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Garden Design

The High Line of New York City

James Beattie

James Beattie

December 26, 2011

New York is a city that fires the imagination. This is probably because of NY’s reputation as one of the most cutting-edge cities in the world. Creativity and culture ooze out of the pores of every slab of concrete and brick, so much so that you feel the city could blow itself apart at any moment. And yet in this city of cities you can find many tranquil green spaces, each with their own unique character and history. Some green spaces are old, such as Central Park, and others are comparatively babes in the woods, if you will forgive the pun. The High Line is one such new addition to New York’s horticultural history.

The High Line, NYC

The High Line used to be a freight railway some thirty feet above the ground that serviced the industrial areas of the city from the 1930s to 1980s. It ran from the Meat Packing District to West Chelsea before going onto Hell’s Kitchen, but it has been thirty years since the last train rumbled down the line. The line sat unused and came to be viewed as a bit of an eyesore by some of the city’s planners. Under threat of demolition a number of proposals were forwarded suggesting what the space could be used for, and some bright spark came up with the idea of planting a huge linear garden on the old line. The idea stuck and The High Line now sits up there with many of the great works of modern design that call New York home.

The High Line, NYC

The High Line is over two kilometres long and consists of thousands of trees, shrubs and grasses, all planted with an expert’s eye to matching colour, form and texture. I have never been a fan of the ‘grassy border’ before – they always seemed to me very boring affairs. All those grasses with the same form generally make for unimaginative combinations, or so I thought before I visited The High Line. There are lots of grasses planted along the 2.3 kilometre line, they’re easily the most numerous plant type, but they add such a wonderful sense of continuity from the moment you enter the High Line to the moment you leave it. The taller grasses mimic the remnant sections of railway line that they grow amongst and soften the garden nicely amidst all the surrounding buildings. The line has been constructed with huge concrete columns laid flat, making an interesting paving surface. The columns run in the direction of the foot traffic and guide you along a walk that is teeming with plant life.

Being autumn in the northern hemisphere, there was not a great deal flowering at the time these shots were taken. A lot of old seed heads of coneflowers, Echinacea spp. and many grasses lingered on for an interesting variety of textures as well as colour. Coneflowers have been used extensively in the line’s plantings and would look stunning en masse in springtime, which I am hoping to see when I visit again next year.

One of the plants putting on a great display were the sumacs, Rhus spp., which are deciduous. Many species of sumac put on an autumn display that rivals any maple cultivar. They are large shrubs to small trees and would suit border plantings as background plants, or even small specimen trees in smaller backyards. They grow well in Melbourne but some species have the potential to become weedy, so choose your sumac accordingly if you live in bushland areas.

The High Line, NYC

The High Line is essentially a roof garden in design terms. It is one of the more complete roof gardens I have seen in the sense that there is a mix of plants growing together – annuals, small perennials, grasses, shrubs and small trees – far different from the Biodome roof I saw in San Francisco. It is what the design folk refer to as an intensive roof garden, as opposed to the extensive style of roof garden, such as the Biodome at the Academy of Sciences. The beauty of The High Line has transformed the neighbourhoods it traverses in many positive ways. Since the line opened crime rates have fallen in surrounding neighbourhoods, and nearby apartments with views of the line have increased in value. A lot of insects have also benefited from the garden’s creation too, with many bees and the odd bird flitting about amongst the autumnal flowers. The High Line is a testament to the heights well-planned urban horticulture can reach.

With such a stunning autumn display at The High Line, I look forward to visiting it in the springtime – what a different place it will be then.

Until next time, happy gardening.