Can Sydney's version of the High Line measure up to New York's?

Is Sydney's Goods Line really an answer to New York's High Line?

Ever since the High Line opened in New York on June 9, 2009, city planners have sought to emulate its blockbuster success everywhere from Chicago to Cape Town, transforming unloved industrial areas into user-friendly green zones. A proposal in London would turn a disused mail tunnel beneath Oxford Street into a mushroom garden; the "Lowline," on New York's Lower East Side, proposes to use solar lighting to grow a subterranean park.

Sydney's own version – the Goods Line, which breaks ground later this month – seeks to rejuvenate a 500-metre rail corridor that links Darling Harbour, Haymarket, Ultimo, and Central Station. The Goods Line will recreate the corridor for pedestrians, offering public squares, raised lawns, and tiered seating surrounded by trees and manicured gardens.

The Planning Minister, Brad Hazzard, has drawn a direct parallel between the Goods Line and the High Line – but is that a fair comparison? And what does the impact of the High Line in New York suggest for the future of Sydney?

Until 1980, the High Line was a functioning elevated railroad that delivered raw meat and dairy products down the west side of Manhattan (thus the famous "Meatpacking District"). After the railroad fell out of use, it was quickly overtaken by weeds and sumac trees, with children and "urban explorers" claiming it for themselves as a wild playground.

In 1999, a non-profit called Friends of the High Line set out to repurpose the track as a 2.33-kilometre public greenway, built in three distinct sections. While the final section remains a work in progress, the two sections that are open today offer a spectacle of seasonal gardens and innovative design. A glass-walled amphitheatre hangs above a busy avenue, for example, creating the illusion of a real-time movie screen.

The impact of the High Line on surrounding area has been remarkable. Property values have exploded, adding new jobs and private investment; several up-market hotels have opened their doors; and the $US422 million new home of the Whitney Museum of American Art is currently under construction, due for completion in 2015. Nevertheless, when visitors passed 3.7 million in a single year, some local residents began to condemn the "tourist-clogged catwalk."

Because the Goods Line is not in a particularly residential area, it mostly sidesteps this pitfall. And while plans suggest a similarly rejuvenating effect on a part of Sydney that certainly needs it, in some ways the Goods Line actually improves on the High Line design. The High Line begins in an awkward street and leads nowhere of note; the Goods Line is a genuinely useful thoroughfare. The High Line has spent much of this snowy Winter closed to the public and also shuts in the evenings; the Goods Line will be a night time destination in its own right, year round. 

But the real appeal of the High Line – indeed, the thing that makes it worth emulating in the first place – is related to its spontaneous humanity: the art installations, volunteer fairs, sunbathers, wedding parties, and that former punk rock photographer who used to perform cabaret on her fire escape. The design team behind the Goods Line promises performance stages, pop-up bars, and "study pods," but the sort of vitality seen in New York's elevated park is impossible to manufacture in advance.

Is the Goods Line really Sydney's answer to the High Line? Ultimately, that's up to the people to decide. But the canvas looks like a promising one.

Lance Richardson is a New York-based travel writer originally from Sydney.