An updated High Line

19 October 2016

The High Line in New York is a breath of green air; a linear lung strung a storey high down Manhattan's West side. As one of the world's most renowned contemporary 'gardens' it brings millions (around 5 million each year) in to contact with plants in a quintessentially urban space.

Its beauty is based on contrast, hinging on bold and clever planting. Its utility comes from an innate understanding of how people use space.  In Autumn it is particularly spectacular, as the leaves of spotlight trees such as Betula populifolia and Prunus virginiana turn rich shades of yellow and orange. They cast precious colour across the vertical sheets of concrete in whose shadow they sit. 

What many people don't know is that the High Line was also beautiful before its makeover.  Whilst James Corner, Piet Oudolf and the teams that surround them, created a unique and forward looking urban masterpiece, they also carpeted over the wild and natural dereliction that existed before.  Images from the abandoned rail track show a vast array of self-seeded plants, throwing themselves together in place-appropriate combinations. Oudolf's planting references native species throughout the space, but it would be impossible to recreate the serendipity of what came before. Perhaps something is lost here.

The most recent extent of the High Line, pushing up in to the less glamorous Mid-Town, pays more attentive homage to the disused rail track of its past. With some areas left seemingly untouched and the hoards of visitors kept to just one side. Whether this is a temporary or permanent arrangement, it seemed to work.  With a backdrop of fizzing urban growth, and a carpet of train depot, this new section seems more appropriately urban and abandoned.

As a landmark of urban garden design, how the High Line negotiates with the layers of brownfield beneath it is worth noting.  It raises questions of how we can design urban spaces, both public and private, in a way that respects and uplifts both the old and the new. 

Elizabeth Tyler



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