denser and land for traditional parks becomes more scarce, people are finding creative ways to bring greenspace to their neighborhoods Infrastructure is the basic material of our cities, traditionally used to transport goods and vehicles. We’re now seeing these often forgotten corners of our cities reused for modern and more public uses. This may be the underside of a highway, or an abandoned rail structure, or historic waterfront ports, for example. But the possibilities are far-ranging.

Reimagined highways, railways, bridges, industrial riverfronts and waterways as open space are transforming urban landscapes and redefining what public open space can be. The projects manifest as parks, town squares, museums, climate mitigation tools, botanical gardens, social service organizations, walkways, transit corridors, and more.

People walking under an elevated train track

The BentwayThe Bentway

Why does the work of the Network matter? What makes public space so important?

Infrastructure reuse projects can bring tremendous social, environmental, and economic benefits to our cities—but they often don’t know where to begin, or how to get where they want to be. Public open space does, of course, provide a place for recreation and play. But with forethought and planning, it can improve the health of a neighborhood, provide jobs for local communities, protect against climate change, connect neighbors to each other, and so much more. Through collaboration, we learn how to extend these benefits to reach as many people as possible—especially longtime residents of neighboring communities.

Our members range from nationally known parks like the Atlanta BeltLine, Chrissy Field, and the 606, but also includes projects like the Underline in Miami and BridgePark in Richmond that are still working on advocacy, design, and construction. Often, the Network is giving members the capacity and backup to take risks they may not have been able to undertake on their own.

As a follow up, at a time when we can’t be in public together, what role do you think public space will play as we transition out of isolation?

In a rapidly urbanizing world, public spaces, especially green ones, still offer a place to escape, both physically and mentally. Data supports this—in the latest CultureTrack numbers, 81% of respondents cited “feeling less stressed” as the motivator for going to a public park, and 77% noted “bettering my health/wellbeing.”

They offer respite in our often over-programmed, indoor lives. In many cities, public green spaces are also some of the last places where anyone—regardless of race, income, ability or other identity—can freely come together. As we transition out of isolation, in many places parks and green space may be the first emergence of communities coming together, even before work and school. It will be a critical time, and I believe our green spaces will be vital for helping to heal the collective trauma we are all feeling right now.

What are some of the things our partner sites are doing this year? How are they responding to the pandemic crisis?

I never cease to be amazed and inspired by our Network partners and how each site is supporting their local communities.
● 11th Street Bridge Park is partnering with local organizations to provide meals and groceries to those who need it most.
● Gowanus Canal Conservancy is collaborating with partner teachers to develop online content and digitize their citizen science, green infrastructure design, and urban ecology curricula so students can remain engaged.
● Gathering Place has partnered with Meals on Wheels of Metro Tulsa to support their COVID-19 crisis response plan in meeting the high demand of homebound seniors in Tulsa. While the park is temporarily closed, park staff is supporting this effort by providing weekly wellness checks phone calls and delivering meals throughout the Tulsa area.

Bike riders along the LA River

The LA RiverJonathan Alcorn

Is there anything you think is lacking that we, either the Network, or big picture “we”, need to be addressing in city planning right now to create more resilient cities?

Urban planners and cities today are not organized in a way to promote interdisciplinary thinking —we have separate departments and decision makers for areas such as transportation, health, and education. As long as we continue to organize ourselves in siloes, our cities can’t effectively account for the impacts each decision has across social, cultural, economic, and environmental realms.

It’s a big thing to address, and requires rethinking our education systems for the start, where we first start learning that each subject has a separate teacher and time period to learn.

This leads to accountability, as well—we need to start holding ourselves accountable in our work to not just one metric of success (i.e., safety, health, economics) to build truly resilient cities.

What are you most excited about for the Network?

The reason I took this job, and what remains the most exciting thing about the Network is that we can provide a place for risk and experimentation for our members, and we keep growing that ability. Let’s face it—most projects at the beginning are just doing whatever they can to get into construction. They don’t have the funding, capacity, or bandwidth to be spending a lot of time thinking about larger strategic values and missions until they are further along. What I hope we do is provide that capacity and bandwidth, and challenge project leaders to recognize how important it is to develop your goals around social impact early on. And that it’s okay to take risks there, acknowledge when it may go wrong, and readjust. There are no quick and easy answers to how urban planners and policy makers best achieve equity in our communities, and if we’re not taking risks, we’ll never develop the optimal solutions.

Over the past couple of decades, there has been a growing recognition of the value open space can play as a driver of economic growth to its local community and city. I’m most excited about the work we’re doing with our members this year to take that a step further—how do we change the conversation to have funders, city officials, and policymakers recognize the non-economic value of parks just as much?

We’re piloting our Equitable Impacts Framework in partnership with Harvard Graduate School of Design and Urban Institute to establish real-life tactics that we can measure over time to show how deeply open space builds social, cultural, and environmental value to its communities. We hope this framework can someday be used as a benchmark of success for open spaces in the way economic impact studies have.

I’m also very excited to be opening up the Network to new members this year. This current global pandemic has really validated the value of our community as a resource for our members, and we think it’s vital to invite new voices to our conversation.

To find out more about the Network and membership, please visit network.thehighline.org.

 

The High Line Network is made possible by the founding support of The JPB Foundation. Major support is provided by Knight Foundation.

 

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