Making the places that make the City

Robert Hammond, accidental urban activist and co-founder of New York's iconic High Line, was in Australia recently for the Remix Summit. Widely recognised as a leader in re-imagining urban spaces, Robert shared his thoughts in a Cities Leadership Institute Master Session. He also spoke exclusively to Prof. Ed Blakely for this interview.

Ed Blakley: Robert, we always start off talking about cities. What makes a great city? What are a couple of the elements from your point of view?

Robert Hammond: Well, you know, my real interest is public space so when I go to a city I love to find out where people gather, where is that the locals like to gather in a public space.

EB: And of course ours is on the forecourt of the Opera House at Circular Quay.

RH: To me, it’s your beaches – where people gather and you see families, you see people. That always helps give me a picture of what a city is like.

EB: So the public space. What are a couple of public spaces that you think make the city, define the place, for any city in the world?

RH: For me it’s often smaller spaces. You know, where it’s your gathering places for people.

Like in Brooklyn its Fort Greene, where it’s not necessarily the nicest maintained park but you see people from all over the neighbourhood there and you notice that they know each other. And to me that is the sign of a good public space where people know each other, where they are coming on a regular basis.

So that doesn’t always in the ‘grand’ public spaces, like outside the Sydney Opera House. And you know it doesn’t always happen on the High Line – because it’s so busy! But it happens on the local squares, in the small little pocket parks It happens in another great place for me in New York, the Green Market in Union Square on a Saturday.

EB: If these small places make great cities, how do you make small places all over your city? That’s big issue for us, in Australia in general.

RH: One of them is just making sure a lot of those places are well maintained because I think for years a lot of these places have been neglected. Using the example of New York and Manhattan, most public spaces are in great shape. You go to some of the other Boroughs, and you going to see spaces where basic maintenance just hasn’t been done, in too long.

So there is the issue of creating new spaces, but also really thinking about are you maintaining the ones all over your city. I think often planners look at their marquee spaces, what does it look like where everyone is going, but to me the true health of the city is that there are these spaces and are they cared for all over the city.

EB: True enough. But you recovered a space. Maybe some of these spaces we just talked about could be recovered and not just be a little park but some new things could be done. Give me some ideas here!

RH: I think cities need also great new public spaces. So I think now there are no more empty lots, rarely that can be bought over for public space so cities have to turn to these industrial remnants. Some of them are under highways, over highways, waterfronts, and they share some similarities in that they tend to be linear and long. Because they are remnants of the city and that has some real advantages because they can be neighbourhood connectors.

So instead of being sort of the local park or the local open space they are connecting multiple spaces. And that makes them not just a physical connector but also a civic connector.

EB: The interesting thing about that is we have a lot of those - owned by the railroad!

RH: Yes, exactly. And they function very differently. I mean, one of the things that we are thinking about the High Line is how do we help all the cultural organisations now along the High Line? When we started there wasn’t a lot there. Now we have the Whitney Museum at one end and The Shed at the other, which is a brand new cultural facility that just opened.

EB: And think of The 606 in Chicago. The same deal – a working railroad is now a park.

RH: Exactly. And the BeltLine in Atlanta is a huge example. It goes all the way around the city and parts of it are already open and transforming. What’s interesting in Atlanta, and some of these other cities, is it’s also getting people out of cars. In New York, we walk a lot. But in Atlanta that’s a big deal. That has real health benefits. The Underline in Miami, again, that’s one of their primary goals is having people move through the city not just in cars – but walking, running, bikes.

EB: I Agree. But one of the things people forget when they are rezoning space – they want to get rid of that ugly industrial space – that usually has a rail spur to it so they can do something, even if it’s putting up housing next.

RH: And again, you can have big projects, like the High Line or the BeltLine, that are connecting neighbourhoods but sometimes, like you say, it can be a bit a little remnant of industrial space that can serve as a neighbourhood park. One of the things that I think is great is keeping some of that history, that industrial history.

Now we would never tear down a colonial building, or anything over probably 75 years old. But people sometimes don’t think of the industrial remnants as worth saving but I think that makes what neighbourhoods interesting, to see the different layers of history – even if the use is no longer industrial, but as public space.

EB: So, we’ve mentioned things on top of the ground, but you have a space under the ground. And we may have one here. Give me some examples.

RH: Yes. There is a project in New York called the Lowline which is an old underground trolley terminal that they are trying to turn into a park lit by fibre optics. And one of the interesting things , one of the things they are really thinking about is how do you play with the light and dark? Some people think, ‘Oh underground, dark and scary!’, but you know, the spaces can be quite magical, especially if you able to grow plants. And they become year round spaces because no matter what the temperature is, either boiling hot or freezing cold, it’s almost always the same underground.

You know the High Line, there are not that many elevated rail lines in cities. There are a lot of underground spaces, in almost every city. It’s interesting using this idea of fibre optics. This technology has been around a long time but no one has really used it in this way.

EB: Anything else spectacular you have seen recently?

RH: You know, I like that space in the back of the National Gallery of Victoria. It was really well used, it was full of families who weren’t going to the museum, but they had specifically come because kids were welcome there. And so we saw all these families with young kids playing in that space - they have an architectural element that changes every year, the plantings were beautiful, there was plenty of seating, there was shade, there was sunshine. It felt very vibrant.

EB: What is the future of the High Line?

RH: So the future of the High Line right now, one of the big things is the opening of Hudson Yards. It’s the largest real estate development ever in the US and the High Line goes around it. It opened a few weeks ago and so we are seeing a huge influx of visitors. We are up about 20%. So one of the things we are doing is trying to figure out, how do we deal with all of these visitors? It’s an interesting problem of over success, of too many people. But for us it’s really important to make sure it’s first and foremost a place for New Yorkers. And how do we do that with having so many tourists?

The other thing is that this is a big year for us. It’s 20 years since we started the project, 10 years since we opened the first section and we are opening a new section,just a little spur that goes off over 10th Avenue, called The Spur in June.


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Level 23, 45 Clarence Street

Sydney, NSW 2000, Australia

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