Kate SeddonThe High Line changes, and is changed by, New York

I recently visited the High Line in New York for the first time. I have been referencing this urban regeneration project for years, have seen many photos, but had never experienced it myself. Living in New York in the late 1990s, my building was located only a block away from the old elevated freight railway line, but in those days it did not register for me at all.

So it was with great anticipation that I approached the 34th Street entrance, to the newest (and final) section of the High Line. This is the area where they have let the park express itself in its truest form, much as it was when the project was first mooted. Self seeded trees, weedy grasses poking between steel railway tracks, it charmed me from the first moment.

Self seeded trees, weedy grasses poking between steel railway tracks, the High Line charmed me from the first moment

Grassy tones of Panicum virgatum contrast beautifully with the brickwork beyond. High Line, NYC

That first walk in the morning light was a revelation, moving from spontaneous vegetation and minimal intervention, through striking contrasting swathes of native grasses, flowering shrubs and low ground covers; on to a shady pathway of grey birches,

High Line NYC: a shady pathway of grey birches

High Line NYC: Sheltered woodland path through grey birches

sheltering more vulnerable ground covers below; and into a wider zone of a grassy swathe, random placements of contemporary sculpture, and a wonderful stacked timber arrangement, part amphitheatre, part bleachers.

Then it winds on further downtown, a portal onto one of the cross streets allows the seated visitors to gaze through a glazed panel onto the cars passing below. The area opens up and closes again. Verdant forested path becomes wide pedestrian zone with seating under trees and climbing plants on steel frames. After passing under a building, there is a restful zone of timber loungers, movable along steel railway tracks, facing a paved area lightly washed with shallow bubbling water.

High Line NYC: a restful zone of timber loungers, movable along steel railway tracks, facing a paved area lightly washed with shallow bubbling water

High Line NYC: Quiet reflection across the shallow water feature at the Diller Von Furstenberg sundeck

On and on it continues, ending peacefully in a treed zone adjacent to the new Whitney Museum.

High Line NYC: Astilbe chinensis flowering heads against the overhang of the Standard Hotel

High Line NYC: Astilbe chinensis flowering heads against the overhang of the Standard Hotel

Along the way the planting morphs and changes: from shady, to exposed; prairie planting to woodland; a broad sweep of lawn; intermittent benches projecting out of the paved surfaces. Some seating in the midst of it all, some tucked in little dead end sections, much as a locomotive might have once shunted back in overnight. Sections of original steel ornamental railing intersperse with exposed aggregate blades of paving, intersected with original railway lines and sleepers,

Planting of Sumac (Rhus typhina) trees intersected with remnant railway lines and street art. High Line NYC

Planting of Sumac (Rhus typhina) trees intersected with remnant railway lines and street art. High Line NYC

and always, in and amongst them, lovely little vignettes of planting contrast.

Sculptural pieces interject from time to time: a steel framed viewing window; a Louise Bourgeois-like spidery telescope peering out to Lady Liberty; a grid arrangement of yellow heads set amongst pink fine grassy heads amongst other pieces.

‘Altar’ by Chris Martin 2014 against the architecturally significant London Terrace Towers. High Line, NYC

‘Altar’ by Chris Martin 2014 against the architecturally significant London Terrace Towers. High Line, NYC

It lived up to expectation, in all its changing beauty as summer growth faded into intermittent autumn shades.

The only question I was left with though was like the tale of the goose that laid the golden egg. As we walked up and down a number of times at different times of day, we were constantly reminded of the legacy that this greening of the urban environment has brought to its surrounds. Proximity to the High Line has meant real estate values have improved, most obviously in the buildings which clearly interconnect with and take a “borrowed view” from the greenery. This has led to more development, and more.

Neighbouring properties take advantage of the borrowed view

Neighbouring properties take advantage of the borrowed view

Prairie grasses and the striking contemporary architecture complement each other

Prairie grasses and the striking contemporary architecture complement each other

Hemmed in by scaffolding: new properties will take advantage of the view along the High Line, NYC

Hemmed in by scaffolding: new properties will take advantage of the view along the High Line, NYC

At various points, the High Line is hemmed in by scaffolding on both sides.

Jackhammers, cranes and reversing trucks provide the ambient noise (though I did hear frogs, perhaps an artificial soundtrack), perhaps much as with most of the background noise of the city. At the North end, a new huge, mega neighbourhood Hudson Yards, is being built over the old railway yards, and things will change.

The new section: spontaneous vegetation against the old railway yards

The new section: spontaneous vegetation against the old railway yards

Already the horticulturists are having to adjust and refine the planting to cope with additional shade and wind shear.

Nonetheless, it is an extraordinary feature in the midst of a city of concrete monoliths. A chance meeting over the weekend with a group of volunteers planting out thousands of crocus bulbs in the lawn area, was confirmation of the community engagement this new urban park has engendered.

Volunteer planting of Crocus bulbs in the 23rd Street Lawn

Volunteer planting of Crocus bulbs in the 23rd Street Lawn

The following day you couldn’t spot where they’d punctured the lawn, but come snowmelt time, there will be another sign of the seasonal change and the excitement that nature can bring. The High Line provides a significant swathe of green down the West side of lower Manhattan: a place to walk, to sit and talk, meet, take children to enjoy nature, breathe and just enjoy being in one of the most exciting cities in the world, in nature. I loved it and look forward to visiting again, in another season, to see its changing beauty.

Korean feather reed grass in the Meadow Walk

Korean feather reed grass in the Meadow Walk

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Kate Seddon

About Kate Seddon

Kate Seddon (B.A., Grad. Dip. Hort.) has designed gardens for private homes throughout Melbourne and along the Victorian coast since 2007, having graduated Dux of the Graduate Diploma in Horticulture (Burnley) in 2005. To quote the mid-20th century American designer Thomas Church, “Gardens are for people” and this is an encompassing principle of her practice Kate Seddon Landscape Design. Media appearances include ABC TVs Gardening Australia, various lifestyle magazines and newspapers, and as part of Garden DesignFest, she has had a number of open gardens. Kate guest lectures annually to the Burnley landscape design students. Email: kate@ksldesign.com.au ph: 0403 254 368

8 thoughts on “The High Line changes, and is changed by, New York

  1. Liz Chappell on said:

    Loved my meander along the Highline a couple of years ago and also its forerunner the Promenade des Plantes in Paris. Viewing the grittier parts of the city from elevation and surrounded by greenery is an awesome experience.

  2. Yes Liz, I have also walked along the Promenade Plantee and loved the sense of walking in nature, above the streets. A little more run down but perhaps that is just the passing of the years. Also the fascinating little artisan workshops under the railway arches below the Promenade were a delight.

  3. Hi Kate, I really like your interpretation of the High Line. Images are great – the autumn forms and colours are to die for – and the words get the reader thinking! I was there in July 2013 and then wrote about it for GardenDrum (along with three other New York garden/landscape spaces). I loved every second of my time there. It is wonderful to know that the third stage is now open, and to see how the planting has matured.

  4. Anne – I looked up your previous NY article and really enjoyed the ‘heat, heat, heat’ description of all of those beautiful places in NY. Good to see the High Line in full floral display in your pictures and I would love to visit in winter when just the bare, skeletal forms are showing and the High Line structure itself would dominate.

  5. Alison Chatfield on said:

    Lovely article Kate, and the crocus bulbs in the lawn will be a fascinating effect to see for early spring as well as the layered connection to local community.

  6. Kate I enjoyed your piece too – well done to you: evocative and thoughtful. It’s unsurprising perhaps but also GOOD that it boosts development in run-down parts of the city and great that your focus is partly on that phenomenon. Horticulture ought to be exciting and open people’s eyes and minds to more opportunity, no? Here’s hoping the Goods Line in Sydney does likewise for Ultimo’s grittier pockets. Plenty of defunct rail lines in NSW / Australia – albeit only some in cities. I’m just back from South Korea and Seoul’s Cheong-Gye stream – reclaimed back to life from under freeways – is some 25 blocks of pure heaven in a densely urban jungle of concrete/glass. Gives one hope really!
    Keep up the writing. Stuart.

  7. Stuart. Thanks for your comments. I just looked up the Seoul project and it looks quite extraordinary, reclaiming a water course and creating a fabulous walkway. The power and simplicity of nature, so important for us all in this hectic, hard edged, electronically oriented world.

  8. Freya Michie on said:

    What an inspiring article, Kate. I’ve loved the High Line – especially the fluffy billowing grasses – in Summertime, and next time will experience it in the dead of Winter. Hopefully, a snowy, much quieter promenade awaits. Freya.

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