Bad weather for flying gave me an extra eleven hours in New York City so I decided to visit the High Line, which is to urban design what Facebook was to social networking in 2008 or what the iPhone was to telephony in 2007. Even though rails-to-trails are older than my creaky knees, the High Line has been HOT, HOT, HOT. Every city that wants to have the coolest in infrastructural fashion is getting one. Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail is the premier project in town largely thanks to the High Line analogy. So I had to see it and here are my impressions.
As I said, there is nothing new about rails-to-trails – I grew up near the Prairie Path, a biking route on an old railroad right-of-way, and even the Civilian Conservation Corps was converting a canal towpath to a recreational trail and park way back in 1933. The High Line is different. First off, it is elevated. Again, that by itself is not unique, but the conversion to a trail and park becomes an overlay on an already dense city, not unlike the stacked elevator parking garages near its southern end. The elevation also removes it from the urban everyday and thus grants a sense of escape and relaxation. Traditional urban parks used berms or lines of trees to screen the city/ Here, the city is not screened, but you are at a remove from it.
Second, it is more park than trail. Filled with benches and overlooks and public art, this is a place for people to relax, to promenade, to entertain children, to visit. The relaxation implied by the separation from street level is enhanced by ample plantings – a balanced, colorful and well textured collection of fauna from trees to ferns to flowers. But unlike Chicago’s Lurie Garden in Millenium Park, it is not overplanted. I watched a bird flitting in among the brush below me at a section near 23rd street that was bi-level.
This is a nicely designed park. I love the section where the rails and plants are visible and it seems like little more than an overgrown old railroad track. While this is driven by the sense of urban palimpsest it is not overdone in an 80s gritty-chic way but it is delicately toned and when I say that I am smelling it and hearing it too – it is not patchouli but a whiff of lavender..
That is because other sections of the High Line revel in their design: the pavement buckles in deliberate bevels to allow the plants in on sharp but controlled angles, shading in and out of nature with a jagged edge that does not read as a jagged edge but a controlled collage of concrete and greenery.
Like the great urban parks of the 19th century, the design has a romantic asymmetry, compelling natural focus but also a reassuring sense of human design. Like those old parks, we have a controlled nature that says: You Can Relax Here. As a peripatetic 21st century person, I find it hard to relax, but this design did it to a very real degree. I sat for long stretches. The design also has lots of benches – different kinds, some rising up from the paving in the same material, some in laminated wooden platforms that feel like the rooftop urban decks.
The pathway shifts, not always following the tracks, which are sometimes over there amongst the plantings, sometimes under your feet flush with the pavement, sometimes vanished altogether. This is not a slavish design afraid to depart from its origins, nor is it hubritic design that trashes or violates its origins. In this sense it is the highest form of preservation, conservation and adaptive re-use. It creatively appropriates the past, injects it with consonant and harmonic newness without denying its original existence. It makes it relevant by building on its relevance.
If you build it…the most amazing impression I had of the High Line on an overcast early May day was how successful it is. Like Millenium Park in Chicago, you can kvetch about costs and concepts and inconvenience if you want, but this thing is drawing pilgrims by the boatload. It was sometimes CROWDED. Everyone wants to be there and a few of them were even speaking English. It has interactive opportunities like art (not too much like Navy Pier does, but just enough) and the aforementioned opportunities to relax and interact.
The most interesting feature to me about the interaction of design and use on the High Line are the overlooks – small or large sections of the platform designed to allow viewers to look out at the city. Often the view is unspectacular – an old warehouse street, an odd mix of housing project and commercial avenue, a construction site (lots of those). It is almost as if the overlooks are designed not because there is something to be seen, but because there is an opportunity for the overlook.
Urban parks were first designed as escapes from the city, an attempt to bring the humanizing and even moralizing lessons of nature and rural environments to the ennui of the modern industrial city. Now that that city is gone it is an object of nostalgia, and we can design parks that include the contemplation of both nature and the physical remnants of the industrial city. We rise above the streets on the High Line and reflect on the city below, enjoying the unusual view, the balanced design, the connection with many other people doing the same thing. We see the architecture of past and present, the urbanism of past and present, and we enjoy the city itself as a consumer product, not simple a setting for our hopes and desires, but a physical manifestation of them. The High Line is 21st century urbanism because it recognizes the city itself as the primary object of our desire.