A group of sustainable development students traveled downtown last month for a tour of the High Line, a park on the lower West Side built on an old rail line. Instead of demolishing the area, the City of New York, with the help of the Friends of the High Line, redesigned it to combine urban history with sustainable landscaping. Construction of Section I began in 2006, and Section III is now a work in progress following the opening of Section II last June. Located in the Meatpacking District, Hell’s Kitchen and West Chelsea, the park pays homage to the area’s industrial past while providing locals and tourists alike with a place for repose.
Street-level trains began to run through the west side of Manhattan in the mid-19th Century. Following years of pedestrian casualties, however, the City of New York decided, as part of the Westside Improvement Project, to construct the high line railway. Freight trains ran on it from 1934 to 1980. The trains drove through factories to drop off their cargo, such as by delivering flour to the Nabisco factory.
Built with sustainable wood, these “peel-up” benches rise naturally from the wood planks and mirror the line of the rails. Designers blurred the line between nature and culture. There are no overhead lights here at nighttime, but lights underneath the railings illuminate the plants instead of the visitor. New York City lights also frame the park with an external glow.
Blossoming but bristly wildflowers soften the urban landscape while mirroring its color palette. Buildings surround the high line and are a constant reminder that it is in an industrial center. Yet the plants also pay homage to the natural past of the region and create a sense of optimism amidst the hustle of the city. From grasslands to thickets, the varied textures and color schemes of plants in the High Line complement nearby architecture.
The park’s architecture generally celebrates the history of the high line with nostalgic odes to the railroad tracks and natural landscape of the region. While several modern buildings, such as this one, seem to contrast this emphasis on the area’s history, they in fact symbolize the smoke that once rose from trains in the area with their angular, asymmetrical steel structures. They also symbolize the future of the area that is otherwise quite connected to the past.
Plants are popping up once again as signs of springtime. Seasonal change shifts one’s experience of the park due to color changes and shifts in the amount of vegetation. On the other hand, the designers chose plants in general that are sturdy enough for strong winds and a dry climate all year round, so that they are sustainable additions to the park. Also notice the fork-like extension of the walkway into the landscaping, which blurs the line between the designated walkway and the plant areas.
The High Line features artwork as a part of its design, so that visitors may walk right next to it or sometimes even through it. In this case, this metal birdfeeder is both a habitat and a sculpture. The High Line also features artistic billboards that it changes every few months to engage the visitor while exploring the park. Also note that the train tracks are still visible in the background, but in several months the vegetation will most likely obscure them from view.
Section II of the High Line, which opened last June, is generally narrower and reminds viewers of the closeness of the city, as buildings loom right above the walkway. Visitors in Section I commented that they wished there was more grass, and so Section II features a patch of greenery. This area’s tranquility represents the park’s overall effort to be a quiet, slow park, which encourages conversation and contemplation in a city so known for its fast-paced energy.