Unlike Central Park or Prospect Park, the High Line has no swaths of grass, no baseball fields, no pond. In contrast to most urban parks, the High Line is about the plants. And the plants are magnificent.
Renowned garden designer Piet Oudolf envisioned the High Line as a meadow garden. Seemingly an unusual choice for an urban park, Oudolf has created a meadow reminiscent of the English countryside above the busy streets of Manhattan. Devoid of large structures and grand monuments, the High Line subtly invokes nature in the most unusual place; an abandoned elevated railway built during the industrial revolution in the midst of the country’s most populous city.
What makes the High Line so fascinating is the juxtaposition between the urban, utilitarian setting of the former rail line and the beautiful garden that has been created there. The lines of most urban parks are defined. They begin at a certain spot and you enter into them. You are either in the park or you are not. But with the High Line one does not so much enter the park as become engulfed by it. You ascend one of many staircases to gain entry to the park and as you do the city seems to slip away by degrees. However, the High Line does not entirely eschew its urban surroundings as the garden is built into the landscape of an international city teeming with man made culture and commerce. Instead of turning its back on its urban setting by trying to make you feel like you have left the city, the High Line embraces its urban nature and incorporates it into the wonderful garden that has been created.
The object of the modern city park has long been to provide city dwellers with a place that is the opposite of city life. An oasis where one can see trees and plants, picnic in the grass, play baseball with friends, and can, in a sense, step away from the city without leaving its boundaries. To this end people have designed urban parks with wide open spaces, large swaths of green lawns and trees planted here and there. Although these parks are useful in providing urbanites with a place to enjoy nature, they often have the sense of trying too hard. The grass is a bit too manicured, the trees are in too straight of a line, the body of water obviously man made. They are areas set apart for the enjoyment of “nature,” yet their very essence as designed spaces work against this end.
Blackeyed Susans along the rail of the High Line. Photo by Steven Severinghaus.
The High Line departs from this norm. It is not set apart from the city; it is a part of it. Built around the elevated rail line so that it wraps around city building after city building, it is elemental to the city. One does not so much go to the High Line as one participates in it. The plantings look like they belong. Despite being the newest addition to the litany of parks in New York City the High Line looks, to the casual observer, like it has been there for years. There is nothing forced about it. It fits the space in which it exists. There are no baseball fields, no large structures, no significant monuments. Aside from art installations dotted around the site, the park is made up of a meandering paths and plants. Plants as far as the eye can see.
The High Line is integrated into the city. More a part of the city than most urban parks; it feels less like a park and more like a garden. Planted around railroad ties the flowers of the High Line burst forth looking like long term residents. There is a distinct sense of belonging.
Although my first trip to the High Line was on a blustery winter day in a snowstorm I couldn’t help but feel, when I was in the park, that I was miles away from the city. The High Line has a way of transporting you seemingly magically to an enchanted place.