Throughout its history, New York has remade itself. New York City's High Line project provides a prime example of the introduction of a natural greenway into an urban core. The High Line brought a new life to an area that once served only the purpose of industry.
The High Line Project, in Manhattan, is an adaptive reuse project that converted an abandoned elevated rail track into a park. This 1.5-mile-long steel and concrete structure is located on Manhattan's West Side and spans twenty two blocks of prime real estate. Built in the 1930s, the High Line solved a deadly problem of rail traffic tangling with cars and pedestrians; although given the nickname ‘death alley’ to pedestrians who lost their lives braving to cross the train tracks. The elevated and abandoned tracks have been an urban oasis for wildflowers, birds, pollutants of the city and trash. The abandoned rail track was continuously threatened of being torn down and accused of being an eyesore as well as negatively effecting the property values of the near by grid holders. After the railway was abandoned nature began to take over creating a park space that was elevated above the street. This gave the area a reason for change, and with the growing population of Manhattan, provided a perfect place in which to grow.
Friends of the High Line were then formed in 1999 with a goal to save this potential gem. The nonprofit organization pushed the issue into public view and got support from planners, politicians, and celebrities alike. A critical moment in the long fight to save the High Line occurred When Joel Sternfeld published photographs he took of the abandoned rail line throughout 2000, “the haunting beauty of wild grasses growing on a rail line in the middle of the city captured the public’s imagination and helped galvanize support.” Landscape architects Field Operations and the architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro won the competition to redesign the High Line in 2004. “Comprising a series of gardens in the form of pits, plains, bridges, mounds, ramps, and flyovers [which] aim to create and preserve experiences of slowness, otherworldliness, and distraction,” As written about when featured at the Museum of Modern Art.
The city decided that it was a great opportunity to create a unique urban park. The designers approached this challenge by resisting the temptation to do too much. “We kept protecting the High Line from architecture,” says Ricardo Scofidio, the principal in charge for DS+R. “The idea was to retain the singularity of the place, to capture its postindustrial charm,” explains James Corner, principal of JCFO. Now, the High Line is considered to be a leading example of a natural greenway in an urban environment. While the High Line is a project in one of the most famous and dense urban areas in the world, the idea can be carried and applied to smaller mixed-use developments. The ideas and principles can be used to form an interesting, linear park space that could be implemented into any urban or developing environment. The High Line provides examples on how a natural greenway can relate to the built environment.
Not only is the architecture progressive, the urban planning techniques that surrounded the Highline Project reflect this as well. Urban design controls were set up for the area to ensure that adequate light and air reach the new [old] elevated park; a stark contrast to other parts in Manhattan. Spoken in past tense Hammond stated that “changes were coming to Chelsea with or with-out the High Line, but the re- zoning preserved light and air around the High Line, allows the galleries to thrive, and promotes affordable housing. It’s going to be one of the most unique public spaces in New York City.” For creating an unlikely urban park in a unique public space, the New York City Department of City Planning is the winner of the 2006 Outstanding Planning Award for a Special Community Initiative. Earning and giving out that award or one related to it should be considered a respectable and important part of politics, that is to reward progressive reuse and sustainable ingenuity. The Highline has had ravishing reviews and few criticisms so far. Some say it may be “the most significant new public space since Central Park.” Unlike Central Park however, which removes one from urbanity, the High Line is very much a part of the fabric of the city and enabled the public to grasp a fresh and unusual perspective.
“We want to make sure that it doesn’t turn into an elevated street," said James Corner, Director of field operations. "Part of the magic of the thing is its complete separation from the city. It is completely severed from everything around it, and that is what makes it an interesting place to walk." The designers chose to implement an up and coming technique coined “agritecture”. Their designs relate to it because of their feathering in on the landscape of hard and soft elements. “We didn’t want a sharp delineation between the plantings and the hardscape,” states Corner. “So we treated the park as a continuous carpet where the hard and soft blend together,” he adds. Highlights of the Highline include a sunning area, wooden chaise lounges, some of which roll on wheels set on old tracks, a translucent walking area, a amphitheater and all of New York to stare at! One of the pleasant results of the park is it seems almost to have been co-created by natural processes. “210 species of carefully replanted perennials, grasses, and trees intertwine” on New Yorks new playing ground with carefully restored lengths of track and a new system of concrete paths that widen and narrow at irregular intervals.” The designers built garden borders that would be blurred to allow a seamless flow between urban grit and pastoral oasis. Plantings of all sorts such as meadow grasses, wild-flowers, and small trees coexist with carefully cultivated flowerbeds and birch groves which support a sustainable landscape that not only maximizes water conservation but mitigates the surface's impact as a potential heat island.
One of the great powers and strength of the High Line lies in its ability to change our perspective without taking us very far away. Qualities often hidden when walking at street level stand out when you find yourself above it all. Amidst the confluence of pedestrian and vehicle, one can observe, reflect, be immersed and become aware, maybe receiving and observing an order and purpose in it all. Potentially inspired and contemplative thoughts are one of the Highlines most refreshing accomplishments. The Highline boasts remarkable locations and unexpected sights and sounds that shift our minds into a different kind of awareness. Feasting on New Yorks’ highly energized state while viewed from an enclosed Arcadia, one can find the Highline promotes a deepened interest in everything around and in us whilst providing an escape. These experiences and reflections bring you even closer to the endless and restless flow of humanity. The highline holds an interesting juxtaposition under its paths. That being that it represents a new Zeitgeist of New York and our culture whilst building off the past.
The Highline is public in the truest sense of the word. Public dollars helped build it in the 1930s and rebuild it in 2004. Public legislation empowers us to make it a place anyone can visit. It will be proof New York City no longer casts aside its priceless transportation infrastructure but instead creates bold new uses for these monuments to human power and ambition. The Friends of the Highline group plans to morph into a conservancy to be in a position to receive more funding. Real estate along the Highline has experienced a rise of “30 percent within the last year.” Those properties now hold some of the highest values in New York. “Lots nearby sell for more than $500 per square foot.” To attract private investment and development alongside the High Line, city planners reward developers who include public access or commercial connections in their construction plans; an example of the important role of the City to be involved in its self-promotion, health and growth. It stands as a fusion of landscape architecture and city planning. Built as a giant easement, the High Line now stands as a symbol of how New York continually reinvents itself, specifically by reconnecting people to crucial green space and to each other, a rarity of our times.
The High Line is considered to be a successful project because it provides residents and visitors with an escape, from the streets while still providing them with a connection and understanding that they are in an urban environment. The project also provides a sense of character to the ‘neighborhood’, if areas in New York can truly identify as that. “Most parks provide an escape from the city,” says Scofidio, “but this one puts you in the middle of it. It's a magical spot, where you can safely dip your toe into New York's swift current.”
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