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Sara-Jane & Alica at Virens Studio

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The High Line: Lessons for Urban Greenways

Aug 22, 2022

Back in 2017, we had the pleasure of seeing NYC's High Line park in person and I have to say that it made us rethink many aspects of modern park and planting design. In the days between then and now, we have often referred back to it's unique hardscape that cleverly references the areas historic significance, the thoughtful naturalistic plantings and ultimately the High Lines ability to connect people with nature in the heart of the city.


So, we'd like to take a closer look at the elements that make this space so unique and what that means for the future of urban public parks.

The High Line, NYC


The original, West Side Elevated Line, was built in the 30's. When freight trains were the main source of transport, regularly delivering food supplies into lower Manhattan. At the time, trains had become so dangerous that street-level crossings were outlawed. Thus a new raised line was born, crossing the city 10 meters above its streets. The rails passing right through buildings, providing easy access to warehouses and factories.

Trains at street level, when 10th avenue was known as 'Death Avenue'
Trains at street level, when 10th avenue was known as 'Death Avenue'

By the 1960's the line had stopped running trains as trucks became the preferred method of transport. The line was quickly forgotten, some of it dismantled and the remainder left to nature.

The 80s brought a push to either demolish the infrastructure or repurpose it. What followed, was a kind of a dance between the High Line's owners, the city and the public. Until in 1999, The Friends of the High Line was born. A non-profit founded by two men that both appreciated the beauty of the abandoned rail line and wished to conserve it. In fact, the Friends group continues to look after the parks operations to this day. Filling the space between public desires, generous philanthropists and the requirements of a vast City Parks system. Seeking balance between stakeholders and furthering a vision for the future of integrated green spaces.

Nature finds a way, abandoned Line.
Nature finds a way, abandoned Line.

A seminal competition in the early 2000's saw ideas (both practice and not) submitted through 720 entries from 36 countries. Giving the space some much needed attention and helping the city and the properties owners to see it's potential. Miraculously its zoning was updated to that of a public park space and the land was eventually donated to the City.


In 2009 the first section of the High Line park was opened to the public with further portions in 2011, 2014 and the final piece in 2019.


high line history
high line 2017

Today, the High Line park is an uninterrupted greenway that covers 1.45 miles (2.3km) high above the busy streets of Manhattan with more than 500 plant and tree species. Cutting a green swath through the grey city, it is celebrated as a safe haven for millions of insects and bird species.

"A successful 21st century city includes accessible, open, public spaces that help improve walkability, safety, and physical and mental health. The High Line Connections project is a realization of a long-standing vision to connect the High Line to other key locations in New York City."


The chosen design team included James Corner Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio + Renfro.

Inspired by the melancholic, unruly beauty of this postindustrial ruin, where nature has reclaimed a once vital piece of urban infrastructure, the new park interprets its inheritance. It translates the biodiversity that took root after it fell into ruin in a string of site–specific urban micro-climates along the stretch of railway that include sunny, shady, wet, dry, windy, and sheltered spaces.

The paving system consists of individual pre–cast concrete planks with open joints to encourage emergent growth like wild grass through cracks in the sidewalk. The long paving units have tapered ends that comb into planting beds creating a textured, “pathless” landscape where the public can meander in unscripted ways.

The inclusion of S curves, diagonal lines and beds of differing heights (ground level, 12" and 20") add interest and give the illusion of a wider space with surprises around every corner. There is also a focus on unique views of the surrounding city and elements like a transparent viewing deck that includes park users as part of the greater view from outside in.


The hardscape's continuity of lines through the iconic concrete planks, benches and heavy original rails connect the various sections. Each planting zone, built as a green roof in order to hold and meet the needs of the plant material from trees to perennials. It's a combination of old technology (rails, tresses and heavy bolts) with new (glass walls, smooth concrete and clever led lighting) that sits comfortably in its surroundings.


Construction began with removing everything on the structure, including rail tracks, gravel ballast, soil and plantings, debris, and a thin layer of concrete. As each section of rail track was removed, it was tagged, surveyed, and stored—many of the rails and other artifacts were returned to their original locations and integrated into the landscape design

The sturdy skeleton was then sandblasted, painted, waterproofed and repaired. Next pathways, access points, and furnishings, plantings and lighting were installed.

Design details, the High Line.
Design details, the High Line.

The pathways, created from precast concrete pavers—or planks—were laid into place onto a series of pedestal supports, and irrigation and electrical infrastructure elements were run in the void beneath them.


Piet Oudolf was the projects Planting Designer. Adding his own brand of New Perennialism to the projects overall ethos of sustainability.

My biggest inspiration is nature. I do not want to copy it, but to recreate the emotion.

Plans showing Oudolf's matrix style of planting.

The plantings are a clever series of combinations that subtly change with each section of the park. They both reference the natural landscape that colonized the abandoned tracks and speak to Piet's unique design approach. It's his matrix planting style at its best, naturalistic but not too wild with enough pattern, structure and form to please the eye. Built to last with hardy long-lived perennials, shrubs and trees it weaves its way through the High Lines concrete planks and guides visitors along its linear route. Seasonal interest is key, integrating all aspects of the plantings natural lifecycle, yet somewhat carefully weeded and mulched providing a moderate sense of containment. This minimal maintenance is in addition to the annual cut back that utilizes an army of volunteer labour every spring.

Spring cut back on the High Line
Spring cut back on the High Line

A mix of several dominant species, usually grasses, acts as the matrix that supports dots and drifts of other plants – generally the wildflowers, trees, and shrubs. Over the years, some species have disappeared from one area only to self-sow into another place that might be more suitable, and in this way the gardeners let the plantings ebb and flow as they do in nature. The gardeners edit to maintain Oudolf’s ratio of matrix plants to accent species, and to keep the dominant plants themselves planted in the right proportions. The more vigorous plants must be kept in check so that they don’t overrun the beds, and more delicate plants are coaxed and cultivated so they don’t become overwhelmed by other species.

The length of the park is divided into an individual zones, each with a specific plant pallet chosen for it, like the garden rooms that reach back to Roman times. They feature names like, Chelsea Thicket, the Meadow Walk and the Northern Spur Preserve. The zones encompass everything from woodlands and wild patches to soft loungable lawn. Affording users a great variety of sights, sounds and visual atmospheres to choose from.

Immediate Impact

From New York City’s investment of $115 million USD, the High Line has stimulated over $5 billion USD in urban development and created 12,000 new jobs. Initially imagined as a singular, idiosyncratic, local solution, last year the High Line drew 8 million visitors and has “gone viral” as a global development model: over one hundred cities worldwide have been inspired to transform their obsolete urban infrastructure into public parks.

From the moment that it opened to the public, the High Line became a sensation. A safe clean place to socialize, relax and even date.

The High Line Effect

With all of the popularity surrounding the park some have asked, is it too successful? Are there downsides to a city greenway such as this?


Unfortunately we now know that the High Line's mass appeal has had the knock on effect of rapid eco-gentrification. Sky rocketing property prices in the neighbourhood and pricing out NYC residents. Spuring on massive new developments inches from the rails, blocking out views and using an affiliation with the park as a new status symbol. Even trading zoning amendments (like added building height) in exchange for funding to complete the line. Then there's the transformation of the Hudson Yards development, a 28 acre, 25$ billion project. Referred to as, "the most ambitious private development in New York in a century", which sits squarely at the north end of the greenway.

High Line crowds
High Line crowds

The park has also been accused of not being accepting of users outside yuppie norms, pushing out those that may use the space in less socially acceptable ways. But that may have been part of the intended purpose from the beginning, as the project was championed from early on by a mayor intent on increasing investment in less affluent neighbourhoods on the island. Was the High Line a tool intended to push out less desirable populations in exchange for greater revenue and a shiny new reputation?


Today, some 13 years after the opening of the first section it appears that many residents are now avoiding the crowds of the park and choosing instead, to meet back on the streets of the city itself. In response, the Friends of the High Line have started a number of initiatives to foster inclusion and community engagement.


It's a good reminder to those involved in implementing urban green spaces to consider the larger world around them and how these parks may effect that; there will always be challenges as well as success.


The economic, ecological and health benefits that the High Line has brought to Manhattan mean that thousands of other cities worldwide all want their own bit of the magic. In fact, the park has inspired so many municipalities to revitalize used and abandoned infrastructure that the Friends of the High Line has started a whole new branch to help others. High Line Network is a program that spreads the ideals of the park through the Friends to the rest of the world, with 19 projects currently in the chute. And that's just the beginning.

A Few Inspired Projects:

Hofbogenpark – Rotterdam, The Netherlands
The Beltline - Atlanta, USA
West Toronto Rail Path - Toronto, Canada
The Bloomingdale Trail - Chicago, USA
Railway Park - Jerusalem, Israel
Sky Garden - Seoul, Korea

All of this a reminder that ambitious urban greening projects can have a multitude of benefits as well as a some downsides. And, that a projects success is ultimately the sum of all of its parts, from adventurous citizen non-profits and municipal plans to great design, planting and beyond. And as we've seen in more recent years, a catalyst to open lines of communication between all stakeholders from inception to use. Reciprocity and inclusion are key in all aspects of public green space from the heights of the High Line to your local neighbourhood park.


If you're interested in a deeper dive into the story and construction of the High Line, we recommend reading The High Line (James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio &Amp; Renfro).

Sara-Jane & Alica at Virens Studio

Virens Studio are planting design specialists in the Vancouver, Canada area that love to build exceptional naturalistic garden spaces and chat all about it. And don't forget to follow us @virensstudio on instagram.

© Virens Studio 2023 (all photos are used for demonstration purposes and do not necessarily belong to us.)


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