Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
London’s newest destination, on North Greenwich Peninsula, shows why it’s time to stop copying New York City’s High Line.
Can we agree to stop calling things “the new High Line”? Barely a month goes by without the emergence of some fresh exercise in pretty-but-functionless urbanism that promises to jump on the coattails of New York’s now world-famous linear park.
There are “new High Lines” in Chicago, Miami, Tokyo, Barcelona, Seoul, Philadelphia, San Antonio, and Atlanta, plus a canceled one in Singapore. The U.K. in particular has gone crazy for Manhattan’s linear park (albeit more as a branding concept than as a built reality), with Big Apple-themed linear-park proposals in Manchester and Leeds, and three in London.
This month, a High Line-inspired development has actually been completed in the British capital. Called The Tide, it’s even been constructed following a design by the original High Line’s co-designers, Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Opened last week on southeast London’s riverside North Greenwich Peninsula, it neatly pinpoints exactly where the linear-park concept is “at” right now.
That’s because The Tide is an expensive, heavily monitored add-on to a meretricious corporate development, possessing little in the way of either function or charm. Although beautifully shot press photos show it bathed in honeyed light against spectacular skies, on the drizzly morning I visited, without either as a backdrop, it looked more than a shade less appealing.
The first problem with The Tide is that calling it a park, linear or otherwise, is a joke. Squeezed in the wedge shape between two new luxury-apartment complexes, it is in fact just a narrow elevated walkway of the type much lambasted in critiques of late 20th-century urban planning. Certainly, it has been clothed with some shrubs and wooden decking, but it still looks unmistakably like what it is—a gangplank to nowhere, neither a convenient pedestrian route nor a vantage point high enough to offer anything in the way of views.
Its scattering of Big Art in the surrounding area by the likes of Damien Hirst and Andy Goldsworthy is nice enough, as are its clumps of juvenile birches and pines. Planted in shallow soil contained within the structure, however, and with only the tiniest portholes of open ground surrounding their trunks, these trees seem unlikely to thrive where they are.
And who is it for? Nearby office workers might be enticed to eat their lunch up on this corporate dream jetty, but signs banning “hot food or open drinks” hardly make such a scenario sound relaxed or idyllic. If the developers had really wanted an attractive park-like space with mature plants, they would have been better off just creating a park.
So why is it here at all? Essentially, it seems an infrastructural gewgaw to drum up a little attention for the blah condominium cluster that surrounds it. As The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright has reported, this massive redevelopment of former docklands in the North Greenwich Peninsula saw developer Knight Dragon buy the land surrounding The Tide at knock-down price and receive a £50 million ($63 million) grant toward the construction of new housing.
Despite this, the developer still wangled the local borough down from their usual requirement of 35 percent affordable housing to 21 percent, leading overall to a net loss of more than 500 affordable homes in the area. Arguing that this reduction was necessary to make the project financially viable, the developers have nonetheless found cash to create yet another starchitect-designed un-bridge.
Tantalizingly, things could have been different. Walk onto the riverfront with your back to the new apartment blocks and the site’s potential shines through, in some actually quite nice landscaping that has been created along the water. Wind-whipped reed beds rise from the Thames’s tidal sludge, with sweeping views of the ex-industrial banks opening up along a quayside that’s pleasant to walk along if you don’t look behind you. This softer, more genuinely public feel could have humanized the rest of the development.
This missed opportunity contributes to the project’s sense of ugliness, and suggests that it’s high time for a different inspiration than the High Line. Back in 2009, what got many people excited about the original High Line was the idea that the project had rediscovered a community asset hidden for decades, turned it into something beautiful, and invited the public to rediscover it.
Ten years later, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s new project has none of that excitement. It’s shallow greenwashing tacked onto a bad development, intended to add a cultured veneer increasing the value of nearby real estate, but revealing an ultimate barrenness of invention. It certainly makes 2009 seem a very long time ago.