Wednesday, June 3, 2009

High Time For High Line

There has been one major park in all of New York City that has managed to go from waste land (or structure) to park land in 10 years, that is the High Line. Recent money donated has given the completion of the new parkway a boost. In fact, as the New York Times pointed out, "This could be the friendliest public/private venture ever attempted in New York City." With a total cost of about $150 million, the High Line has created a stir at under half the cost of the proposed Brooklyn Bridge Park. Of course, no one can complain about the private capital connected to the High Line, as that it is of its essence. While the city owns most of the High Line trestle and NYC Parks appears to have some role to play, it is not a stretch to view this parkway as a privately funded and maintained park with public access.

As a public/private partnership, it makes the most sense that this new parkway has a dual personality -its public and private function. In this sense it is the most viscerally dual-purpose, built landscape that I can think of. On the one hand it is a high fashion, high design plinth for the the viewing of NYC architecture. On the other, it is a lowly, industrial structure, re-visioned as a metaphor for a car-less NYC. One aspect serves the vanity of private institutions and developers' dreams, the other serves the public imagination of a future NYC.

The High Line is an elevated parkway connecting destinations and residential neighborhoods, not unlike Vaux and Olmsted's original NYC parkways designed for horse, carriage, and pedestrian strolling. Unlike Robert Moses' parkway system (connecting parks throughout the region via the gentler travel of non-commercial road traffic, with screen plantings designed to provide a serene, bucolic driving experience), there is only modest screening provided by the planting design. In fact, this new parkway functions as a platform for taking in the sights of lower and midtown Manhattan, auspiciously relying on the local architecture. Imagine it as a stroll through a sculpture garden, but the sculptures are the size of buildings. If you live or work in one of these new buildings, you can take the step back to appreciate how wonderfully your own starchitect designed sculpture resides in the New York landscape. If you do not, you can stroll the High Line, panoramistic foldout in hand, ready to identify any building seen in the growing architectural landscape. This is the essence of the private High Line.

On another level we have the romanticization of the railway ruin. Functioning and defunct railways have been seen as picturesque components of landscapes for decades, and their minimal infrastructure is easily incorporated into park designs. The ruins have hosted many parkways throughout the country, mainly as part of the rails to trails initiative. In Paris, the Promenade Plantee created a formal garden from an elevated railway. Many cities are now looking at conversion of their dilapidated high rail. In our own city, Gantry Plaza State Park had, less than fifteen years ago, incorporated industrial rail into its park design. The incorporation of rail into park design, then, is nothing new as landscape design needed to make sense of the wasted, post-industrial landscapes -often the only new space open for park development in our urban centers. What is new, however, is the attitude of an elevated railway park in NYC.

The primary public aspect of the High Line is its manifestation of the changing attitude towards street vehicles and traffic. It does this by anticipating the elimination of the vehicular traffic below, rather ironically through the preservation of the conduit for a mode of vehicular traffic previously considered too dangerous to keep at street level. It allows us to walk along what most of us recall as the unsafe terrain of train tracks and in doing so, gives us a glimpse of a future where walking on the street is possible and safe. The High Line removes vehicular traffic from the urban experience in an apolitical, non-threatening fashion high above the streets, out of sight and mind of the political body of racing vehicles below. In fact, the elevation of the High Line mimics the sense of civic idealism to which it speaks while, to the speedster below, perhaps it's the floating spectre of a return to biological speed.

There will be those who lament the loss of an urban "wild" space. They may have disdain for the "high design" approach. I sympathize with the sentiment for the tangled, messy spaces and the sense of discovery they contain. Yet I won't harp on it, that debate is over, it is built. I think the planting design looks good and the hardscape is nicely textured. I have noticed, however, the lack of what every overpass in this city has come to acquire -the protective chain link fence. Will it grow one in the future? I think we can all hope not.

This landscape offers the kind of close-quartered plant and hardscape experience that I expect to require high-maintanence. Time will tell how well-suited the plants are to this environment, but I am willing to give the High Line designers the benefit of the doubt. This park experiment has been well-funded, and that usually means better care for plants and hardscape. In fact, managing the horticulture and park operations will be a horticulturalist formerly of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. How well the High Line is maintained and at what cost, in conjunction with how much use or abuse it gets will be instructive for any future, parkway proposals.

As we watch the collapse of the American auto industry, and entertain the idea of a city free of personal automobiles, what new urban landscapes will we dream up? Look out Broadway, your next.

The first section of the High Line has been completed, from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street, and is projected to open in June 2009.

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