Oh no, another High Line clone

If life were school I would be waving my arm in the air right now, saying “ask me, ask me”, because this is one occasion when my training gives me the right answer. God help us all, Sydney now wants a High Line as well. I could tell them that’s dumb, that the history of mid twentieth century architecture tells us that only one plane works for pedestrian street life, is the dominant plane, i.e., the ground plane, but would they listen! Perhaps you will, so let me continue: whether we’re looking at the National theatre in London, or La Defense Paris, or smaller schemes that are even more dismal, we see time and again that public space removed from the ground plane is a curiosity for a few years when it is new, after which nobody goes there—at least not on foot.

Pedestrians are spoilt for choice in our cities, and furthermore utilise a mode that most people try to reduce, because it’s so tedious. So unless it’s to walk along the water, or in a park that takes them away from it all, most choose the nearest bench to flop down on. They are not likely to walk very far, and less likely still to change level. This lazy tendency of people on foot, that I know Jan Gehl articulates better than I have, leads me to think the High Line in New York has about another 5 years, before clown troupes and dudes wearing stilts are brought in, to try and keep it alive. Such is the fate of unnatural public space in our cities.

Why are cities all over the world—including Sydney, today—lining up for high lines and low lines? It is because architectural historians aren’t put in charge, that is why! We could tell you all that schemes such as these are just flashes in plans. (Such a shame my colleagues gave architectural historians a reputation for being arcane!)

However, let that not be said of architectural theorists—and I count myself as one of those too. While they are known to quote Heidegger, they also deal with the present and future. So, with my theorist’s hat on, let me suggest that the way to activate industrial relics above of below the natural ground plane, is with things that have wheels. Skateboards have been shown to work, but I think bikes would work better. Cyclists in our cities are not spoilt for choice, and utilise a mode that isn’t tedious. For the sake of getting home safely, or even just having fun, we will gladly ride up and down levels, and out of our way to use a piece of industrial wreckage. Designers of these High Lines and Low lines should all be counting on bike commuters to lend their projects life. They should not be shunning bikes as though we would only scare off the punters.


  1. perthbiker says:

    My wife recently had a trip to Adelaide and came back with a story of frustration of being caught in an elevated cul-de-sac around the Adelaide Festival Centre. The places she wanted to walk to were very close but on a different plane. It was was built during early 70’s when the car ruled. I guess one of the reasons for the elevation was to accommodate a big car park underneath. Perhaps one of your SA readers can confirm.

    • Edward says:

      That’s right. The whole thing never had a proper entrance even. There were two lanes of traffic leading down to the car park. The architects seem to have assumed everyone would arrive that way and enter from the car park. It is dark and dingy.
      Thankfully, there are plans to fix it finally. A huge improvement is on the way.
      I feel your wife’s pain and being caught at the top. There is a distinct lack of signage. You cannot tell how to get out and can often end up at dead-ends. Very frustrating.

  2. Luke says:

    Anecdata alert – people don’t like going to the top deck of London double decker buses (apart from those who were kids in London and haven’t entirely grown up…) even though you get the best view and a seat. So they’re not going to go to walkways.

    Liked your picture of the National Theatre btw – a baffling complex that no pedestrian really uses, ditto London Wall and the Barbican (sorry for excessive localism).

    • Steven says:

      That’s not excessive localism at all. It is well known that Hitler created vacant sites around London at the worst possible moment in terms of the history of architecture, when everyone wanted to splash around concrete.

    • Steven says:

      brilliant link! Thanks for that. I read about the belt line maybe a year ago, and wasn’t sure it was progressing. It’s great example of building a bike path wherever politics will abide, and letting the new infrastructure attract new development.

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