Robert Hammond shares lessons from work on the High Line with MUP students

As part of a week spent visiting the Harvard University Graduate School of Design as a Visiting Fellow, Friends of the High Line cofounder Robert Hammond recently sat down with members of the Harvard Urban Planning Organization (HUPO) to discuss his innovative work. Students used the opportunity to solicit Hammond’s thoughts on a variety of topics, including the best ways to find funding for new ideas and effective strategies for dealing with community opposition to a project.

In 1999, Hammond cofounded Friends of the High Line with Joshua David. Over the next decade, he helped to orchestrate the renovation of an abandoned, elevated railway into an iconic urban park in Manhattan. During his meeting with HUPO, Hammond spoke candidly about the challenges of undertaking this project as an individual who had no formal education in planning, design, or administration. He stated, for instance, that it was difficult to convince funders and policymakers to trust him to manage the park. Hammond indicated that he alleviated this concern by using intermediate deliverables—an exhibition of the concept, a written proposal, and the park’s design competition—as opportunities to both learn and to build trust.

Students responded strongly to Hammond’s focus on project implementation. Said Paul Lillehaugen (MUP ’16), “[the] most compelling aspect [of Hammond’s remarks] was the central aspect that implementation efforts played in the process of building the High Line. While the design of the space obviously gets a lot of attention today, the efforts behind the scenes—from fundraising, to zoning, to lawsuits—really tell the story of what it took to create the park.”

Hammond described the difficult process of rezoning the area surrounding the High Line to HUPO. Conservationists hoped to keep buildable density near the park low, while developers wanted to increase the allowable size and height of buildings. A compromise solution broke the area surrounding the High Line into sections, with higher density in particular areas. 

Joshua Levitt (MUP ’15) agreed with his peers that Hammond’s focus on steering such difficult issues through the political process was enlightening. Said Levitt, “Despite Robert Hammond’s lack of formal education, his perseverance, coupled with social and political aptitude, allowed him to navigate a complex landscape and implement the kind of project planners dream of. Classes are great, but when the going gets tough, planners [need to] get gritty.”