The only public transport vehicle you’re going to be catching on this week’s piece of beautiful transport infrastructure is Shanks’s Pony, I’m afraid. It’s one of the most famous pieces of re-purposed railway track in the world, so there’s not a train to catch anywhere.
New York’s High Line is a one-and-a-half mile long linear urban park, an expected green slash through the city’s hard urban fabric.
It fully opened only last year, after well over a decade of work, with completion of the last section near the Hudson Yards. The old West Side Line had closed in the 1980s, and had sat there, slowly decaying, ever since. The elevated railway had been built to serve freight traffic in Manhattan’s west side, and threaded its way past, and even through the lower levels of, buildings which made use of its freight train services. Demolition threatened, but some local residents wanted the line kept and repurposed. Just as with Grand Central Terminal, it took court action to prevent demolition, and once the line was physically safe, in 1999 Friends of the High Line was formed to promote the use of the route as a public space.
In this campaign, the Friends was assisted by the publication in 2000 of Joel Sternfeld’s Walking the High Line, a book of atmospheric photographs taken on the tracks, which were slowly being reclaimed by nature.
That sense of vegetation reclaiming the route of the lost railway became central to the final design of the High Line. It’s been a true community-led project, pushed forward by the Friends of The High Line. An economic case had to be made (it was), a design had to be chosen for the conversion (a team comprising landscape designers and planting experts put forward the succesful design), and the line itself was donated by railroad operator CSX to New York City.
The southernmost section opened in 2009, starting at Gansevoort St and running north from there. The old railroad used to run even further south but was demolished before plans for the High Line were established. The whole park was progressively opened in sections over the following six years. The High Line is now complete; a very long, narrow, elevated park; new, yet already rivalling Central Park in terms of fame.
It has places to sit and relax. It has parts which are more heavily planted with trees and flowers; you can even sponsor a flower if you want. It has places where the old railroad tracks have been left in-situ, and the sorts of plants which initially reclaimed the line continue to thrive. It hosts displays of public art. The section crossing 10th Avenue has had several girders cut away to fit in an outdoor theatre.
It even has play areas for children. Most of all, it looks lovely. You can see the love and care that has gone into converting the old railroad for its new role as a community resource.
Engineering the conversion was technically challenging. The elevated structure wasn’t designed to support the constant weight of earth and vegetation. Then there’s the watering of the plants. The High Line has been designed to capture and store rainwater as efficiently as possible, though there are irrigation systems to cope with New York’s broiling summers.
It has played a key role in driving the regeneration of the West Side. New restaurants have opened alongside, a Zaha Hadid-designed apartment block is being built next to it with its penthouse having just gone on sale, and at the south end, the Whitney Museum opened a new gallery of American art in 2015.
The New Yorker, however, said that the area around the High Line was becoming “touristy, overpriced, and shiny”. Presumably its writer preferred the West Side in its unregenerated state; you can’t please all the people all the time, I guess. At the north end, the High Line curves around what will be a huge mixed use skyscraper development to be built over the Hudson Yards. The proximity of the High Line will be a great selling point for residents, though I think it would be stretching the point to suggest that the High Line drove this bit of redevelopment.
If you can’t get there in person, the High Line has qualified for inclusion in Google Street View, so you can take an armchair tour:
It’s not the first ex-railway line urban park; Paris’s Promenade Plantée and London’s Parkland Walk are just two which opened years earlier. Yet New York’s High Line has captured imaginations more effectively than any of its peers. I wonder why that is? I suspect it’s something to do with the fact that it’s in New York City, arguably the capital city of the entire world (the United Nations has its headquarters there, plus it’s the home of Grand Central Terminal, probably the two clinchers in any such argument). The other reason is the sheer quality and bravura confidence of its conversion. It continues to inspire similar schemes around the world. The Peckham Coal Line project in south London is one of many, where plans are being made to convert old coal sidings into a 900m-long linear park.
I like New York very much, so I’m going to stay there for next week’s article. As above, so below: just as New York has an elevated piece of disused transport infrastructure turned into a popular attraction, under the ground it has another gem, though this one is a lot less visited…
Bibliography and Further Reading
The Friends of the High Line website, highly recommended, is here
…as well as anything else I’ve linked to in the text above