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TED2011

Robert Hammond: Building a park in the sky

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Views 710,145

New York was planning to tear down the High Line, an abandoned elevated railroad in Manhattan, when Robert Hammond and a few friends suggested: Why not make it a park? He shares how it happened in this tale of local cultural activism.

- Friend of the High Line
The co-founder of Friends of the High Line, Robert Hammond helped lead the effort to build an elevated park on an abandoned railway line in Manhattan. Full bio

The Highline
00:15
is an old, elevated rail line
00:17
that runs for a mile and a half right through Manhattan.
00:19
And it was originally a freight line
00:22
that ran down 10th Ave.
00:24
And it became known as "Death Avenue"
00:27
because so many people were run over by the trains
00:29
that the railroad hired a guy on horseback to run in front,
00:31
and he became known as the "West Side Cowboy."
00:34
But even with a cowboy,
00:36
about one person a month
00:38
was killed and run over.
00:40
So they elevated it.
00:42
They built it 30 ft. in the air, right through the middle of the city.
00:44
But with the rise of interstate trucking,
00:47
it was used less and less.
00:49
And by 1980, the last train rode.
00:51
It was a train loaded with frozen turkeys -- they say, at Thanksgiving --
00:54
from the meatpacking district.
00:56
And then it was abandoned.
00:58
And I live in the neighborhood,
01:00
and I first read about it in the New York Times,
01:02
in an article that said it was going to be demolished.
01:04
And I assumed someone was working
01:07
to preserve it or save it
01:09
and I could volunteer,
01:11
but I realized no one was doing anything.
01:13
I went to my first community board meeting --
01:15
which I'd never been to one before --
01:17
and sat next to another guy named Joshua David,
01:20
who's a travel writer.
01:22
And at the end of the meeting, we realized
01:24
we were the only two people that were sort of interested in the project;
01:26
most people wanted to tear it down.
01:28
So we exchanged business cards,
01:30
and we kept calling each other
01:32
and decided to start this organization,
01:34
Friends of the High Line.
01:36
And the goal at first
01:38
was just saving it from demolition,
01:40
but then we also wanted to figure out what we could do with it.
01:42
And what first attracted me, or interested me,
01:45
was this view from the street --
01:47
which is this steel structure,
01:49
sort of rusty,
01:51
this industrial relic.
01:53
But when I went up on top,
01:55
it was a mile and a half of wildflowers
01:57
running right through the middle of Manhattan
01:59
with views of the Empire State Building
02:02
and the Statue of Liberty and the Hudson River.
02:04
And that's really where we started,
02:06
the idea coalesced around, let's make this a park,
02:08
and let's have it be sort of inspired
02:11
by this wildscape.
02:13
At the time, there was a lot of opposition.
02:16
Mayor Giuliani wanted to tear it down.
02:18
I'm going to fast-forward through a lot of lawsuits
02:20
and a lot of community engagement.
02:22
Mayor Bloomberg came in office, he was very supportive,
02:25
but we still had to make the economic case.
02:28
This was after 9/11;
02:30
the city was in tough times.
02:32
So we commissioned an economic feasibility study
02:34
to try to make the case.
02:36
And it turns out, we got those numbers wrong.
02:38
We thought it would cost 100 million dollars to build.
02:40
So far it's cost about 150 million.
02:43
And the main case was,
02:46
this is going to make good economic sense for the city.
02:48
So we said over a 20-year time period,
02:50
the value to the city in increased property values
02:53
and increased taxes
02:56
would be about 250 million.
02:58
That was enough. It really got the city behind it.
03:00
It turns out we were wrong on that.
03:02
Now people estimate it's created about a half a billion dollars,
03:04
or will create about a half a billion dollars,
03:07
in tax revenues for the city.
03:09
We did a design competition,
03:11
selected a design team.
03:13
We worked with them to really create a design
03:15
that was inspired by that wildscape.
03:17
There's three sections.
03:20
We opened the fist section in 2009.
03:22
It's been successful beyond our dreams.
03:24
Last year we had about two million people,
03:27
which is about 10 times what we ever estimated.
03:29
This is one of my favorite features in section one.
03:32
It's this amphitheater right over 10th Ave.
03:35
And the first section ends at 20th St. right now.
03:38
The other thing, it's generated, obviously, a lot of economic value;
03:41
it's also inspired, I think, a lot of great architecture.
03:44
There's a point, you can stand here
03:47
and see buildings by Frank Gehry,
03:49
Jean Nouvel, Shigeru Ban,
03:51
Neil Denari.
03:53
And the Whitney is moving downtown
03:55
and is building their new museum right at the base of the High Line.
03:58
And this has been designed by Renzo Piano.
04:01
And they're going to break ground in May.
04:03
And we've already started construction on section two.
04:06
This is one of my favorite features,
04:08
this flyover where you're eight feet
04:10
off the surface of the High Line,
04:12
running through a canopy of trees.
04:14
The High Line used to be covered in billboards,
04:16
and so we've taken a playful take
04:19
where, instead of framing advertisements,
04:21
it's going to frame people in views of the city.
04:23
This was just installed last month.
04:26
And then the last section was going to go around the rail yards,
04:29
which is the largest undeveloped site
04:32
in Manhattan.
04:34
And the city has planned -- for better or for worse --
04:36
12 million square-feet of development
04:39
that the High Line is going to ring around.
04:41
But what really, I think, makes the High Line special
04:43
is the people.
04:45
And honestly, even though I love the designs that we were building,
04:47
I was always frightened that I wouldn't really love it,
04:50
because I fell in love with that wildscape --
04:53
and how could you recreate that magic?
04:55
But what I found
04:57
is it's in the people and how they use it
04:59
that, to me, makes it so special.
05:01
Just one quick example
05:03
is I realized right after we opened
05:05
that there were all these people holding hands on the High Line.
05:07
And I realized New Yorkers don't hold hands;
05:10
we just don't do that outside.
05:13
But you see that happening on the High Line,
05:16
and I think that's the power
05:18
that public space can have
05:20
to transform how people experience their city
05:22
and interact with each other.
05:24
Thanks.
05:26
(Applause)
05:28

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About the speaker:

Robert Hammond - Friend of the High Line
The co-founder of Friends of the High Line, Robert Hammond helped lead the effort to build an elevated park on an abandoned railway line in Manhattan.

Why you should listen

Robert Hammond is the co-founder and former executive director of Friends of the High Line. He's worked as a consultant for a variety of entrepreneurial endeavors and nonprofits, including the Times Square Alliance, Alliance for the Arts and National Cooperative Bank (NCB).

Hammond is also a self-taught artist. From 2002 to 2005 he served as an Ex-Officio Trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was awarded the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome in 2009.

More profile about the speaker
Robert Hammond | Speaker | TED.com