How New York Fell in Love With the High Line Park

The High Line, an elevated park in New York City that was a product of massive private donations, has become a thriving institution in the city, drawing millions of visitors and revitalizing the surrounding neighborhood. 

The park, repurposed from a dilapidated train line in the lower West Side of Manhattan, has become a representation of the huge impact private philanthropy can have on city parks — and not all of it is positive.

City activists saved the historic rail line from being destroyed in the 1980s, and after lengthy planning, lobbying and fundraising, the elevated, one-mile stretch of track was transformed into a dazzling greenway and a regular attraction for New Yorkers and tourists. Modeled after a similar park in Paris, it's become a model itself for other cities seeking to turn relics into hot commodities.

The publicly-owned park would never have been realized without some enormous private gifts. Power couple Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg and their Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation (see Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation: Grants for Parks and Gardens) in particular, all but ensured the completion of the park in 2011 with more than $35 million in combined contributions. The Tiffany & Co. Foundation (see Tiffany & Company: Grants for Parks and Gardens) also made a $5 million grant in 2011.

The gamble has paid off for the city so far (and the investors, as Diller and von Furstenberg own businesses in the area), as an estimated $2 billion in private investments in the surrounding area have followed the park's notable success.

The surge of private capital that supported the High Line was at the center of a flurry of high-profile urban park grants, including a $100 million gift from John Paulson to Central Park, suggesting that parks and gardens may become a new pet cause for deep-pocketed city dwellers. And while the High Line has been an undeniable smash hit for New York, not all of the response to the prominent gifts has been appreciative.

Activists for funding of city parks, for example, have pointed out that New York’s parks are reflecting the city's inequity, with a chosen few embraced and funded by the wealthy, and those in poorer neighborhoods struggling for basic operating expenses.

It raises the question, why should Central Park or High Line flourish because of private injections of wealth, while those relying on public support suffer government cuts? Not to mention, what happens to parks established by such great wealth, when startup funding phases out?

Surely nobody wants to turn away the kind of generosity that establishes a gem like the High Line, but the surge in donations to parks highlights some big questions that surround philanthropy, and how private funds should interact with public structures.