High life on the New York High Line

by Fiona Rae / 11 February, 2012
This unique garden has rejuvenated a relic of New York's industrial past.

For our cities to be productive and functional, they need density of population. But with this comes continued pressure to carve up our suburban quarter-acres. My compromise is to live on a section backing onto a volcanic cone, which offers a sweep of borrowed landscape and is an attempt to avoid the reality of city life. Like most people, we’re happy to see improved transport and technology in a city with a heartbeat, as long as we don’t have to give up the fresh air and nature we feel is ours by right.

At the same time, the pressure of busy lifestyles has seen a move to low-maintenance gardens. Generally, this means a limited palette of plants in rows and surrendering outdoor spaces to courtyards, decks and possibly lawn. For cities to be healthy as well as pulsing, they need diverse and complex green living spaces. Which is why many of the world’s great cities are woven through with garden commons and parks of magnificent proportions that an intensified population can support.

If we’re to give up our suburban dream of the quarter-acre section, we need to make our web of green city corridors complex, diverse and pleasantly unexpected. It’s a matter of balancing the maintenance budget with public expectations of what a park should be. Developers also need to be encouraged to see the value in setting aside shared garden spaces. These challenges must be addressed as we come to live closer and closer together.

One of the most visionary contemporary projects that jumps all these hurdles is the New York High Line. The remaining mile and a half of what was once an elevated railway above New York’s streets, it delivered goods primarily to the meat markets in West Chelsea. Following the last load in 1980, the line was abandoned. It then passed through various owners’ hands as company after company went bust.

At one point, it was sold in questionable circumstances to a railway buff for $10. After a series of legal battles, his ownership was eventually dismissed, but without his obsessive determination to turn the line into a track for train enthusiasts, the structure could have been demolished long before the current plan emerged.

For over a decade, the High Line sat abandoned, a tribute to the area’s industrial past, while the neighbourhood turned from meat markets to a Bohemian community and then, inevitably, to high-priced chic. Architecture students studied the structure that was as hated as it was adored.

Finally, after local businesses in the High Line’s shadow increased pressure for the line to be taken down, the legal process began. At the initial hearings only two people were in favour of keeping it. They were a freelance writer and an artist, who imagined they would be there supporting a community of people keen to see the structure preserved. However, as they were the only supporters in attendance, they took up leadership of the cause and were taken by railway representatives to visit the tracks, which were thick with wildflowers and abuzz with bees.

Nature’s occupation inspired a dream that began with a simple commitment to preserve this garden in the sky, and in 1999, the Friends of the High Line was formed. Preservation was its main intention, but as the project gathered momentum, it became clear that, if the line was to be preserved, it needed to become part of the community. An ideas competition was launched, and over 700 plans were submitted. This communal spirit is one of the reasons the garden has been so successful. The ongoing consultation and empathy for a community’s voice is well-documented, and the involved process required a level of patience, reflecting what, I believe, makes this one of the great urban landscapes.

The line winds between buildings and above bustling streets, offering a riveting view of the city and the Hudson River. Excitingly, it demonstrates that public landscaping can embrace a complex and shifting ecological system. By incorporating the existing “wildness” into the redesign, many of the weeds that originally sprawled over the tracks have been retained, showing that wildness is a renewable resource that can enliven our cities. The first stretch of development, which spans a third of the line, has over 700 types of plants, some of which grow nowhere else in New York.

The design team includes Piet Oudolf, the Dutch designer famous for his textural plantings, which blend the form and texture of grasses with wildflowers. This style allows the garden to retain interesting form, even in the winter when the line is covered in snow. Autumn sees strong colours, but regardless of the season, there is always something in bloom, which accounts for the presence of thousands of bees.

Not every park or city space can be defined in such a way; some parks suit Victorian beds and rolling lawns. But the High Line is a great example of how, as our cities change, communities can find exciting ways to identify with abandoned structures in the urban landscape and  create a new “wild”.


With its stunning pictures and animations of the development to date, the High Line's website is well worth visiting (www.thehighline.org). The new wild is a concept first documented by Irish gardener and journalist William Robinson, who was part of the move towards cottage gardens. He rejected highly groomed landscapes in preference for gardens that let the wilderness in. His concepts used combinations of native and exotic plants, echoing his belief that design should both imitate nature and be open to opportunities that evolve in a garden. A complex and diverse garden may seem more work, because the gardener needs to be more knowledgeable. However, the end result is often a healthier and less labour-intensive garden, because a simplistic planting plan -usually requires the constant pursuit of a static aesthetic.
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