My wife writes on a TV show that shoots in New York City. Twice a year or so, she needs to be on set for about 3 weeks. Up until Niko was born, this meant I got to wander Manhattan and Brooklyn, eat a lot of food, and meet old friends for drinks. Post-Niko, I can’t wheel around so freely. Luckily, the 26th street entrance to the High Line Park is three blocks away from where we stay, and I’ve taken to walking the length of it daily. I’m not alone. The staggering success of this post-industrial eyesore turned iconic city park is renowned world-wide, and evident from the throngs of locals and visitors alike wandering it’s 1.5 mile length, cameras pressed to faces, shooting in all directions, rain or shine.
Floating above Chelsea, The High Line sublimely removes you from, and gives you a richer context for, the city you are in. It reminds me of the utopian designs imagined by Buckminster Fuller, of a city living in balance and harmony, saved by smart, conscious design. From its forested start at Gansevoort Street all the way to wild weeds of 31st Street, The High Line has a singular ability to constantly reframe Manhattan historically, architecturally and, most important from my perspective, naturally. Among all that the High Line is, an often overlooked thing is plant and animal habitat on a scale I didn’t think was possible in Manhattan. From spring into fall, the flowering plants of the High Line are vibrating with pollinators like honey bees, wasps, Monarch butterflies and Swallowtail butterflies, to name a few.
This is all by design, of course. Not surprisingly, the radical re-invention of this abandoned rail line has made Chelsea one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Manhattan. And yes, for that very same reason, it has rabid detractors, but even they are a reflection of the parks huge draw. The question is, is the High Line an exportable park model, and if so, how? It’s hard not to look at this river of grass, concrete and steel and think of my adopted home, Los Angeles, and the saga of the LA River.
Up until the mid 1930’s, the river was a vital waterway for the population of Los Angeles, but a series of deadly floods in a growing city prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to bury the bulk of it under a blanket of concrete, beginning in 1938. Since then, the entombed waterway has served largely as a Hollywood backlot and dumping ground, despite the fact that it is a vital ecosystem for hundreds of species of migrating birds and animals, a rare natural wonder in a vast sea of concrete, and a critical player in LA’s rich history. Oh, and let’s not forget the 207 million gallons of water it flushes straight into Long Beach every day that could, and should, be put to much better use in a place enduring it’s 4th year of drought.
That said, of late, things are looking good for the LA River, thanks to the dogged persistence of people like Lewis McAdams and FOLAR. Earlier this year, the Army Corps of Engineers backed a “comprehensive 1 billion dollar plan” to restore habitat and create a series of parks along 11 miles of its embattled- and much maligned- banks. Mayor Eric Garcetti championed the massive proposal, and The LA River Restoration Project was born. However, it is far from financed. Let’s face it, a billion is a lot of money in the still-hobbled economy of Los Angeles. And the scope of the river restoration is much greater than the High Line. 11 miles of Los Angeles is being re-imagined by the Project, with a vast network of bike paths, wet land restoration, parks, performance centers, etc, already designated on paper. Though the impact could be nothing short of game changing for LA’s East Side, the risk, in financial terms, is high. And this brings me back to New York. What, if any, lessons can LA River Restoration Project take from the success of the High Line? To be clear: The High Line is perfectly situated for it’s success, and the LA River faces many challenges that the High Line doesn’t. But I think there’s plenty of take away. First, a little background:
A ton has been written about the High Line. In 2011, National Geographic published a comprehensive history of the railway and the struggle to realize the park. The tale of two New Yorkers, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, who fought Mayor Rudolph Juliani’s short-sighted drive to dismantle the dormant railway has got to be one of the great success stories in the world of urban renewal and design. Under the banner of Friends of The High Line, David and Hammond assembled a smart, focused coalition and soon enrolled the new Mayor, Micheal Bloomberg, whose substantial business ties helped galvanize finances for the project.
The next stage was a competition for architects to design the project. Enter the selection of two visionary designers: architect James Cormer, and his crew at Field Operations, along with garden designer/guru Piet Oudolf. In this terrific interview in the online zine “Inhabit”, Cormer sums the team’s initial approach this way:
“We wanted to make sure that every detail from the paths to seating down to the trashcans, lighting and water features would make this a generous, safe and secure space, but also give people the feeling that they’ve come across a secret, magic garden in the sky. That they’re almost surprised and delighted by how long it is, by the twists and turns it takes, by the views it affords, and ultimately that they are engaged in some of the delight in discovering these moments..”
And that for me, is Lesson #1: Create a Sense of Awe, Discovery and Escape:
The hardscape elements Cormer imagined succeed wildly. Walking the High Line delivers one revelation after the next. From hidden seating areas, shrouded in trees, monumental framing of the west side’s architecture, an open sun-deck lined with oversized, reclining benches (replete with bathing-suited sunbathers in summer) and an area with stadium seating for a massive window onto traffic below, the High Line is saturated with whimsical pauses and secret escapes.
But the even bigger payday, in my opinion, is the lushness of the gardens that rise and fall around you, in spite of the fact that you’re in the middle of the city, on a raised platform, with no actual connection to earth, dirt and all that plants need. This took considerable doing. In that same article, Cormer explains:
“This is an extremely hostile and very difficult environment to build a landscape. We have a soil depth that is very thin – maybe 15 inches typically – it’s very hot in the summer, it’s freezing cold in the winter, there are issues with providing plants adequate water and nutrients – it’s a very difficult environment. Most of the plants up on the High Line are stress tolerant. They’ve been drawn from the prairie or from other difficult environments and most of them will hopefully succeed in survival…There is also a dynamic aspect to how the landscape is managed. One of the greatest features of the High Line is the paving, which has been designed to crack open and allow plants to come through….”
“…It also has open joints so that when it rains the water falls through the joints and is collected, stored and then allowed to seep slowly into the planting beds. I think we can demonstrate that 80 to 90 percent of all the water that falls on the High Line stays on the High Line….One could boast that there’s going to be some carbon reduction with the amount of greenery that we’ve brought there. There’s certainly an ambient cooling effect with the shade that’s provided. All the materials are recyclable or come from sustainable sources, so there’s nothing here that’s ostentatious or out of place. Overall I think it’s a very sustainable project.”
The details man behind the planting is renowned gardner, Piet Oudolf. Oudolf is the leading practitioner of the “New Perennials” movement, which focuses man-made “wild” gardens. His designs favor plant form and structure over color, as well as their role and place in their intended home. From an article in THE DIRT:
Oudolf…”designs through instinct. This instinctual approach has resulted in natural designs that are never ‘fixed from the outset, but respond to the raw landscape, climate, nature of the (intended location)…”
And this leads me is Lesson #2: Serve the Native Ecosystems and Create Them Where Possible:
There are over 200 varieties of plants growing on the High Line. Some are native, some are hardy invasives – which, like most New Yorkers, have long-since earned their place (a few of which are referred to as “The Old Guard” in Mark Dion’s brilliant field guide, “Some Thoughts, Musings and Histories About The High Line of New York City”) – and some are actually bred and selected by Oudolf for this environment. They are all designed to live in concert with the original flora and create a home for the local fauna.
The props heaped on the Oudolf largely revolve around his acute sense of design, but the gardens are rich pollinator habitat. With daunting issues like the decline of the Monarch Butterfly and colony collapse of the honey bee, pollinator habitat should be a priority for all public (and, I would argue, private) spaces. Standing beside one goldenrod plant, I observed about a dozen honeybees, two different kinds of wasps, a bumble bee and some sort of beetle cruising the blossoms, oblivious to the concrete and steel rising up around them. Point being, Cormer and Oudolf took what was already working, the hardy native and invasives of the High Line, and augmented them to powerful effect. There is more life occurring along that 1.5 miles now than did for centuries, and that is very cool.
Lesson #3: Serve The Locals And the Tourists Will Come
Like I said, the High Line has its detractors, and I get it. I never lived in Chelsea, but I did live in the East Village in the ’80’s, right on Tompkins Square Park and while it was a drug riddled bastion of crime, lorded over by skinheads and pit-bulls, it was also a vital cauldron of punk musicians, graffiti artists, latino culture, an entire new wave of writers and wall to wall characters, all drifting in and out of a sea of kick-ass, gritty gay bars and no-name clubs birthing amazing dj’s and performers. And as much as I miss the days of “Die, Yuppie Scum!”, if gentrification is inevitable, then let it look like the High Line. Sure, High Line is choked with tourists, it is also packed with locals, sneakers on, shoes in bags, hoofing it from work to home, getting coffee with friends, or letting their kids get a glimpse of the sky. It is refuge from the crush and density of the streets below and somehow manages to provide opportunities for solitude even on the busiest summer days. It’s also a terrific way to get from A to B, which is….
Lesson #4: The Glorious Detour
The High Line has always been a pathway for transportation, once by rail, now on foot. It’s a very pretty way to get from Gansevoort to 31st street or anywhere in between. Point being, it is not only beautiful, it is practical. Since it’s entombment, the LA River has functioned largely as gated off drainage, viewed via overpasses, ogled by arriving jet passengers or glimpsed behind chain-link fence by most. The expansion of the bike paths and increasing popularity of Frogtown Art Walk have opened up eyes and access, but it’s not nearly what I could be. The LA River cuts through a nearly infinite list of cultures, neighborhoods, communities and commercial areas. To travel it from it’s source, past Glendale Narrows, downtown and Watts onto Long Beach Harbor is to traverse the ethnic and natural history of Los Angeles. It could and should be a natural and cultural ambassador to LA, a viable thruway by which previously divided neighborhoods become connected and bound and are easily accessed on foot or via bike.
And yeah, for all to happen, many, many more people need to get on board and see it through. We need…
Lesson #5: The Army of the Passionate Volunteer
The High Line was built by visionaries, but it is scrupulously maintained by paid workers and passionate volunteers alike. The list of High Line volunteers is long: docents, greeters, horticultural partners, photographers, tour guides, etc. And FOLAR too has it’s passionate army, but if they’re going to pull off this 40 year project, they’re going to need a ton of support. And that’s where I come in. I donate to FOLAR as everyone in LA should, but as soon as I get done walking the High Line and get my ass back home, I’m signing up to do more. How often do you get to be a part of one of the potentially coolest things in history?