thoughts on our urban future

The High Line – Seminal Design of our Times

The High Line is an urban park in New York City.  It opened to the public in June 2009, with the second segment due to open later this year.  The High Line is an innovative example of urban re-use, of retrofit, of re-imagination, of community motivation, and of shared vision.  There are numerous articles documenting the High Line providing inspirational stories of how it came to be and illustrating the precise details of its construction.  I do not wish to replicate these articles, although I do suggest you read them if you are interested in the fascinating story of the project inception and the project detail.  But instead, I want to talk about my personal experience with the High Line and what it means to me.

To be honest, when I first heard about the High Line, I was not particularly interested or impressed.  When the competition winner was chosen and the park proposal was displayed I thought it looked small and narrow.  I thought it might be an interesting folly but something that you see once and then ignore.  I was not overly excited or interested in the High Line from what I saw in magazines even when it first opened.

It was by chance that I stumbled across the High Line.  Being on the west side of Manhattan, it’s not necessarily an area I go to from Brooklyn.  But it was December 2009.  The High Line had opened that summer and I had seen some articles about it in some architectural magazines.  I was with my mother on the west side of Manhattan to go to an art gallery showing an exhibit I was desperate to see.  I had arrived in the aftermath of a blizzard.  The snow was feet deep.  I had dragged her to go see the exhibition and we had navigated over piles of snow and slush to get there.  Having made it (and thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition) we set about the trek back home battling the snow and wind.  This is when I noticed an unassuming metal staircase leading up and a small sign.  By chance we had crossed paths with the end of the first section of the High Line.

“Well,” I thought to myself, “I doubt I’m ever going to be over here again and I sort of want to see what all this fuss is about.  We should go up and check it out.”.  I am also somewhat partial to climbing things, and being able to get above the snow and dirty streets also seemed appealing.  “Come on!”  I said to my mother, “Lets go!”.

And so up the staircase we went.  It was blowy.  It was a bit icy.  It was cold.  About half way up my mother (who is afraid of heights) wasn’t so sure, but I insisted.  Eventually we made it to the top and entered only what I can describe as another world.  The snow was piled high on the High Line and the brown grass was poking through the piled drifts.  We were in the exact same position in the city, just repositioned vertically upward- and what a difference it made.  It sounded different.  It felt different.  It was peaceful and quiet, even as the grasses fluttered and swayed in the wind.  We started walking.  We walked the entire length and then found the elevator at 16th street to take us back down.  I was astonished.  I was moved.  I was convinced.  This was not just any park.

And so I have revisited the High Line on my subsequent two visits to New York.  Each time it is different and special.  Each time there is something new or different to see or be fascinated by- be it the complex ever-growing and being groomed planting scheme or some element of architectural detailing, or art installation.  I am just as intrigued by how people use it.  How the space accommodates and embraces people.  How it can be fairly crowded and yet still feel reasonable.

So I ask myself- what have I learned from this project?  For starters, I have learned that the physical experience of place cannot always be captured by photograph or drawing.  Something I already knew, but this is a very good example.  I was not prepared for how the space felt differently.  It is not something that can be captured with a simple photograph.  Perhaps you could capture it better with a video.  But the city sounds different.  Your perception is different.  Your sense of space is different.  You really need to experience it for yourself.

This project also shows that quality and design matters.  The elements of this park are in many ways simple, but it is the attention to detail and their crisp manufacture and installation that impresses.  Every piece of this park has been designed in a thoughtful way to relate to each other.  It is durable and rugged and yet it does so in a stunningly beautiful and almost delicate way.

The park is ‘non traditional’ and it opens up thinking for ways to improve the outdoor space of dense urban places.  There have been previous attempts to create ‘parks in the sky’ and ‘pedestrian skywalks’ which have had varying degrees of success.  But there is no question that the High Line is working.  There should be more investigation into the qualities that allow it to succeed and it would be interesting to suggest dense urban developments which allowed for public park to be elevated- creating vertical mixed-use opportunities.  Could something like the High Line be constructed intentionally?

It is difficult for me to express how my feeling about the High Line has not only changed but become almost religious.  This is landscape design at its best.  This project encompasses what open space can be for residents and tourists to a dense urban environment.  As long as the park is maintained, I strongly believe that it will come to represent a seminal piece of landscape architecture for our time.  It is an environment whose qualities transcend.  It is a place that delivers a truly unique experience.  It is memorable.  It is enjoyable.  It is fantastic.

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  1. Section 2 opens today. There was a ceremonial opening already, you can see the photographs of the new section here:

  2. You’re right about pictures not capturing the effect of actually being there. At 3 stories above the street, cars and streets disappear and the beauty of the building patterns against the sky are amazing. The park is a combination of wild flowers and grasses and cultivated plants. What is amazing is how it changes from season to season. The pictures above are from early spring–things are just emerging. In summer it is full bloom and in the fall the 12 + kinds of grasses have taken over. I find it magical at all the times of the year.

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