A Visit to The High Line
On a recent trip to New York City, I made time to visit the High Line – a postindustrial rail line that was recently re-invented (2009) as a place of urban wild.
This elevated rail originally served as a way to transport goods from the Hudson River railyards into the Meatpacking District above the congestion of the city streets. The rail line ended operations in 1980 and over the years the viaduct became a forgotten industrial artifact.
When the rail was threatened for demolition, neighborhood residents and grassroots activists rallied to save the High Line. Photographer Joel Sternfeld’s images of the wild, self-sown seasonal landscape that claimed this space over the 20 years of neglect illustrated a dynamic natural beauty that served to inspire the preservation of the rail line.
Credit: Designing the High Line, Gansevoort Street to 30th Street, Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Friends of the High Line, & the City of New York. Published by Friends of the High Line, 2008.
A nonprofit group, Friends of the High Line, held a design competition for what would become NYC’s newest park, 29’ above street level. The re-invention of this industrial relic was awarded to landscape architecture firm Field Operations and architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The design concept respected the linear form and the innate existing character of the rail: ballast, steel tracks, railings, and concrete interwoven with wild perennials, grasslands, and spontaneous habitat.
The rail was originally constructed over neighborhood streets and traveled in and out of industrial warehouses as it varied in width, creating design opportunities for diverse spatial experiences. The design captures the sequential movement of the line and provides enough interest for those who prefer to walk along at slow pace.
Visitors meander through a variety of grasslands, flowering meadows, and tall shrub thickets as views of the Hudson River or the urban street life below are framed along the way. Piet Oudolf, famed Dutch horticulturist, enhanced the wild plant life palette with native species and flowering perennials, tucking them between the rails and designing for their seasonal rhythms.
While the experiential uniqueness of visiting the High Line is inspiring, the delight for me was in the more subtle design details. The woven interplay of steel rails meeting narrow concrete platform planks, the concrete planks that gently curve up into simple wooden benches, the understated wayfinding signage, and my favorite – wooden deckchairs designed on wheels that roll on the rail tracks. They can be pushed together for groups of people, or off to the side for a quiet afternoon with a book.
The High Line is a true urban innovation. This forward-thinking adaptation of postindustrial infrastructure into a site of cultural preservation and urban greenspace can serve as an example to many cities. The success of this park has served as an economic catalyst to three NYC neighborhoods and provides for a destination for tourists or a more relaxing detour for residents to simply have a brief respite from the city streets.
Stay tuned for the June 2011 opening of the second phase of the High Line. It will double the size of the park to roughly one mile in length and, so says Paul Pawlowski, create a series of more intimate spaces. For images of what’s to come, check out the video footage from the Friends of the High Line and next time you’re in New York City, don’t miss it!