NYC’s High Line is a project that exemplifies effective adaptive urban re-use in a city that is littered with structures and spaces that have since reached the end of their useful life. By turning an abandoned, elevated freight train track into a public park, this project has redefined the New York experience, affording never-before seen views of the city’s surrounding natural landscape as well as an expansive and intimate look into one of the world’s most dynamic urban environments. With the completion of the rest of the High Line currently in the works, we couldn’t think of a better time to catch up with one of the brilliant minds behind the design of this beautiful public space. I recently sat down with landscape architect James Corner, the lead designer behind the High Line, to get his personal perspective on the what it was like to take an abandoned train track and turn it into one of NYC’s best loved spots of greenery. Read on for my exclusive interview with James Corner below…
Jill: What originally attracted you to the High Line project?
James: The High Line had its own mythology long before we came along. In particular, the ‘Friends of the High Line’ were instrumental in creating this distinct image around the High Line – they established an aura that projected an idea that this was in fact a post-industrial artifact maintaining a sense of melancholy and other-worldliness in a city context that, by contrast, was ever-evolving and modernizing. But to take that detail and to actually instill and transform it into a public landscape where people can stroll, sit and enjoy amazing vistas across the city was too great an opportunity to pass up.
Jill: I think part of the inspiration that people around the world found in the original, untouched High Line was that there existed this unusual piece of wilderness in New York. How much of this aspect have you incorporated in your design?
James: Well, there were several influences from the beginning. One would be the post-industrial railroad character of the site – the rail tracks, the linearity, and the fact that it really is a thin, narrow ribbon that happens to be quite extensive. The entire High Line really cuts through blocks and buildings, and I sought to create a distinct juxtaposition where there is this green ribbon existing against the stoic grid of the city.
There is also this almost sad, melancholic, silence that permeates the place. As a visitor you can assume this mood and feel like you’ve come across a found object in a vast cityscape. You can stroll through the space and become a little bit of a voyeur, or a little bit of an observer, rather than being so visible.
These were the sorts of experiential or phenomenal characteristics we wanted the design to embody. 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.
Jill: What’s your favorite part of the High Line?
James: Everyone asks this question, and it’s really hard to say. I like this area around Gansevoort because it’s really the moment where you leave the hard concrete and steel of the street level, come into the garden, and really see the sky and a complete panoramic view. But what we call the ‘Sundeck at 14th Street’ is another great social space with big, over-sized furniture. Then there is also this wonderful spot, the 10th Avenue Square, where seating has been installed to overlook 10th Avenue. These are all great places, but at the end of the day, the most important thing to me is the fact that the High Line is this green ribbon. So when you say, “What’s your favorite part?” it’s not that there’s a favorite part, but it’s that there’s a favorite experience – it is the experience in the duration of time that it takes to walk from Gansevoort to 20th Street. You go through an amazing succession of episodes, and for me, it‘s this choreography and experience of this that is really the most exciting and original part of this project.
Jill: Is there a particular experience you want people to have when they come up here or a hope that you have for how people experience this?
James: I don’t think you can ever determine what people will feel, how they will emote or what they will experience. Different people come up here and feel different things and have a different set of experiences. But what I do hope is that we will have succeeded in getting people to experience the delight in the sense of finding things. What’s great about the High Line is that there are nooks, crannies and hideaways. There are vistas and vantage points. You can turn one way and find yourself looking north up at 10th Avenue, but if you turn the other way you’ll see the Statue of Liberty. There are amazing discoveries to be made and if people come up here and find delight in that, then I think we’ve succeeded.
Jill: Can you tell me a little bit about the sustainable features of the High Line and how you tried to work toward designing features for environmental sustainability?
James: 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. We’ll learn from those that don’t make it, take them out and replace them with those that have done well. 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.
Jill: That’s impressive.
James: 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.
Jill: So just to clarify, are you expecting plants to grow up through the cracks at some point?
James: No. It’s really what we call tapers or the combs. There’s an idea of trying to comb the paving so we don’t really have clearly defined edges between path and garden but really that the path bleeds into the garden, and likewise, the garden bleeds into the path. Obviously there are parts where it’s a little harder – for the main pathways, for maintenance, for emergency vehicles and this sort of thing – but the overall visual effect is to try to create an edge to edge effect of a rail bed landscape that has some paving and a lot of planting around the rails. It really is a wall-to-wall landscape rather than the typical garden path adjacent to planting beds.