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.