A disused, elevated railway track in New York received a new lease of life and what emerged is its new avatar; prime parkland that attracts hundreds of visitors every day. Rescued by the community, this is the tale of a miracle in the sky.
In New York, a disused railway line situated in the heart of the city, recently received a drastic make over. The new attractive green space that emerged became an instant favourite of the city’s dwellers.
The High Line is a 1-mile (1.6 km) linear park that is built on an elevated railroad that used to carry freight trains high above the streets of New York’s Meatpacking District. The High Line railway was constructed in the 1930s and for over half a century, it delivered goods and produce to the city. Buildings sprung up around it, and over it. Subsequently the line fell into disuse in 1980 and wildflowers took over its abandoned tracks.
In 1999, the 30-foot high elevated railway line was earmarked for demolition when New Yorkers, Robert Hammond and Joshua David stepped in to form a group called ‘Friends of High Line’ and convinced the city to transform the line into a public space that would proudly bear the history of the space yet have something new and meaningful for the future generation.
An international team of designers was hired to carry out this ambitious transformation. Landscape architects James Corner Field Operations, architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, along with renowned Dutch landscaper Piet Oudolf worked on design plans to make the line accessible, useful and practical.
Construction on the first section of the High Line began in 2006 and was divided into three phases.
The first phase was to remove all existing surface material on the structure down to the steel and concrete structure. After removals, repairs to the steel and concrete were made, new drainage and waterproofing installed, and all steel surfaces of the High Line structure were sandblasted to remove the original lead paint. The landscaping was the final phase. While a large portion of the High Line is already open to the public, there is still work in progress on the final section, the Rail Yards, which is slated to open in 2014.
The High Line’s planting design is inspired by the self-seeding foliage that formed on the rail tracks during the decades that it was abandoned. Oudolf’s plant selection focused on “native, drought-tolerant and low-maintenance” species.
According to the Friends of High Line, “The current park landscape was created to reflect the original micro-climates on the High Line. By basing the planting design on naturally-formed plant communities, we created a well-adapted, site-specific landscape, cutting down on water and other resources needed to maintain it.”
Perennials, grasses and shrubs were used in abundance, chosen for their hardiness, texture and colour. 161 out of the 210 plant species used in Section 1 of the renovation were native to New York. Swathes of Meadow Grass, Burnet, Prairie Dropseed and wild Quinine, among other species, dot the landscape, bringing an ethereal atmosphere to this slice of real estate in the sky.
The plants are watered through an irrigation system that hopes to be redundant as plants establish themselves in the soil and nature takes over, reducing the need for regular watering. The High Line uses the same technology as a green roof and claims to reduce storm-water runoff by up to 80%.
The paths are made of open-jointed concrete planks that allow rain water to drain through into adjacent planting beds. The planks converge to create a “smooth, linear, virtually seamless walking surface.” In an interview to the Guardian newspaper in 2009, James Corner of Field Operations said “There’s a lot of engineering in the High Line that one doesn’t see.” He talks about the paving system, the planks that were set in such a way that they had to expand and retract after seasonal vagaries.
The High Line uses FSC-certified Ipe hardwood, for its reputed durability and long life-span. Lighting is in the form of energy efficient LED lights that do not cause glare and conserve energy while providing a magical, fairy-tale atmosphere when dusk falls.
The resurrection of the High Line not only gave New Yorkers a new, hip place to lounge and relax (and dance, taste gourmet food, and go on art and nature walks), but it has also changed the architectural landscape of the area. Buildings designed by some of the most influential architects of our generation, including Frank Gehry, have already come up in the area.
Inspired by the High Line, several other cities are jumping on to the bandwagon. Most recently, Philadelphia is exploring a similar renovation of its Reading Viaduct. Converting a disused space into a vibrant, useful piece of public real-estate should be every city’s dream. The High Line shows us that a citizen’s initiative can indeed transform our neighbourhoods. All one has to do is ask ‘Why not?’
Text By Chryselle D’Silva Dias
Photographs Courtesy Iwan Baan