NYC’s Park in the Sky

New York’s park in the sky, the High Line, has been open to the public for the better part of six years now. Time flies, doesn’t it? The 2.4-kilometre park built on a stretch of out-of-use elevated freight railway has quickly become part of the fabric of NYC and has changed the way locals and visitors experience the city. After the final section of the High Line opened in 2014, the team of landscape architects, architects and planting designers behind it met to discuss their ten-year project. These conversations form the bones of a beautiful new book, The High Line (Phaidon).

It’s hard to imagine NYC without the High Line’s green, airborne promenades cutting through the built landscape of the Meatpacking District and Chelsea. Open up The High Line and you’ll find the stories that underpin the park are as fascinating as a walk along its boards. In the early chapters, landscape architect James Corner (of James Corner Field Operations) recalls stepping onto the derelict structure for the first time. “To get up there we had to take a freight elevator in a warehouse that was completely dark inside. Then, all of a sudden, the huge doors opened and we stepped into a magical garden of green.”

Architect Ricardo Scofidio of collaborating design studio, Diller Scofidio + Renfro remembers the occasion differently. “What affected me most when I stepped onto the High Line was a sense of dread about the near future,” he says, “like the end of so many science fiction novels where the jungle emerges through the concrete, all signs of civilization completely erased, with the abandoned railway at the center.”

The plants I saw were robust and survived with almost no soil in unnatural conditions. You could imagine that in another fifty years the plants would consume the High Line structure and then the city. Everything would turn to dust: nothing would be left but primal vegetation. New Yorkers would be gone: only the weeds would survive.”

For New Yorkers going about their daily lives the beauty of the High Line was hard to recognise back then. The railway line, which dates to the 1930s, skulked some 9 metres overhead, cutting across city blocks and casting a derelict shadow across the lower west side of Manhattan Island. Even for pedestrians who looked up the beauty was unintelligible. “You couldn’t get on top of it, so you only caught glimpses, fragments, bits and pieces from the street below. It seemed discarded, silent, and obsolete,” says Corner. But a completely different landscape was visible from the windows of neighbouring apartments.

“There were people living in the neighborhood back then who had elevated views of the old High Line and who saw something none of us could ever see — a continuous ribbon of emergent green meadow running silently through the city, above the streets. They saw a certain romance and potential in this green corridor and thought it was worth preserving without knowing exactly what it would become.”

The design team behind the reconceived High Line was led by James Corner Field Operations in partnership with architectural studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf. At its core The High Line book is a series of reflections on their decade long collaboration, one that radically changed how urban public spaces are thought of, used and imagined across the world. Conversations between the designers are supplemented by extraordinary images of the historical High Line, its abandoned state in the late 1990s, and its renewal between 2006 and 2014.

But the growth of the High Line is also a story of community activism over some twenty years, most notably by the non-profit Friends of The High Line, which was formed in 1999. The Friends fought the battles with City Hall and neighbouring property owners that paved the way for preservation of the space and its ultimate rejuvenation, as envisaged by James Corner and co.

It’s a public service that the conversations of the renegade bunch of designers have been put to paper and presented so comprehensively in book form. Don’t assume, for example, that professional banter equates to inaccessible or dry storytelling. The observations that litter The High Line move back and forth from revealing to entertaining to inspiring. At one point Scofidio recounts taking an amateur gardener friend up to the High Line for the first time. “He kept stopping, wandering into the plant beds, looking around, and then he started to pull a few plants out. I was horrified and said, “What are you doing?” and he explained, “I’m pulling out the weeds! They shouldn’t be in the garden!” I guess one man’s weed is another’s horticulture,” he concludes.

Not to mention the photos of bare bums pressed up against the floor-to-ceiling glass walls of the Standard Hotel, located just two blocks up from where the High Line starts at the corner of Washington and Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District. The presence of open, natural space in the city really seems to set the mood for hotel guests and the many High Line visitors letting loose with PDA’s on any given day.

What the book does well is demonstrate how the design team’s first encounters with the self-serving wilderness atop the abandoned High Line firmly guided their proposal for the project later on. “From the outset, we were very clear about our design philosophy,” recalls Corner. “Keep it! Keep it wild; keep it slow; keep it quiet; keep it simple! Our philosophy was to do all we could to maintain everything that made the High Line distinct from other spaces in the city: its melancholy and otherworldliness; its autonomy and wildness; and its sense of pace and duration.”

“Everything around the High Line was tough. The structure itself is steel with a concrete bed, stone ballast, wood ties, and steel tracks. In its first life, there was nothing organic up there at all. When the trains stopped running in 1980, the wood ties began to rot and accumulate moisture, and the first seeds, brought in by birds and breezes, grew into plants. As those plants died, they formed the first organic material, allowing for more growth and diversity to emerge. Over the next years, nature started to take over, in terms of soil-making, plant growth, and biodiversification. The resulting contrast was stunning: this benevolent, melancholic garden, alone and quiet, doing its own thing next to the tough and unforgiving city.”

For plant enthusiasts there are detailed photo collections of the plant species that now make up the park, including over 200 perennials, 36 types of grasses, 12 vines, 50 bulbs and more than 100 varieties of trees. Collaborating landscape designer Piet Oudolf was given the brief to “evoke the spirit of the wild, to bring the weeds and common species together to create a rough, informal aura” with his plantings for the space. “It’s an entirely new way of gardening,” he says.

For the High Line, the plants have to grow on a bridge that is exposed above and below, which makes them vulnerable to freezing temperatures in the winter. As a result, my concern was not only about habitats and ecosystems, but also about survival. I also had to keep in mind that the plants would change over time. In ten years, everything could be different. If you create a garden that you control completely, it would be static and decorative. It would have no emotion. My work is about succession, about a freedom within limits.”

The reborn High Line has attracted plenty of attention. At planning stage, the park was anticipated to have three hundred thousand visitors a year. In 2014, over six million people came. So what are its charms? “It’s a space for daydreaming,” suggests Scofidio. Corner says it’s the way the height of being on the High Line “changes your perspective. You can see the Statue of Liberty, the Hudson River, and various vistas across Manhattan. It becomes a viewing platform from which to see the city in new and unexpected ways.” The High Line is also a spectacle itself; one that neighbours will do backflips to see. “During its industrial heyday, adjacent residential buildings recoiled from the High Line, which was then considered a loud, rumbling eyesore,” observes Diller. “But since it became an attraction, new condos within eyeshot of the High Line have been craning to catch a view of it, like the phototropic effect of plants orienting to a source of light.”

“When we started, we asked the question: what will grow here?” recalls Corner. “Most of what has grown on and around the High Line has been out of our control. The High Line was a catalyst for open and dynamic things to happen. It continues to be a stimulant in a larger and still-evolving urban ecology.”

The High Line is published by Phaidon and available in Australia from 18 November 2015.

All images are from The High Line, courtesy of Phaidon.