Amid all the justified celebration over New York’s High Line – a citizen-activist success story and a public-space innovation that’s already attracting potential imitators in other cities – there are some connections that are easy to overlook.

The High Line really is something new under the sun, but it didn’t appear in a vacuum, and if it hadn’t been for a combination of perseverance, timing, design talent and a welcoming cultural milieu, it might not have appeared at all. Who knows how many pieces of abandoned industrial-age infrastructure at other sites, if only they’d had supporters as farsighted as the Friends of the High Line (FHL), might have gone through similar processes and changed their neighbourhoods accordingly?

In a victory for a coalition of Chelsea residents, landscape specialists, architects, philanthropists, and city planners, and a standing rebuke to certain ex-leaders, the High Line’s first half-mile (0.8km) section opened to the public in early June 2009. The elevated railroad tracks and linear pedestrian park constitute one of several projects incorporating the philosophies of Field Operations (James Corner’s design/landscape-architecture firm) and Diller, Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) into New York’s evolving form. Field Operations is also leading the conversion of Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill into a 2,000-acre eco-park, and DS+R has won acclaim for its redesign of key components of Lincoln Center.

“The elevated railroad tracks and linear pedestrian park constitute one of several projects incorporating the philosophies of Field Operations and DS+R into New York’s evolving form.”

Piece by piece, New York is aestheticising elements of its industrial history and becoming a more biophilically designed city, steadying itself against shocks to the financial and real-estate sectors by strengthening its ties to something older and more reliable than money: nature. The organising principle for the team was quite un-New Yorkish: “Keep it simple, keep it quiet, keep it wild, keep it slow.”

The High Line, like anything else in New York, is also a product of the turbulent relations of commerce, art, media and politics. It has spurred the rezoning of west Chelsea and the rise of a cluster of high-profile architecture; 33 new buildings are up or underway in the neighbourhood, including work by Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Neil Denari, Work AC, Polshek Partnership, Morris Adjmi and Della Valle Bernheimer.

The High Line was a catalyst for fashionable development well before anyone was certain it would actually be built; reciprocally, catalysing support for the design and construction took skillful public-relations work.

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The High Line as a real structure and the High Line as a media phenomenon grew up together, interdependent and, for the moment, inseparable.

Abandoned, threatened, promoted and rescued

The High Line was used between 1934 and 1980 for shipments to the industries of the West Side, replacing the freight trains that had run down 10th Avenue since the mid-19th century. Accidents were common on the railway at grade: the name “Death Avenue” stuck, and safety officers on horses (“West Side cowboys”) rode in front of the trains waving red flags.

The midblock High Line improved that situation dramatically, connecting directly to commercial buildings and improving street safety below, but it suffered the same fate as most of the US rail system in midcentury when public and private policymakers, convinced autos and trucks were the future and trains the past, steered commerce onto the Interstate Highways. After the final delivery (three carloads of frozen turkeys), the line lay idle for over two decades and went to seed. A few adventurous types snuck up there for outlaw enjoyments and incomparable views. Property owners nearby began lobbying the city in the mid-1980s to demolish it.

“Property owners nearby began lobbying the city in the mid-1980s to demolish the High Line.”

If they and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani had had their way, the Line would have come down long ago. But “sometimes you get lucky,” says NYC parks commissioner Adrian Benepe, “sometimes the best form of preservation is inaction through lack of budget.” The city’s economy in the 1980s was in no condition for an expensive teardown that would have left officials with something worse than a mass of rubble and rails. “The landscape was pretty toxic from stuff that dropped off the trains,” reports DSR’s Ricardo Scofidio. “So even in taking it down, it would have been an environmental hazard.”

As the CSX railroad, then the line’s owner, commissioned the Regional Planning Association (RPA) to study alternatives to demolition, a few aficionados of the structure’s eerie beauty formed FHL in 1999. In one decade their story has entered NYC preservationist lore. FHL’s founders, writer/editor Joshua David and artist/consultant Robert Hammond, met at the community board meeting where the RPA’s report was presented. Jointly inspired to advocate reclamation, they had more energy than political expertise, but they proved adept at inspiring volunteers.

A captivating series of images by photographer Joel Sternfeld helped drive home their point. Political change helped too: along with the more receptive Michael Bloomberg mayoralty, 2002 brought a victorious legal challenge to the Giuliani administration’s rush to demolition and a City Council resolution favoring reuse. Council speaker Gifford Miller announced a $16m capital funding commitment the next year, the first installment of $112m in public contributions.

FHL also attracted generous and influential private-sector allies. “Robert and I couldn’t have done it on our own,” says David. “What made this successful is we let people know what we were trying to do, and then people came to our assistance….A woman who became one of our board members came and offered us money before we even asked.”

Particularly influential were InterActiveCorp chairman/CEO Barry Diller, whose media firm inhabits the Frank Gehry “iceberg” along the West Side Highway, and designer Diane Von Furstenberg (donors of a major matching grant); actors Ed Norton, Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick; and David Bowie, who curated a ten-day music/arts festival to benefit FHL in 2007.

“Manhattan’s new park strikes a balance between deferring to nature and calling attention to itself.”

Benepe also notes that Hammond comes from San Antonio, Texas, also the hometown of Central Park Conservancy founder Elizabeth Barlow Rogers and Battery Conservancy founder Warrie Price.

The three San Antonians, he says, along with Minneapolis native Tupper Thomas, president of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Alliance, demonstrate one of New York’s under-recognised strengths, its ability to attract “not just immigrants from other countries, but immigrants from other cities. You’ve been here two months and you pay rent – you’re a New Yorker.” Civic engagement by refugees from middle America, he says, brings steady infusions of can-do attitude to counterbalance the trademark “New York cynicism”.

Raising $44m to date toward a goal of $50m, FHL is financing the new park’s operation and maintenance, with city government handling security, lift maintenance and bridge inspections. Considering the High Line’s economic ripple effects on jobs and tax revenues, Benepe says, its benefits vastly outweigh the public investment.

Balance, but nothing too delicate

Manhattan’s new park strikes a balance between deferring to nature and calling attention to itself. The High Line as an urban phenomenon is loud and glam and fab, but the High Line as a built object is placid, sturdy, and circumspect, content to provide the subtle pleasures of understated form.

“It’s park design unlike any that we’ve had in the city,” says Benepe. “Most parks are either an Olmstedian vernacular or a 1930s vernacular.” Instead, the High Line’s furnishings express an updated modernist minimalism that one might mistake for Zaha Hadid’s sleek angles, emphasising flows and continuities, but relegating visual busyness to the plants and the views.

Since the boldface-name factor is certain to damp down eventually, Field Operations, DSR, French lighting consultants L’Observatoire International and Dutch planting designer Piet Oudolf have designed for the long run. The hardy species of “meadow grasses and flowers that had been self-sown by the wind and by birds,” says Corner, created a space that was “extremely melancholy, extremely unusual” during the idle years.

“The entire High Line is like the set of the film Rear Window…the High Line’s effects consistently involve juxtaposition, collision and reorientation.”

Maintaining this mood while maximising the space’s ability to offer strikingly sequenced views of the West Side and the Hudson River was the design team’s overarching goal in coordinating the paving, plantings, seating, lights and other elements.

A unitised system of precast reinforced concrete planks incorporates frequent comblike apertures to allow gradual overgrowth by plants; staged paving/planting gradients range from 100% hardscape in high-use areas to softer planting-bed zones, irrigated by a water-collecting system in the paving (and protected from slovenly visitors, one hopes effectively, by “Keep it wild” signs).

The Promenade Plantée in Paris is an explicit inspiration, but the High Line’s atmosphere – rough, unmanicured, at ease with its own strangeness – is all its own.

The key to its integrated aesthetic, says Field Operations senior associate Nahyun Hwang, is its ability to remain “autonomous from its surroundings, but at the same time connected to its surroundings”.

“I always felt that the minute the buildings start to look at the High Line and start to ziggurat down, and maybe try and step onto the High Line; we’re just making a big street in the sky,” adds Corner. The Line passes through one old commercial building, the Chelsea Market (with a Spencer Finch art installation inspired by changing water conditions on the Hudson), and the Standard Hotel straddles it Colossus-of-Rhodes style, but developers’ requests for private entries were denied; it is reachable only from four access points between Gansevoort Street at the south and 20th Street.

L’Observatoire, likewise, keeps illumination subtle, using small bespoke devices that Benepe calls “light sabers” rather than conventional overhead stanchions, letting the park refrain from overlighting itself and becoming too much of a spectacle. Surrounded by unusual views into buildings, above side streets’ treelines, and onto nearby billboards from rarely seen angles, the visitor never entirely loses awareness of the urban urgency a few metres away, but the long staircases, oversized rail-mounted lounge chairs, half-submerged train tracks and surprisingly quiet acoustics all combine to slow down pace and retrain perspective.

At 17th Street, an overhanging wooden deck creates an amphitheatre with a vast plate-glass wall providing views down onto the middle of 10th Avenue. Collaborators on the project refrain from defining individual roles too precisely, but with a distinct family resemblance to the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art’s vertiginous “Mediatheque” the deck bears the DSR signature, combining structural daring with innovative sightlines.

“The High Line, given a decent level of attention to its upkeep, is the sort of public investment any major city would be wise to consider.”

Scofidio emphasises the sequence of experiences as one walks from south to north: “I think of it like a musical composition,” he says, ” a kind of continuous melody. There are moments when you hear the violins a little bit more strongly, or the woodwinds, and then there are moments when the tympani and the cymbals go crazy, but it’s all locked together as a piece, and the strength of any one piece depends on what you’ve walked through before.”

“The entire High Line is like the set of the film Rear Window,” adds Benepe. The comparison works on non-literal levels, beyond the intimacy of binocular-scale views into apartments. The Hitchcock film’s impact had a lot to do with juxtaposing horrific deeds with domestic familiarity; the High Line’s effects consistently involve juxtaposition, collision and reorientation.

What we thought we knew pretty well, New Yorkers can’t help reflecting, we never saw this way before. Adaptive-reuse projects produce such effects by definition, but they rarely produce them so distinctly.

As in Central Park, where Frederick Law Olmsted laid the groundwork for what author Michael Pollan calls “second nature” or SoHo, where George Maciunas and his Fluxus colleagues created a new arts district almost inadvertently in the 1960s by converting rough industrial lofts into cheap live/work spaces for artists, the solid bones of New York’s infrastructure have proven robust enough to support a radical and imaginative repurposing. “I’ve always felt that historic preservation was as much an act of design as an architect designing a new building,” says Scofidio, and the High Line team has performed this act deftly.

Some of Chelsea’s newer neighbour buildings are likely to age better than others, as noxious gases keep escaping from Manhattan’s punctured real-estate bubble and the past decade’s plutomania comes to look increasingly absurd. But the High Line, given a decent level of attention to its upkeep, is the sort of public investment any major city would be wise to consider: not just sustainable, but intriguing enough to be worth sustaining.