Vancouver would love for its Arbutus Corridor to have the same impact as New York City’s High Line.
The High Line in Manhattan has become a case study in successful urban renewal over the past half-decade or so, with its old west-side stretch of elevated freight railway turned into an inspired conception of nature, walkways, public art, stunning new city vistas and, inevitably, great spots for selfies.
The elevated ribbon of green has utterly resparked the lacklustre western edge of Manhattan’s lower Midtown, adding tourist dollars and ever higher property values for the city to reap. One study found that in 2010 alone, the High Line brought in $100-million (U.S.) in extra property tax. And the following year, the New York City Department of City Planning said that $2-billion in private investment was a result of the High Line.
The authors of a 2015 research paper by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, from which the figures are cited, go on to make a crucial point, that the High Line is “site-specific” and a “unique triumph.” The triumph was in its design, and many would say its successful marketing.
In March this year, when Vancouver finalized its $55-million (Canadian) purchase from Canadian Pacific Railway of the track, Mayor Gregor Robertson was quick to declare it “Vancouver’s chance to have a New York-style High Line.”
Yet the question is, how does a city know it will get an economic boost by investing in a new greenway? How can a city and its planners quantify the unquantifiable?
One obvious difficulty is the stark differences between new parkway-greenway corridors in different cities. The Arbutus Corridor will be a bicycle and pedestrian greenway, with room for a light-rail line. Excess land will be developed, with Canadian Pacific and the city expected to profit in the tens of millions of dollars, if not more.
When people talk about New York’s High Line Effect, the discourse inevitably devolves into dollars for the city. Even the High Line’s developers, though, had no way of predicting their success.
“I remember sitting around with Joshua [David] and Robert [Hammond], co-founders of the Friends of the High Line, and we were saying, ‘Gee, what would success mean? How do we measure it?’” recalled John Alschuler, chairman of urban consultancy HR&A Advisors and the first paid consultant on the High Line project.
They figured that a good goal would be to attract the same number of visitors as, say, the Guggenheim or Whitney museums – that is, a few hundred thousand visitors a year.
Last year, seven million people visited the High Line, Mr. Alschuler said. “I can’t even do the math of how much we understated the force and power of the High Line. The potential force and effect of these transformative open spaces, they are literally city-shaping.”
He repeated the point, however, that so much depends on the careful design and execution of each individual urban greenway project. And a reason for being.
For Vancouver, the greenway’s primary function will be clear, with the added advantage of being a park and shared urban space. “First and foremost, it’s a transportation corridor. That was a priority objective of the city, but those other benefits were definitely considered,” said Bill Aujla, general manager of real estate and facilities management at the City of Vancouver, who was part of the negotiations with CP.
The quantifiable benefits – that is, dollars for the city – will come from the development of prime land along the corridor not used for the bike, pedestrian and light-rail route. “We did extensive work studying the land values, but the intangibles such as the social, health [and] ecosystem values of a huge greenway were not quantified,” Vancouver deputy mayor Heather Deal said in an e-mail.
“The intangibles match up very well with policies such as greenest city, healthy city, urban forest plans, etc.”
These policies are driven by goals of having all Vancouver residents live within a five-minute walk from a park or greenway by 2020.
“So, while there may not be those economic assessments you are asking about, they are quantifiable policy goals,” Ms. Deal said. “It’s a rare day when this kind of opportunity comes along, as you know.”
In other words, the High Line’s impact, or, in this case, the Arbutus Corridor’s effect, requires more than just simple cost-and-benefit analysis.
For instance, a 2009 study on the economic benefits of public parks makes the distinction between direct income and direct savings for cities. Direct income comes from higher property tax as property values near parks rise, along with greater sales tax from visitors and tourists spending while using the park, noted the report by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for City Park Excellence, part of the advocacy organization The Trust For Public Land.
This is in contrast to the direct savings for cities and their residents, such as parks being an alternative to other, more expensive recreation. There are also the obvious health benefits. Parks can help reduce medical costs and create greater community pride, in turn providing the kind of civic cohesion that can lower the cost of urban blight.
And that’s been the distinguishing feature of Waterfront Toronto’s redevelopment, which put the initial emphasis on new green spaces and much more prominent bicycle and pedestrian corridors.
“Interestingly … we began building parks, which is not usually how you begin,” said Marisa Piattelli, chief administrative officer at Waterfront Toronto. “Once the land was cleaned and serviced, the first thing Waterfront Toronto did was to build the parks and public spaces.
“… These make waterfront revitalization real for the community and for developers. It creates value. It sets the bar very high on design. And it increases the land value, which is a profit back to the public purse for reinvestment in the waterfront.”
What it ultimately does is set “a brand and a tone about the type of waterfront. It speaks to that quality-of-life issue,” Ms. Piattelli added.
And that’s the crux. As difficult as it is to measure in the design phase, the value of a High Line is as much in the brand and tone, and how well it interacts with the city, as it is about the quantifiable measures (including development dollars, revenue or expected visitors).
“Great parks are an interaction between the park itself and the frame in which the park sits,” said Mr. Alschuler at HR&A Advisors. “The great parks we all know and love, they are about many things, but much of their power comes from the interaction between the edge, the frame so to speak, and the park itself.”