Public spaces in cities: How do they work?

When we talk about placemaking, people often think about constructing a building, developing a commercial area, or designing a plaza (Project for Public Spaces 2009). However, a good public space is not just about design and is not measured by its physical attributes alone, but its function, cultural, social identities, and how it serves people as a vital community resource (Project for Public Spaces 2009). It should be accessible and enjoyable by people with all age, abilities, and socio-economic backgrounds, and have an identity that evokes people’s sense of belonging in a cultural group or community (Project for Public Spaces 2009).

Place making principle (Image via Project for Public Space)

Amanda Burden, the former director of the New York City Department of City Planning talked about how public spaces make cities work in a TED talk in 2014.

“Cities are fundamentally about people, and where people go and where people meet are at the core of what makes a city work. So even more important than buildings in a city are the public spaces in between them.”- Amanda Burden (2014)

A successful public space strengthens the connection between people and place (Burden 2014). However, in the everyday practice of planning, the people-place relationships can be easily overlooked (Stephenson 2010). Burden believes that public place design is not just about aesthetics, but how the human body feel and experience within a space (Burden 2014).

One of the most successful public space development and urban transformation in recent years has been the High Line in New York city. Being at the top of visitation list for New York’s attractions, this linear urban park transformed from an abandoned elevated freight rail line has attracted over 6 million visitors each year (Gibbs 2017). The High Line is a 1.45miles linear park that stretches from the 34th Street of Hudson Yards precinct at Chelsea towards a meatpacking district at Gansevoort Street on the west of Lower Manhattan (Ascher and Uffer 2015).

Access to High Line (Image via Partir A New York)

Since the opening of the High Line, it has had significant impact on the social, economic and cultural aspects to its adjacent areas. The development of High Line act as a catalyst for urban transformation and economic regeneration (Ascher and Uffer 2015). This got me thinking, what attracts people to the High Line? Why would people want to be there? The design certainly earned some points for the High Line, but that is not all, and there must be something else to it that made it a successful public space. But first, let us take a look at the history of High Line.

History of High Line

High Line freight rail (Image via Untapped cities)

Dated back in 1847, the High Line was originally a rail freight line at street level operated by the New York Central Railroad, particularly used for transportation of daily dairy products (Lopate 2011). The New York Central Railroad used to hire the “West Side Cowboys”, men on horseback equipped with red flags ridden ahead the train to signal pedestrians of incoming trains (Lopate 2011). However, there were still too many unfortunate incidents of pedestrians getting struck by incoming train along Tenth Avenue, hence it was called the “Death Avenue” (Hynes 2015). The freight rail was eventually being elevated for a safer option, but stopped operating in the late 1980 due to the industry decentralized from urban centres (Hynes 2015).

High Line during its abandonment (Image via Friends of the High Line)

Most residents in the West of Manhattan saw the abandonment of the High Line as an eyesore, which hinders the neighbourhood’s redevelopment (Hynes 2015). Being left abandoned and decaying for over a decade, some portions of the High Line had been demolished and the then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani had signed to demolish the remaining viaduct (Ascher and Uffer 2015). While most people agreed to the demolition, two residents from the neighbourhood, Joshua David and Robert Hammond saw potential in it and came out with ideas of refurbishing the High Line (Ascher and Uffer 2015). Inspired by the astonishing view of wildflowers on the abandoned train tracks, they formed a group called Friends of the High Line and was determined to save the High Line from its demolition, giving it a new face and better function (David and Hammond 2011).

Wildflowers on the rail track during its abandonment (Image via Untapped cities)

“We want to save the High Line so that the public can go up and enjoy the beautiful space that is up there.” – Joshua David (2011)

The Friends of the High Line turned the abandoned freight rail into an urban park enjoyable for people to walk, filled with urban furniture, paved footpath and landscape, with the intention of preserving the site’s industrial past (Ascher and Uffer 2015). Instead of a tabula rasa approach, the park was designed to create a distinct urban experience for urban dwellers, revealing the site’s history and retaining some of the natural beauty during its abandonment (Ascher and Uffer 2015). The High Line wisely retained what was originally significant to the site, the abandoned train rails, and let the park design be guided by it. By preserving the original infrastructure, the design reinforced the park’s sense of linear procession and at the same time complimented other park elements into the building fabric as a whole (Goldhagen 2010).

High Line today (Image via Friends of the High Line)

Was the attempt to save the abandoned infrastructure – the High Line worth it?

The opening of the park has largely impacted the strip on Manhattan and its adjacent areas, and was also known as the key driver for the revitalization of the Meatpacking Districts in Manhattan and Chelsea (Ascher and Uffer 2015). The economic impact has been the most significant, as land and property values of existing and newly developed buildings near the High Line has been increased rapidly, along with more commercial and residential property development (Ascher and Uffer 2015).

The High Line is not like other traditional parks. Besides serving as a recreational space within New York city, it also serves as dynamic places that enable locals and visitors to experience and feel the city in a completely new and unique way (Ascher and Uffer 2015). In the elevated linear park, visitors are able to perceive the city from in between, while watching the busy traffic on street level and gazing over the high rise buildings above (Ascher and Uffer 2015). In Carmona’s urban design journal “The Place-shaping continuum”, he suggested that urban design should not just focus on its aesthetic value, but should also consider the “use value” of the space, how spaces increase enjoyment and how users occupy them, and how people “feel” and connect with the space (Carmona 2014).

Viewing the city from another perspective (Image via Amusing Planet)

The High Line demonstrates a more holistic approach to urban design that embrace both continuity and change. Since the opening of High Line, its adaptive reuse approach of transforming existing urban landscapes to meet contemporary requirement has attracted many similar projects and replications in cities across the United States (Ascher and Uffer 2015). However, it is not easily replicable anywhere because it is site specific, as simply converting an abandoned infrastructure into a park does not make something a good urban design. Rather, a successful public space design is able to capture the place identity by narrating its tale and constructing its distinct sense of place, delivering it to the users through design.

Place identity of High Line (Image via Friends of the High Line)

Without a doubt, the High Line is successful in establishing its place identity and evoke people’s sense of place. It is also successful as a catalyst of economy to the city. However, this kind of successful public spaces often face challenges against commercial interests, as they are often seen as an opportunity for commercial development by developers. While some might think it would be a good idea to take out some plants and have shops along the High Line to attract more people, urban designers should always remind themselves about the purpose of the place. If this were to be done, the High Line would become a mall but no longer a park, losing its original place meaning (Burden 2014).

“Public space can change how you live in a city, how you feel about a city, whether you choose one city over another, and public space is one of the most important reasons why you stay in a city,” – Amanda Burden (2014).

After all, public space is not just about the number of users, but it is how the place evokes people’s sense of belonging, how the even greater number of people feel about their city just by acknowledging the existence of the place (Burden 2014).




Ascher, Kate, and Sabina Uffer. 2015. “The High Line Effect”. In . New York: Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

Carmona, Matthew. 2013. “The Place-Shaping Continuum: A Theory Of Urban Design Process”. Journal Of Urban Design 19 (1): 2-36. doi:10.1080/13574809.2013.854695.

David, Joshua, and Robert Hammond. 2011. High Line: The Inside Story Of New York City’s Park In The Sky. 1st ed. New York: D&M Publishers, Inc.

Gibbs, Brenton. 2017. “High Line New York – When Success Means ‘Failure’”. Blog. The Urban Developer.

Goldhagen, Sarah Williams. 2010. “Park Here”. New Republic.

Hynes, Tom. 2015. “Looking Back At The History Of The High Line In NYC, New Video From Blueprint”. Blog. Untapped Cities.

Lopate, Phillip. 2011. “Above Grade: On The High Line”. Blog. Places Journal.

Project for Public Spaces. 2009. “What is Placemaking?”. Project for Public Spaces.

Stephenson, Janet. 2010. “People And Place”. Planning Theory & Practice 11 (1): 9-21. doi:10.1080/14649350903549878.



Place making principles. 2009. Project for Public Spaces. Accessed June 13.

Access To High Line. 2017. Patir A New York. Accessed June 13.

The “West Side Cowboys On “Death Avenue”. 2013. Friends of the High Line.

Wild plant growth during abandonment. 2015. Untapped cities. Accessed June 13.

Freight rail High Line. 2015. Untapped cities. Accessed June 13.

Public space High Line. 2012. Amusing Planet. Accessed June 13.

High Line. 2014. Friends of the High Line. Accessed June 13.


Jasmine Kan

Jasmine graduated from Bachelors of Architectural Science at Curtin University and is now doing Masters of Architecture the University of Western Australia. Adventurous, risk-taker, she enjoys extreme sports and dreams of travel the world. She is passionate about photography, music, arts, and everything about food. Food is love.

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