Last Sunday I witnessed regeneration in action. With a couple of hours to spare in New York I visited the High Line on Manhattan’s West Side and went for an inspiring walk with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the City’s residents.
The High Line was originally constructed in the 1930s to lift dangerous freight trains off the streets. Unused since the 1980s, this chunk of transport infrastructure has been revitalised as an elevated public park that winds its way gracefully through West Chelsea and the Meatpacking District.
Despite the crowds, which a High Line volunteer told me were not unusual, it was a strangely tranquil place in a city so charged with energy. The simple act of lifting the park into the air simultaneously separates and connects those who walk along it from and to their surroundings: apartment windows, rough walls, billboards, chimneys and glimpsed views of the Empire State Building, the Hudson River and the distant, growing form of the new One World Trade Centre.
The High Line is defined by the surprising elegance wrought from what was a melancholic postindustrial ruin. Landscape architects James Corner Field Operations with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro have created a journey thorough constantly changing naturalistic planting. This is no simple act of gardening, what unifies the design and makes it work is the exceptional quality and choice of materials. The trees, soft grasses and shrubs are enhanced by the clean lines of timber, stainless steel and meandering concrete pathways, punctuated by fixed and movable seating, lighting and other cleverly conceived features.
It is the simplicity of the idea that makes this one of the best urban interventions. The High Line was scheduled to be torn down but in 1999 residents started Friends of the High Line, a movement to save it. Construction on Section 1 began in April 2006 and it opened in June 2009 with Section 2 added this June. A third section is planned and, when complete, the High Line will be a mile-and-a-half-long.
Even more extraordinary is what is going on below. This thread of sturdy steel has had a magnetic force. Bars, boutiques, hotels and other businesses have been attracted to the buildings around the High Line’s rusty feet with the result that a quiet vibrancy resonates in the streets – a lesson in regeneration and sustainability unlike anything I’ve seen before.