I recently read a definition of ‘sense of place’ as somewhere that draws you back time and time again. And so despite staying on the other side of Manhattan during my recent trip to New York – and having an impossibly long list of things I wanted to see and do – my three excursions to the High Line in the space of one week perhaps qualify this urban space as being pretty place-sensical. (Please remind me not to use that expression in my dissertation.)
If ever there was a feel-good project, this is it. It ticks every imaginable box…and then some. I’m not exaggerating to say that the impact of this development is, quite frankly, astounding. It actually makes me quite emotional to think what could be achieved throughout our cities all over the world, by learning from this wonderful, wonderful place. Its effects are nothing short of phenomenal.
I think its true, wider value (beyond the dazed gardeners like me) really came home to me on the last night of my stay. I was at a cocktail party with many senior New York executives (as you do) and (as it invariably does) my highbrow smalltalk veered off to the subject of gardens by about sentence two. And you know what, I didn’t get polite (if somewhat glazed) looks and comments of ‘how nice’. I got impassioned and informed responses about the remarkable (and tangible) benefits that the High Line has brought to New York. From every executive I spoke to. It was nothing short of exhilarating, for a little gardener like me.
So what is the ‘High Line’ and why is it so good?
In the 1930s, an elevated railway line opened in Manhattan, carrying goods to and from its main industrial district. However, by 1980, trucking had largely succeeded rail freight and the final train ran along the High Line that year, pulling three wagons of frozen turkeys, no less. A group of property owners then lobbied for its demolition, but one nearby resident, a railroad enthusiast, challenged its removal in court.
Some years later, the ‘Friends of the High Line’ was founded by local residents to advocate its use as a public open space and by 2005, CSX Transportation had donated the infrastructure to the City of New York and a design team had been selected. The newly refurbished and planted, 30 foot-high and 1.5 mile-long High Line opened in three phases, between June 2009 and September 2014.
An urban green space that begins with lobbying from local residents is surely on to a good thing, but the strength of support is really quite staggering. Some years on, the Friends group still raises 98% of the High Line’s operating costs privately and there is a waiting list for many of the volunteer roles. It really has captured the imagination of everyone around it, engaging them in a truly meaningful way.
I saw people in suits on their way to work, others jogging and even someone dragging a suitcase early one morning. Later in the day, the local ladies-that-lunch were having coffee in one of the many seating areas and a class of primary school children were being taught about native plants. This isn’t first and foremost a flashy tourist destination; it’s a highly used part of the community.
The ubiquitous planting on nearby roof terraces was immediately noticeable: clearly the beauty of the High Line had inspired all around it to create their individual Eden in their own few square metres of space. And maybe this was my imagination running wild, but you could envisage friendly conversations happening from rooftop to rooftop and back to someone on the High Line; the whole area just oozed a community feel.
And for anyone that likes to see hard, economic benefits, these are all there to see. It’s been estimated that the impact of the High Line has brought in an additional $900 million of real estate taxes each year and a further $2 billion of new economic activity, all for a single outlay of $260 million. Where else do you see returns like that?
You can almost feel the prosperity this space has brought to the area, with new developments popping up everywhere you look. And people really believe in the impact it has: a whopping $3.6 million was raised by the Friends of the High Line at just one event earlier this year: it’s seriously big time stuff.
And whilst I’d perhaps rather not think about the commercialisation of it all, in reality most would be quite unaware of it. There are no donation boxes, no in-your-face-adverts asking for money, no fees, no pathways through merchandising and no up-selling of any kind what-so-ever. If only our gardens here could operate like this.
Yes, I’m sure something could have been created for less than $260 million, but would it have transformed the area as the current solution has? Yes, untouched – by man or money – wilderness can be even more beautiful, but in the middle of Manhattan, that’s just not an option. To me, it is the world-class delivery of the space that has made the High Line what it is and every last cent spent was worth its weight in gold.
It’s not a cheap place to run, with complex engineering, irrigation and fertilisation systems required to keep sizeable trees – exposed to coastal winds – grounded, fed and watered in just 45 centimetres of soil. But plants are thriving under expert – and beloved – care and attention, funded by an almost unstoppable voluntary ‘tax’ on the wealthy, improving the environment for all. It’s hard to see much downside.
And perhaps its complexity is half its magic. It feels as though the High Line’s immense success is down to a whole myriad of factors which have combined in a yet-to-be-discovered chemical reaction producing synergy of a scale previously unseen.
World-class landscape architects (Diller Scofidio + Renfro) and planting designers (Piet Oudolf) were key elements in this precise, new chemical reaction. It’s one of those designs where you just can’t fault a single thing. It’s so perfect that even the imperfections have you oohing and aahing over how wonderful it is to not be overly perfect.
Everything about the design has been impeccably chosen, from each of the 350 species of plants to the somewhat industrial pavers, laid lengthways to accentuate the linearity of the original line. It has taken so much from the old, but integrated it within an appealing, timely, contemporary look.
Even the planting is both historic and contemporary, inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew on the tracks once the trains ceased running. Piet Oudolf wanted to ‘keep it wild’, as is the way of so many top designers today, and nearly half the species are native to the US. Yet he has still delivered great variety in colour, texture and form, providing contrasts both within and between different sections of the line. I think I’ll need to show a little more of the planting detail in another post.
The contrasts are indeed part of what make the High Line so good. At the northern end there are a few streets close by where I found myself pulling my bag slightly closer to my body, but the second you are up on the line, any worrying or negative thoughts instantly vanish. You feel liberated and safe and alive. Quite literally ‘on top of the world’.
But you very much feel like you are still in New York. The High Line is trendy and modern, industrial and quirky, world-class and unique. In others words, it reflects all the characteristics of the wider city beyond. It feels so incredibly ‘right’ that you can’t help but feel at ease yourself. I guess it’s that magical ‘sense of place’ thing going on again. Plus that wonderful, if elusive, balance that all the very best gardens find, in just the right levels of contrast and harmony.
The very best thing about the High Line is the message that it shouts to the world. Five million visitors per annum walk along this disused railway track and I’ve yet to hear of a single one disregard it. The enormous social, environmental and economic benefits it brings are indisputable, meaning this project has the capacity to act as a catalyst for so much more. This is not just a wonderful garden that brings pleasure to a handful of privileged people; it’s a huge and powerful machine that has the potential to benefit mankind.
34 thoughts on “The High Line, New York”
Oh, thanks, Janna. What a treat, I really enjoyed seeing the High Line through your eyes. The history of this style of planting as practiced on the continent and the USA for more than 3 generations is fascinating. Have you been to Hauser and Wirth, Somerset yet – all free, if tactfully suggesting a donation …?
The history is very interesting, isn’t it? It amazes me how slowly these things progress until all of a sudden they take off on a huge scale. I’m really hoping that take off with native plants and somewhat wilder settings happens in Australia soon, as it will transform the place and add so much atmosphere. I’m a bit sad I’m not there at the moment to be involved with it and see it happen. And yes, Hauser and Wirth firmly on the list, but sadly not visited just yet!
Maybe you’ve come across this perspective on the HL and Chicago Lurie http://www.luriegarden.org/2016/07/31/breaking-ground-the-influence-of-piet-oudolfs-perennial-gardens/
What a great article: thanks for posting the link. I hadn’t read it before. I like the perspective around seasonality and reading it makes me a) want to get to Chicago, b) feel so excited about the potential for making so many more truly wonderful places and c) a little intimidated about making something really special of my future garden!
You’re going to do a brilliant job of it all, Janna.
I like you, Kate.
A wonderful place Janna – does a place also have a ‘sense of place’ if you are drawn to it, having never been there before? Thanks for the tip Kate – will add to my list for next year!
A very good question for me to ponder as I research the subject, I think. I’m very excited about working towards something a little more concrete around what is such a powerful but ‘slippery’ concept.
Janna, I’ve read many, many stories about the High Line but this is definitely the best. What a clever and revealing insight. I think place-sensical should have a spot in everyone’s vocab!
Oh, Catherine, you’ve made my day (especially as I can now use the word ‘place-sensical’!). Thanks ever so much.
That was an interesting read and beautiful photos to accompany. Even the financial benefits were fascinating. I do really like Piet Oudolf designs. I laughed when I read about your attendance at a cocktail event with senior executives which turned into a discussion about gardens! I find myself in the same position and I bet you know what I talk about 😉 I seem to recall recently on the news some talk about doing a similar garden on a North Sydney Train line that is no longer used. It would be wonderful if that came to fruition in Sydney, especially close to the city.
Gardeners and cost-benefit analyses are not natural partners, so thank you for your encouragement, Louise! My gardening networking definitely paid off at the cocktail party; I also met someone who is (in their spare time) on the board of Longwood, arguably the most popular garden in the US. They’ll be no stopping me boring others about gardens from now on!
I have read about the North Sydney High Line idea, although I’m not sure I can see it happening (for various political/economic reasons). I do, however, feel that sometimes trying to repeat something magical is not necessarily the right approach. Barangaroo is a wonderful example of a really innovative, world-class, unique Australian landscaping project; I’m really hoping we see further blue-sky thinking like this, although frankly any greening up of our cities gets my approval!
Perfect Janna, I only wish it had been there when I visited New York many years ago. Well, it was of course, just derelict!
What do you make of the London Garden Bridge plan? I’m not sure. I can see the sense of place in the High Line, but a garden across a river?
The Garden Bridge is a really interesting one. It seems to divide the country, even the gardeners amongst us. Before I visited New York, I was pretty excited about it (Dan Pearson is involved, come on!), but I was a little horrified about the money and where else that could be spent. However, having seen the High Line and its associated impacts, I am now totally convinced that it would be money extremely well spent. I’ve come to the conclusion that world-class (and that’s important) landscaping features make one of the strongest business cases there is and I have no doubt that DP and friends will create an amazing sense of place in London. So few projects have aesthetic, feel-good and commercial benefits in spades; I’d be happy to get out there with my spade to help start construction tomorrow!
Lovely piece – and totally agree with your Garden Bridge analogy, which I’m sure will be much loved addition to London once it’s built, and in ways people haven’t yet imagined.
I understand the High Line was fairly controversial before it was re-modelled. As you say, it’s not always easy to quantify the benefits of these types of initiative until they are in place. But my view is that the benefits will outweigh any negatives a hundred times over. We need to seize these opportunities with both hands when they come along.
Thanks for your support Jane, we are so glad that you are excited about the Bridge. Dan Pearson’s planting plans will create a horticultural oasis in heart of the capital, free for all and open 365 days a year.
Please do get in touch if you wish to discuss the project further.
Anything that inspires people about horticulture is a wonderful thing in my mind. And something right bang in the heart of our largest city, where both the impact and contrast will be at its highest, has to be of particular value.
This is such a wonderful positive story. It gives so much hope for the development of exemplary public open spaces in cities and (perhaps I’m being totally unrealistic) less emphasis on the concrete jungle mentality. Sadly I’m seeing quite the opposite happening here in Perth. Thanks Janna
Don’t feel it’s unrealistic, Suzanne. It takes passionate people like you to provide the impetus for the changes that can bring such benefit to all. It’s sad to see an emphasis on concrete at the expense of somewhat greener designs but it’s clear we can develop our cities to be both highly productive and beautifully green; it’s just a matter of time in my view. I’m convinced we will get there.
I’m a bit late reading your post, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I haven’t (yet) been to High Line, but the concept is just wonderful. I think people who live in cities crave the greenery, space and peace that only this type of garden brings to a city. It was interesting to read of your experience at the cocktail party, it just shows how many diverse New Yorkers are proud of the High Line! Also lovely to see that there were no McDonalds signs etc to be seen! I know some parts of the inner city in Sydney (Redfern) have been improved greatly by leafy trees and plants boxes on sidewalks. Sadly Canberra, this lovely garden city, is not in the hands of planners with vision at the moment….perhaps our politicians would benefit from a trip to High Line! Great post.
Good to read of your ‘yet’! I watched an excellent High Line video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CgTlg_L_Sw) that someone told me about a couple of days ago and it made me so sad I can’t just pop along there whenever I like. It’s the atmosphere that is so incredible. You just can’t help but feel happy, positive and hopelessly optimistic when you are there. And you are so right, New Yorkers feel extremely proud of the High Line. I think pride is so important as it prompts a feeling of caring about something, which translates into the reality of physically caring for something, which has so many upsides. I think you should lobby for Canberra town planners (and some polies!) to head off to New York asap!
Unfortunately Canberra is going through a frantic building stage…but I’m sure a trip to NY would do the trick! I think lovely green spaces affect everyone. Well, I shall live viciously through places you visit…I’m enjoying your blog and I know the High Line post would have taken a lot of time to research and write.(but fun time!)
Oh dear, I meant living vicariously rather than viciously!! Less haste more speed!
I knew exactly what you meant: you don’t seem like someone who aspires to live life viciously!! Interesting to hear that Canberra is in building mode. It sounds like we need old Walter back for some inspiration though. Such a good job was done with it upfront; it’s a shame if that is being lost a little with current developments. Thanks again for your kind comments.
still lost in wonder at the idea of a waiting list of volunteers!
That broad base of enthusiasm and support may be the real reason why the High Line ‘works’.
It needs the idea and money up front, and then people who use the space.
In Cape Town we have the Urban Park at Green Point, and in London the Olympic Park impressed me.
A waiting list of volunteers is wonderful isn’t it? And waiting lists always make something seem even more desirable!
I agree, developing the idea and raising funds is really tricky; just to get an idea off the ground and gather momentum is not at all easy. It’s why I think most projects that get this far are opportunities we should grab hold of. If we don’t embrace these initiatives we are at risk of being paralysed into zero progress with anything of its type.
Thanks for the tip about the Urban Park. I’ll see if we have time to pop along when we visit.
Oh Janna! I have been immersed in a somewhat busy blur of happenings lately (all good) and I’ve just caught up on reading your post. It is such a delight to read your experiences of The High Line and it has refreshed my mind of my time there earlier this year. You describe it so well and it is indeed a wonderful park. Well actually, I’m not sure what to call it. It has park like qualities which you described, as it brings people together as a community, but it’s also a garden filled with a diversity of plantings in garden beds and paths and gathering places! Perhaps I’ll settle with calling it a garden park! None-the-less, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post.
I can totally understand why you visited multiple times. I decided to get there first thing in the morning at 7am when it opened because I wanted to see it without people, perhaps that’s the purist photographer in me that wants the perfect shot (plants/garden sans people!!), but then I actually really enjoyed watching it come to life as people started coming into the gardens – the locals going off to work, or coming to rest in their garden park and then also the wide-eyed tourists. I did at least two full laps up and back which I’m glad I did because it is definitely not a one-route experience!! So much to see and so much to enjoy.
It’s really lovely to hear from you, Steven, and I’m so glad it brought back happy memories of your trip there in June. It’s very hard to classify the High Line, isn’t it? I don’t really feel it’s either a park or a garden. Maybe the fact that it doesn’t fit any traditional label is indicative of its success – it’s so integral to the city (rather than an add-on) and so in tune with today’s way of life (rather than an out-dated way of life), that it can’t help but have such universal appeal. And I know exactly what you mean when you talk about watching the High Line come to life as the sun rises in the sky: something not to be missed, I think! On my second trip I also found it quite funny watching the ‘wide-eyed tourists’ stumble across the tree-planted car for the first time. I felt quite a local! Oh, and glad to hear you’ve got lots of exciting things going on at the moment.
Yes I think I was being optimist trying the call it a garden park! It is difficult to try and describe it to people who haven’t been though. One of my favourite spots was the day bed section that moved along the rail tracks and where there was the water across the path. I watched people take their shoes off and enjoy walking in the water …. such fun!
‘Garden park’ was better than anything I managed to come up with! Unfortunately the water wasn’t ‘on’ for any of my trips, but I can imagine on a warm day it would facilitate a lot of fun and animation. There’s nothing for it, I’ll just have to go back, sooner rather than later.