A New Edict of Nantes, and a Trip to the High Line

Anthony Flint, writing in The Atlantic Cities, has a nice piece about sustainability — especially its environmental aspect — as a new way of branding mid-sized European cities for tourism and investment. Nantes, a mid-sized city in Brittany, has made radical changes to its transportation model and is actively pursuing an avant garde identity as the greenest city in France.

In tangentially related news (at least, on the topic of green cities), I finally had a chance to upload some photos that I took of the High Line this summer. For people who don’t know its story: the High Line began with an aging, elevated freight train trestle that runs down the West Side of Manhattan. The structure had been built by New York Central in the 1930s as a viaduct between the rail infrastructure surrounding Penn Station and the West Side Piers. It replaced Death Avenue, a surface right-of-way, dating from the 19th century, that had previously carried freight trains at street level through Chelsea and the West Village. The High Line was abandoned for most of the late 20th century, after the rise of containerized cargo caused the West Side Piers to be de-emphasized in the Port of New York and New Jersey. For years, the structure languished, overgrown with weeds and scraggly trees; there was a general consensus in the New York real estate community that it was an eyesore whose presence was a significant obstacle to redeveloping the Far West Side. Its images were used to add an element of city grit to movies and TV shows.

But a few people dissented from the crowd, noting the oasis that the High Line’s unplanned nature provided from the concrete jungle of the city. And in the late 1990s, activist planners began to study the High Line’s redevelopment potential. The dissenters turned out to be prescient, and the thoroughly landscaped and hardscaped park-in-the-sky is now a major attraction that has increased property values and created a major new green space while preserving an important part of the city’s industrial history. It is without question one of the great planning successes of the last decade. For a kid who grew up in this region during the 1980s and 90s — when the city was synonymous with too much concrete, too many steel doors, and an almost defiant hostility to nature — it’s been incredible to witness the greening of Manhattan over the last several years.