One of the co-founders of the New York High Line, Robert Hammond, surprisingly revealed in a recent interview that he considered the project to have “failed” in some critical areas . In particular, Hammond pointed to the neglect of meaningful engagement with local communities from the start of the planning and design process as a grave oversight.
The ‘High Line effect’
The High Line is a phenomenally successful project, now attracting millions of visitors every year: a massive commercial hit as well as a design milestone, showing what can be done when historical industrial infrastructure meets imaginative planting and elegant design treatment.
A ‘High Line effect’ has quickly followed, as stylish new parks arise from disused railways across the USA and the rest of the world, looking to create similarly thriving public spaces and boom times for run-down areas. Industrial chic projects have also truly caught the popular imagination, giving access to previously hidden and off-limits places and showcasing new views of the city.
According to Robert Hammond, however, the High Line was bad news for its surrounding neighbourhoods. And he believes that engaging with local communities from the outset could have mitigated or averted this. Specifically, he identifies rapid gentrification that exacerbated economic inequality, a failure to attract disadvantaged local people, and a missed opportunity to improve the lot of existing impoverished communities.
“Instead of asking what the design should look like, I wish we’d asked, ‘What can we do for you?’” Hammond said. “Because people have bigger problems than design.”
Community engagement – too little, too late
The key mistakes he notes are, as this quote illustrates, a focus on design to the exclusion of socio-economic and cultural realities, and bringing local people into the process too late. These shortcomings aren’t peculiar to the High Line: they appear in projects of all sizes and types. So what can the High Line teach us about communication and community engagement?
Looking more closely at Hammond’s statement, he indicates that
- Design should not be the primary consideration in projects of this nature
- Designers need to develop a deeper understanding of the social and economic context before considering design issues
- Landmark regeneration projects, no matter how high the design quality, have the potential to be divisive and detrimental
- Authentic, inclusive engagement with local communities is essential, including participation in decision-making from the project’s earliest stages.
Moreover, derelict industrial structures tend to be located in disadvantaged areas. This means high levels of poverty, endemic social problems, degraded urban fabric, and poor amenities. Revamping them to attract visitors and new businesses can mean swift gentrification, with all its adverse repercussions.
Lessons to be learned
So what can be done? Architects are of course obliged to balance business concerns and client requirements with the desire to create better places. How viable is it then to fully involve local people in the planning and design process, given the potential to add to project timescales and consume staff time and energy, not to mention cost implications?
I’m writing a book to provide guidance to designers on working with communities . In the course of my research, I’ve interviewed architects, landscape architects, urban designers and community engagement specialists and asked them for their golden rules. I’ve picked out some general advice relevant to any type of project, at any scale, in any type of area, from a New York High Line to a British high street. Notably, they chiefly relate to architects not as designers, but as communicators.
Look at a scheme from the point of view of the local community or users. Designers should give greater consideration to the human aspects of the development and the human scale, and thinking like anthropologists when researching the local area and social context.
Bring local people into the process when their input matters most. That is, at the very beginning before any design work starts. Find out what they want, listen to their fears and aspirations, and build trust from the outset. Designs can then emerge from an understanding of what people want.
Proactively engage with so-called ‘hard-to-reach’ groups. Any negative impacts of a development will probably hit them hardest. Endeavour to understand their experiences of the local area, and the potential effects of change for them. Face to face personal contact tends to be more effective in this regard, and again helps build trust and confidence from the start.
Avoid technical terminology, industry jargon and design-speak. Quite simply, people often just don’t understand what designers are talking about. There’s no need to dumb down – just be clear and use language that everyone can understand. Designers are understandably passionate about their ideas, but need to be clear and concise to get those ideas across.
Be a good listener. This means at a public meeting or workshop, for instance, talking as little as possible and focusing on what people have to say. Not debating with them, not expounding the merits of the design or going into technical details, but just letting people speak, paying attention, and noting the range of views.
If the High Line’s neighbours had meaningful participation from the outset, could any negative impacts have been precluded? According to Hammond, yes. For instance, it would have become obvious the route needed entrances along its length, creating connections – in every sense – with local neighbourhoods. The designers could have leveraged their relationships with funders and city officials for the benefit of disadvantaged local communities, if they had listened to them first. Local businesses could have profited instead of being priced out.
So is it viable for practices to involve local communities in decision-making from the start of a project? Absolutely. Whatever the financial cost of community participation, the long-term social costs of not engaging can be far greater, as the High Line shows.
 Laura Bliss, “The High Line’s next balancing act”, Feb 7, 2017, CityLab.com
 Lesley Malone, Desire Lines: placemaking, consultation and community participation (RIBA Publications, forthcoming)
A version of this article appeared in RIBA Journal, April 2017