On a recent visit with my cousin in New York (also a writer), she brought me for a stroll along the High Line, an old railroad line repurposed as a city green space in the city. I had read about it in several gardening magazines but none of the pictures in the articles or even in this blog do it justice. If you have the chance, go walk it yourself. In this major city of almost 19 million people, you can feel like you’re strolling in the woods, through a prairie and even in a water park. The design is clever, aesthetically pleasing, and practical – all at the same time.

One can see the Hudson River from the High Line. Photo by dmp2022.

First a little history. During the mid to late 1800s, freight trains delivering food ran on street level while creating dangerous conditions for pedestrians with some 540 people being killed by them. Despite attempts to warn folks of oncoming trains, it was decided to elevate the tracks in the 1930s. With the rise of trucking in the 1960s, train service was put on the sidetracks, so to speak, and some of the sections of elevated track stopped being used and were even demolished. By the 1980s, trains were no longer using these tracks and calls for their demolition were being heard.

In 1983, an idea for reuse of this structure first took hold as Chelsea resident, Peter Obletz, formed the West Side Rail Line Development Foundation that sought to preserve this structure. As fortune would have it, a bipartisan Congress pass the Trail System Act, which allowed for old rail lines to be converted into recreational areas.

Old railroad tracks are still visible in along the High Line. Photo by dmp2022.

For the next couple of decades, the future of the elevated railroad tracks was debatable, even dubious. Some areas of track were still being demolished. Even former mayor, Guiliani, called for their demolition. But some noticed a change in the landscape; these abandoned tracks were being colonized by native (and other adventitious) plants providing homes for themselves as well as the pollinators, predators and other wildlife. Among those who were credited with this discovery were Joshua David and Robert Hammond who founded Friends of the High Line, a non-profit conservancy that advocated for its preservation and reuse as a public space. 

In 2003, this organization hosted an ideas competition for ways this ‘park’ could be used and received 720 ideas from 36 countries. The finalists were landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf, whose mission was to transform the High Line into a welcoming public space. The first section of the High Line was opened to the public in 2009 and the last spur section in 2019. The High Line is now a 1.45 mile-long greenway featuring more than 500 species of plants.

The plantings on the High Line were predominantly inspired by the self-seeded landscape that predominated between abandonment and human reintervention. Plants that were chosen because of their qualities of hardiness, seasonality, texture and sustainability. Piet Oudolf, the landscape designer claimed, “My biggest inspiration is nature. I do not want to copy it, but recreate the emotion.”

It is quite amazing how natural the plantings look and fit into their citified surroundings. Plantings vary from the Washington Grasslands and Woodland Edge with its great patches of native grasses and prairie perennials like echinacea and my favorite, the compass plant (Silphium laciniatum). The bright gold flowers resemble sunflowers and open in midsummer on stalk that can grow 6 to 10 feet tall. I thought it was called the compass plant because the flowers seem to be facing the sun but after doing a little research, I found it’s name is from the belief that the deeply-lobed leaves point in a north-south direction, which is true some but not all of the time.

Compass plant. Photo by dmp2022.

If I didn’t have socks on, I too would have dipped by toes in the water feature on the Diller – von Furstenberg Sundeck. The water just ran over a shallow stone-like base. Even the pigeons, tried to get into the water to drink and cool down on a hot, sunny day. Especially interesting were the wetland plants growing in the raised steel planters. I loved the giant horsetail (Equisetum hyemale).   

This pigeon was enjoying the water as much as human travelers. Photo by dmp2022.
Giant horsetail. Photo by dmp2022.

Another wonderful section is the Donald Pels and Wendy Keys Gansevoort Woodland. This area is filled with shadbush and grey birch trees with underplantings of various perennials including variegated brunnera that lights up the shade. A magnolia with its seed pods caught my eye but when trying to identify which species it is, I am not sure as the seed pods look bigger and shaped differently than the three magnolia species on the plant list, the bigleaf magnolia, the umbrella tree and the sweet bay magnolia. Quite a magnificent plant, however.

Not sure which magnolia this is but the seed pod sure is interesting and the leaves are huge. Photo by dmp2022.

The High Line takes you on an almost magical walk through a variety of natural scenes amidst its urban surroundings. It really makes everyone who wanders down its pathways appreciate the goodness and the greenness of this world.

Dawn P.