Photo: Joel Sternfeld 

In collaboration with Friends of the High Line, we conducted a comprehensive feasibility study and outlined recommendations for the reuse of the elevated railway as public open space. This project catalyzed efforts to save and reprogram the High Line by inspiring Mayor Bloomberg to rescind the demolition order on the rail line, served as the basis for an ideas competition that received 720 proposals and informed a rezoning plan that established the High Line Transfer Corridor, facilitating its use as a public open space. 


Before the High Line was transformed into New York City's newest open space, it was a derelict piece of infrastructure awaiting demolition. Our feasibility study, Reclaiming the High Line, proved that this derelict railway should be converted to public open space, leading Mayor Michael Bloomberg to rescind the outstanding demolition order on the High Line and enabling Friends of the High Line to move forward with their goal of turning the railway into an elevated park. 

The first section of the High Line Park opened in 2009 and incorporated many of the recommendations documented in Reclaiming the High Line. The park has since become one of the most active public spaces in New York City– a "must see" for over two million residents and visitors each year – and has inspired similar initiatives in other cities to repurpose abandoned and derelict infrastructure.


Built in 1934, the High Line carried freight trains of food and merchandise into the city on an elevated track to avoid dangerous street crossings. Before it was built, Tenth Avenue was known as "Death Avenue" due to the high number of accidents caused by the mix of rail traffic and pedestrians. The last freight train to travel its tracks carried three carloads of frozen turkeys into the Meatpacking District in 1980.

Fifty years after it was built, the elevated 1.5-mile-long railway fell into disrepair, sitting unused and abandoned. A local group of property owners lobbied heavily for its removal – they considered it a blight on the neighborhood and expected their property values to rise as soon as it was demolished. Even NYC’s planning commissioner felt strongly that the High Line no longer held any value or purpose for the city:

"That platform has no right to be there except for transportation, and that use is long gone...This has become the Vietnam of old railroad trestles."
- Joseph Rose, Commissioner, NYC Dept. of City Planning, 1999

A demolition order was issued for the High Line in 1992. The railway was caught between those who wished to demolish it and those who wished to reuse it as a new, elevated pedestrian greenway.


Friends of the High Line formed in 1999 with the goal of preserving the structure, and approached the Design Trust that same year proposing a design competition. We felt a competition was premature given that there was still a demolition order on the railway, so instead we proposed a comprehensive feasibility study.  

To create the study we brought on two fellows, Casey Jones and Keller Easterling, who spent 12 months meeting with community groups, development experts and design professionals to evaluate the feasibility of reuse alternatives. They researched and analyzed the High Line's historical significance, physical conditions, local zoning, current land use and community needs, and evaluated all the possibilities for the High Line – demolition, reuse for transit, reuse for commerce and reuse for open space. 

The resulting study, Reclaiming the High Line, determined that reuse outweighed demolition, the design should focus on pedestrians, commercial potential existed alongside the High Line, and a walkway atop of the High Line would cause values of adjacent properties to rise due to the proximity to this open public space. With our study, Friends of the High Line was able to convince the Bloomberg administration that the elevated railway should be preserved, enabling them to move forward with their goal of turning the railway into an elevated park. 

Many of the strategies, design principles and recommendations outlined in our study have been followed, including: 

  1. Pedestrian use is the best reuse for the High Line
  2. Visitors should enjoy a variety of environments
  3. Plantings should recreate original meadows
  4. Art should be part of the design and programming 
  5. The space should be recreational and contemplative
  6. The space should include some commercial uses
  7. The space should not become a mall
  8. Zoning incentives should be used to attract private financing for this public amenity 

If you look at the planning study now, it’s remarkable how much it described what would happen in the years to come. It created a kind of road map for the High Line’s transformation.

Joshua David, Co-founder, Friends of the High Line

Key Milestones

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Select project

November 2000

The project jury selects the proposal from the Friends of the High Line who want to "develop recommendations for how the High Line should function as an urban amenity."

Photo: Michael Syracuse 

Define scope

December 2000

Together with Friends of the High Line, we determine the scope, budget, and schedule for the project. 

Assemble team

February 2001

We award fellowships to two architects to lead the research, writing, and community outreach for the project. 

Photo: Joel Sternfeld 

Conduct research

March 2011

The project team researches the High Line's history and physical conditions, local zoning, current land use, and community needs. 

Advisory session: Open Space

May 2001

The first advisory session on Open Space includes, from left to right: Mary Miss, an environmental artist; Tessa Huxley from Battery Park City; and Pam Fredrick from Community Board 4 Parks. 

Advisory session: Transit

May 2001

The second advisory session on Transit includes, from left to right: Jeff Zupan from Regional Plan Association; Rae Zimmerman from NYU ICIS. 

Advisory session: Redevelopment

May 2001

The third advisory session on Redevelopment includes, from left to right: Casey Jones, Design Trust Fellow; Brian McGrath from Columbia University; Lois Mazzitelli, a zoning expert from Skidmore Owings and Merrill; and Ross Graham, a community activist. 

Advisory session: Commerce

May 2001

The final advisory session on Commerce includes, from left to right: Casey Jones, Design Trust Fellow; Tom Lunke from Community Board 4; and Stephen Schofel from Newmark Knight Frank. 

Synthesize and produce

October 2001

The project team synthesizes their research and findings and begins working on the final deliverables for the project.

Illustration: Proun Space Studio 

Release recommendations

February 2002

Our final publication, Reclaiming the High Line, examines four options for the High Line, ultimately making the case for preserving and transforming the elevated railway into public open space. 

Photo: Joel Sternfeld 


June 2009

High Line Park opens to the public, incorporating many of the recommendations outlined in our feasibility study. 

Photo: Iwan Baan