High Line – Container in the Sky

View of the railroad rails incorporated into the garden

I just came back from a day trip to NYC where I went to experience the ‘High Line‘. I have heard so much buzz from the media and friends on this new park in NY that I made a special trip to see it and was totally unprepared for the scope and genius of this project in deep urban America. I took with me my artsy daughter and boy friend who are not really into gardening but once they saw what I was babbling about, they were all over it! My daughter was interested in it from an artistic and photographic standpoint, and the boy friend was interested in the High Line because he was into trains and architecture.  Also, we are all into the food scene and Chelsea Market and food carts are located nearby and on the High Line.  So, it was a win win for me and them.

Chelsea Market entrance


First of all, a little history about the High Line. I am going to quote the  Friends of the High Line website at http://www.thehighline.org/about/high-line-history

“The High Line was built in the 1930s, as part of a massive public-private infrastructure project called the West Side Improvement. It lifted freight traffic 30 feet in the air, removing dangerous trains from the streets of Manhattan’s largest industrial district. No trains have run on the High Line since 1980. Friends of the High Line, a community-based non-profit group, formed in 1999 when the historic structure was under threat of demolition. Friends of the High Line work in partnership with the City of New York to preserve and maintain the structure as an elevated public park.”

With both public and private investment, the Friends of the High Line, which was founded by community residents, works to make sure that the High Line is maintained for all visitors to enjoy. They oversee maintenance, operations, and public programming for the park. They offer free and low-cost public programs, including talks, films, performances, tours, and family activities. I checked the posted calendar that was displayed at the end of the park in an informational exhibit and there were loads of activities on tap including weekly stargazing nights.

Foxtail Lilies at their peak- I was very surprised to see these growing as I thought that they were diificult and tempermental to grow! They were everywhere on the High Line.
Foxtail Lily with an orange Echinacea


So, you see the planning and evolution of this park was over a number of years and has come to fruition just within the past couple of years.  The first part was started in 2006, completed in 2009, and the second section opened early June 2011, and a third phase was just approved and is in the planning stages. In addition, at the southern end of the High Line, a new Whitney Museum of American Art is underway. Approximately 1.5 mile in length, the High Line varies in width throughout from 30 to 50 feet but seems much wider because of the profusion of plantings.  Walking the entire length as it meanders through three dynamic New York City neighborhoods of the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea, and Hell’s Kitchen went by quickly with lots of plant gawking and people watching. Sculpture installations and several photo shoots with high fashion models were happening with hardly a second look from onlookers. I guess it just happens there every day!

A sculpture assemblage with modular bird houses was being set up


The entire bridge structure had to be stripped of the gravel ballast, rails, soil, debris, and a layer of concrete.  Then the outside had to be sandblasted in a containment tent to remove the original lead paint. The Art Deco railings had to be repaired and fabricated to restore everything to original condition. In many locations, original train rails were restored to their former locations and you can see the rails integrated seamlessly as part of the planting landscape. Ingenious! The walkway is a series of long ‘planks’ forming a smooth, linear, walkway surface with viewing platforms, sun decks, and gathering areas. There is even a lawn area where people are free to play and picnic. It was roped off when we were there for rejuvenation.  I guess too many people trampled it down!

High Line (New York City)
High Line (New York City) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Long view of the High Line

Energy efficient LED lights were installed for night time, and stairs and elevators were installed at intervals for access. Pigeon-proofing, a drainage system, and a layer of waterproofing on the underlying concrete were the final steps in preparing the structure for planting.

A neat water feature with water recirculating out of vents washing across the pavement. A nice place to put your bare feet on a hot day!

Designing the Container

The inspiration for the planting design was the actual self-seeded landscape that sprang up after the abandonment of the rail tracks. Tough plants seeded in the gravel ballast and made a home there in the tracks and thrived without any attention. Sustainability, which is the latest buzzword among gardeners and landscapers, was the keyword when picking out the plants.  This just meant choosing native and hardy species that were interesting in color and textural qualities.  Many of the original plant species that thrived on the tracks were incorporated into the final plan.

A tough species of Stachys

Piet Oudolf, who was the planting designer, is known for his embrace of the New Perennials Landscape movement. In a nutshell, this movement stresses shape and texture more than color of the plant.  The life cycle of nature is important with a four season interest, not just spring and summer.  Mr Oudolf, who is Dutch, actually thinks that a garden is more interesting in winter and that as gardeners we should be more accepting of death and decay.


In practical terms, Mr Oudolf designs with a preponderance of grasses because they are easy to use and have appeal in larger public landscapes rather than the smaller ones at our homes. I have to say this really struck home when my daughter exclaimed over the swaths of Mexican Feather Grass that were used in many places on the High Line. When I told her that I had some clumps of it at home she said she had never noticed!

Mexican Feather Grass – Stipa tenuissima

Evergreens are used sparingly according to Mr Oudolf’s vision to add depth in the winter when a landscape should be browns, tans, and sienna hues rather than a green landscape. There are “cracks” in the pavement created for the plants to grow where the path bleeds into garden and vice versus. The little mulch that is used is gravel to resemble the ballast rather than the more familiar decomposeable organic mulch.

More of the Mexican Feather Grass planted in “cracks” of the paving surface
Cracks with plants

The Plantings

The conditions for plantings of the High Line is hot, hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. To experience extremes of temperatures is stressful for many plants but the selected plants were used to these harsh conditions such as native North American prairie perennials.  Annuals are not used as they would have to be replaced and are not a sustainable plant.  When I was walking, there was a stiff breeze blowing probably because of the height of the plantings. Out of 210 plant species used, 161 of them are native to the New York area.

Breeze blowing the petals of a Echinacea
Dalea purpurea, a prairie native
Astilbe ‘Visions in Pink’ is the light pink and the orange is Butterfly weed. Who knew that Astilbe would grow like this in full sun?
The soil depth of the High Line is around 15 inches! This fact absolutely amazed me.  The depth does increase somewhat where there are raised areas but only to about 36 inches at the most.  There are lots and lots of trees – Birches, Magnolias, Service Berries, Sassafras, Hornbeams, Crabapples, Red Buds, Dogwoods, Smoke Trees, Black Gums, Pines, Maples, and Witch Hazels. Sassafras is used frequently. The use of so many Sassafras surprised me as I never use it in a home landscape setting.  It is a native and is everywhere in our woods and it does have magnificent scarlet fall coloring. Sassafras is an important bird food source and is the host to the Swallowtail butterfly. 
Sassafras leaves with Swallowtails
Smoke Tree in its glory

The list of species goes on and on and I can’t believe that they are thriving in such a thin layer of soil. The small amount of soil makes the entire High Line an elevated container that dries out quickly with the beating sun and the relentless wind. The first part of the High Line has irrigation and additional irrigation is being installed soon in the other second part. Hose outlets were installed at periodic areas for easy hand watering. Because of the intensely planted beds, the plants must always be thirsty. One advantage of the wall to wall plantings is that it is harder for weeds to take root but nothing eliminates weeds growing and that chore still has to be done.

An allium

Art and Vendor Installations

This is an urban landscape and you can’t escape the commercial outlets. There were several vendors, art and food, that you encounter along the way.  When we were there, a group exhibition called “Lilliput” inspired by  Swift’s Gullivers Travels, brings together nine sculptures of reduced scale by six international artists. The sculptures are installed along the High Line in unexpected locations and it became a game for us to find them all. Go to www.thehighline.org/art to view them.

Sun Tzu Janus by artist Oliver Laric, found at the beginning of the High Line
Another sculpture inspired by Gulliver’s Travels

Lots of apartments looked directly onto the level of the High Line and we were amused with residents art installations.

“High Line Zoo”, Someone having fun with their artwork!
A balcony overlooking the High Line

We went down the stairs to street level Chelsea Market and picked up some goodies and shopped the interesting stores. Then we headed back up to the High Line and picked up more food from Bark and The Taco Truck on the High Line passage. There were tables and chairs set up in the shade on the passage which is just a large tunnel to enjoy the food. The tables were pretty full on a Monday so I think that on the weekend it could be a mad house.

High Line passage

Enjoying the Park

As in any park, you need places to sit and relax and unwind.  There were plenty of innovative seating areas to take a load off and we didn’t have to fight anyone to get a spot.  They were scattered everywhere.  The most ingenious seat was the wooden lounge chair that made use of old train wheels that were placed in the track.

Enjoying the sunny day
Train wheels on the lounge chairs

Amplitheater type seating with a projector

Enjoying the sunny day on the High Line


Along with the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation, the Friends of the High Line employs 6 to 8 gardeners or horticulturists to maintain the 6.7 acre park.

Talking to the gardeners who were working diligently weeding, cutting back, and planting, they were really excited about gardening in downtown Manhattan. I asked how they disposed of their organic debris and they said that they collect it in a central location on the High Line and then it is picked up and taken to Fresh Kills landfill. It seems like there should be a composting area located on the High Line so that they can compost it on site and use it to enrich the plantings. If they set up a working composting area with informational signs and demos, I think that it would send an important public message for sustainability.

Talking to a gardener who is hand watering transplants

The High Line is not the first converted elevated rail line.  Paris started it all in 1993 with one called Promenade Planteé which is almost 3 miles long. Also, St Louis, Philadelphia, Jersey City, Chicago, and Rotterdam has them in the works. Next stop, Paris!

The Paris Promenade Planteé from Wikipedia

If you want more information about the history, architecture, grasses and plants, there is a book out titled On the High Line:Exploring America’s Most Original Urban Park by Annik Lafarge and contributor Rick  Darke

On the High Line book available on Amazon

3 Replies to “High Line – Container in the Sky”

  1. Claire, Great review. I have forward this link to my boss. He recently visited his daughter who lives in lower Manhattan and came back raving about the High Line. Also, the Baltimore Sun had an article on it in the Sunday Travel section last week.
    I think this would be a great bus trip for the Garden Club.

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