How can the High Line in New York inspire your own home’s garden design?
Whatever the size of your home garden, there are key tips you can learn from the High Line in New York to help you create a fantastic result in your own space.
The High Line is an urban park, sitting 30 feet, or 10 metres in the air. It’s a repurposed rail-line, and it has a fascinating history. It’s 1.45 miles or 2.33km long, and the first section was opened in 2009.
Subsequent sections have been opened, and work continues on the High Line, as it connects through to the Javits Centre, a huge conference center on the east-side of Manhattan.
The green lushness of the High Line is an oasis in the hustle bustle of New York | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
The Shed (foreground) and The Vessel (the coppery building under construction on the right) are two new facilities under construction near the High Line | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
A small seating area peels up out of the High Line adjacent to garden | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
Now, why is the High Line relevant?
The High Line is amazing as a space and experience. It’s basically an elevated walkway that winds its way through a part of Manhattan. And yet it gets around 7 million visitors each year, has completely reinvigorated that area of Manhattan, and as a landscape design has won a huge amount of awards.
Linear parks such as this are actually quite unusual. When you think of ‘parkland’, you often think of larger spaces, where people can gather, play casual sports, run the dog, and there’s large areas of grass where you can lie about.
There’s lots of new construction in the area, and immediately adjacent to the High Line, as it’s reinvigorated development (and property values) in the area. This is a Zaha Hadid designed apartment building which was apparently selling for $3,500 USD per square foot! | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
Apartments sit close to the High Line, and pedestrian view – it’s interesting how privacy is considered differently here | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
People do walk the High Line and use it as a connection between areas. However, it’s sitting over roads and footpaths that do the same thing. And so the High Line is a very different experience.
It is a destination; it’s a place where people go, meet, sit, gather, and walk. And it’s an incredible example of how something that was not only disused, but an eyesore and old piece of infrastructure wasting away, has been completely renovated into this valuable asset for New Yorkers and visitors alike.
Now, why does this matter in relation to your home?
Well, I’d love to tell you some more about the history of the High Line, and then I’m going to share 2 tips with you about how its design can relate to your home and its landscape. (There’s actually many more ways its design can relate!)
What I’m hoping this shows you is that renovating and building design inspiration and ideas are everywhere … if you can keep your eyes open to see them.
In fact, some of the best ideas, the most new and interesting ones in homes, come from relating design ideas from larger, more public spaces. So keep reading for those tips.
Who was our guide? Meet Friends of the High Line
We were fortunate to be accompanied on our tour by a volunteer guide from Friends of the High Line. Friends of the High Line is the non-profit caretaker of the High Line. From their website, they explain that Friends of the High Line raises 98% of the High Line’s annual budget.
Original railway sleepers visible in the garden area | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
Owned by the City of New York, the High Line is a public park maintained, operated, and programmed by Friends of the High Line, in partnership with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.
Our guide was a brilliant, clever man named Jeffrey Yablonka. As I said, the guides are volunteers, and passionate that the High Line has a loved place in New York’s culture and fabric. Jeffrey was a treasure trove of information and knowledge on the project, and took particular care given he was guiding a group of architects, to point out some amazing details and intel as we walked the length of the High Line together.
Our guide, Jeffrey Yablonka (amazing and knowledgeable man!) | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
The History of the High Line | How and why was the original railway line built?
Jeffrey told us that, back in the 19th Century, the Hudson River, which is the river that runs alongside Manhattan, was how goods were transported into Manhattan, and then distributed across the country via rail.
The trains then were located at street level, with a big station at Tribeca. Picture the southern end of Manhattan being this heavily industrialized area, where loads of manufacturing and processing happened. Goods would come in, get processed there, and then transported out.
The trains travelled at about 8 miles per hour over ground … which is only 12.8km / hour. If you know anything about New York, it’s built on landfill and reclaimed land … so it wasn’t possible back then to create tunnels. People thought they could outrun the trains, which they couldn’t always, and so unfortunately there were lots of deaths as a result of people misjudging this and getting hit by trains. Jeffrey told us that 10th Avenue was called “Death Avenue” because of this.
In the early 1900s, a decision was made to rebuild the railway line as an elevated structure 30 feet, or 10m, in the air. It was intended that it could then run between the buildings, so that goods could be loaded directly on and off the train into the buildings processing and manufacturing goods.
Hardscape and railway lines disappearing into lush gardens | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
Railway lines integrated into the hardscape itself | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
So, in 1929, the approval was given to build what was known as the Westside Line.
It was 15 miles long – so much longer than it is now – and its $150 million budget equates to $3 billion in today’s money. If you remember your history, you’ll know that this was around the time of the depression … so to make a big capitol project at this time, give employment, etc – that was a big deal. 650 buildings were torn down to make way for the Westside Line, and in 1934 it was opened.
However over the decades ahead, as trade changed, and more went by sea and air, the rail line was used less and less. In 1960, the south part of it was demolished and the land sold. In 1980, the last shipment occurred … 3 boxcars full of frozen turkeys apparently!
New building by BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) under construction and visible from the High Line | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
Shady seating areas adjacent to an ampitheatre style lowered seating platform | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
No longer a railway line in use | The High Line’s future
The Westside Line became an abandoned ruin, full of graffiti, rubbish and somewhere homeless people lived. Getting up to it was difficult – in fact one of the members of our tour spoke about how, as an architectural student and working nearby, he got told about a special point at 23rd street you could access the railway line. The neighborhood was generally considered pretty dangerous and terrible.
As is the way with these things, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, developers and community wanted it torn down.
It was an eyesore, and in the way. In 1999, a community board meeting was held to determine its future. Two men, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, were sitting side by side. They both wanted to see the railway line kept, and restored into something that could add to the area. That meeting became a partnership, which grew into the Friends of the High Line, and started the ball rolling on determining the future for this railway line. Ultimately, it’s this partnership, and the support and funding they gathered, that created the incredible parkland that is there today.
Now, given that meeting was in 1999, and the first section of the High Line didn’t open until 2009, you can imagine how much of this story I’m not covering … but I’ll pop some resources at the end of this blog if you’d like to check out more and learn about how the High Line was designed. It involved design competitions, lots of alternative ideas, and as you can imagine, the rallying of public support, donations and benefactors.
What I loved though was the fact that, as a disused railway line, an eyesore and derelict structure, trees and plants were actually growing on it … elevated 10m into the air. And so this idea of the self-seeding garden was something that gained momentum as an idea through those years, and resulted in what we have today.
Jeffrey holding a picture of what this area used to look like, as we toured the High Line | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
Jeffrey, our guide, in front of one of the public artworks on the High Line | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
The other thing I loved was that the design brief for the High Line was this …
Keep it Simple
Keep it Slow
Keep it Quiet
Keep it Wild
Isn’t that a gorgeous brief? I’m wondering, could you write the brief for your home in a similar way?
The High Line as an urban park
The finished High Line design is a collaboration between James Corner Field Operations (Project Lead), Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf.
And so how do plants grow up there now?
Well, there is generally 18 inches of soil (which is around half a metre … so not a lot) for most areas, and then double that for where the birch and maple trees grow. There’s 500 species of plants … mostly are indigenous, and chosen for their durability.
The level of the walkway raises to allow a deeper garden bed for larger trees | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
An area of the High Line waiting for upgrade – it shows the original self-seeding landscape that was prevalent when the High Line was a derelict railway | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
How can this inspire your home’s own garden design?
I’m going to share 2 ideas I saw so beautifully expressed in the design of the High Line, and how these can be translated to your home’s design – whether you’re renovating or building.
Inspiration #1: How the High Line remembers its history.
There’s lots of examples of this in the High Line.
One I loved is the use of ‘spurs’ … which are a projected space on the High Line itself, where often a seating area is located, or an area of specially designed garden, or an artwork. These spurs remember where trains could move off the railway line into the buildings to have goods loaded and unloaded.
A seating area located on one of the ‘spurs’ | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
This spur held an inaccessible garden and piece of artwork | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
And of course, the railway line itself is visible throughout the high line … it weaves in and out of planted areas, or hardscape areas depending on how the design has been handled.
To achieve this, each original railway line marked with its GPS location before removal, so the landscape could be constructed, and the railway line re-installed. You’ll see the railway sleepers march their way through too. There’s no mistaking the historic memory of what this structure once was. It’s a really important part of story telling in the space and place.
Markings on the railway lines to record its position | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
Here, the railway lines run through garden area | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
If you’re renovating an old home, think how you can look at the historic elements of your existing home to help with enhancing the design of the work you’re doing. What story can you tell to enrich your home’s feeling and memory?
It can be challenging to do this, as often it gets expensive to retain things for re-use, or to get builders to work with old materials and elements.
However, you can think differently about this.
For example, on of my Your Reno Roadmap members shared the other day that she has this fantastic copper curtain pelmet in her home, and they’re building new, so she was seeking ideas on how it could be re-purposed and re-used. I’ve seen homeowners discover old timber and turn it into a coffee table. Someone told me recently they couldn’t get the sandstone from their home off-site because it was too heavy to move, so they’re using it as garden edging. There’s lots of ways this can work.
If you’re building new or renovating in an area with history, what can you find out about the area to bring meaning and story to your home?
In a house we renovated, I designed privacy screens and the intercom gate to have a leaf pattern, because the house was on the site of an old orchard for the original home in the area … in fact the street was called a Grove, not a street. And so this was a way we brought that story into the home’s design and materials.
Can history and story inspire the design and choices you’re making for your home?
Inspiration #2: Looking at the small things, and how well they work to create intimacy and relaxation in the High Line.
On the High Line, there is a small patch of grass. Only one area, and every time I walked past it (and I went on the High Line a few times during my visit, both during the day and in the evening), people were lying on it.
Jeffrey, our guide, told us that a specific design request from the community was to have an area of grass. It’s like nature’s carpet isn’t it … it immediately invites sitting and lounging. I think of a lot of European plazas where people lie over them, even though they’re hard surfaces, and it’s never quite the same as having a patch of grass.
But that’s the thing … it’s only a patch.
The small patch of lawn on the High Line | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
As we design homes for more compact sites, we often give away the idea of having grass because it then requires maintenance – and having a lawnmower for a handkerchief of grass seems ludicrous.
Some people put in synthetic grass as an alternative, but it’s not quite the same. You can now buy no-mow natural grasses that are still lovely to lie and walk on as an alternative to turf, so if this is what your project is like, do explore your options.
If you want to create that patch of grassy outdoor area you can lie on and enjoy, then you have lots of choices available to you.
Other small things included the seating areas along the High Line.
This space is basically a walk-way … but there were various different ways the design invited you to sit. Be it a park bench immediately alongside the walkway … a bench located on one of the spurs I mentioned earlier … or even stepped seating and amphitheater style seating that was designed in various locations.
Seating areas incorporated into the design of the High Line’s walkway surface | Photograph by Amelia Lee, Undercover Architect
These elements acted as destinations … they really invited you to stop walking, and experience them. To pause and enjoy the area you were in, notice the details, look at the scenery and slow down.
Given how fast a city New York is, the scale of the High Line as a structure, and the sheer number of people who use the High Line each year, these elements were small and yet dramatic in what they offered in relaxing the space and how those felt in it.
There was a beautiful intimacy on the High Line with how these smaller elements were handled and designed, and they often enabled you to pull away from the hustle and bustle of the main walk-way, and enjoy a specially framed view or outlook as well.
I think when we start planning our future home, and its design for both inside and outside, we think things have to be big or dramatic to make a grand statement.
Instead, what small spaces, and small gestures can you create and design into your home. This could be as simple as widening your hallway so there’s room to put a seat or bench to take your shoes off, or put them on, before you head out the door.
It could be having a reading nook that captures a great view out into your garden. Window seats are also awesome for this … they don’t take up a lot of floor space, but they literally invite you to sit, rest, enjoy the sun and connect with outside … which will bring pause to your day, slow things down and enable relaxation.
And when you think about it, our homes are the most intimate buildings we’ll occupy on a daily basis … you don’t share them with everyone do you? So, creating that feeling of intimacy can assist with your home feeling more yours, and more private too.
One example of this is thinking about how you’ll create space to display your family photos.
We often get caught up in wanting gorgeous indoor/outdoor connections, and lots of glass for natural light, that we forget to leave wall space behind to make places for our art and photographs. And yet, there’s nothing like walking past a wall of memories in your home everyday. Putting it somewhere where it’s not hidden away, but friends and guests who come over can see it, really helps establish, for them, that sense of connection with you and your home.
So when you’re thinking about your home, don’t always think about how you’re going to make things bigger, or more spacious, or better fitted out. Think about how small gestures can create impact as well, and how small spaces can provide intimacy and a lovely feel for your home.
I could keep writing about the High Line for ages!
Honestly, if you get to visit Manhattan, make sure you put a few hours aside to walk the High Line, and better yet, book a tour with the Friends of the High Line. The paid tours we all do are one way they raise funds to maintain the High Line, so it’s really worthwhile, and the tour guides are incredibly knowledgeable.
A special thank you to our guide, Jeffery Yablonka, who was enthusiastic, passionate and very patient with all my questions.
EXTRA RESOURCES FOR THE HIGH LINE, NEW YORK
Books on the High Line … see below for some recommendations (if you purchase one of these books, I may receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you – but please know, I only recommend things I love myself! I checked these books out in the High Line gift shop!!)
- High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky >>> CLICK HERE
- The High Line (written by the designers) >>> CLICK HERE
- Gardens of the High Line: Elevating the Nature of Modern Landscapes >>> CLICK HERE
- On the High Line: Exploring America’s Most Original Urban Park >>> CLICK HERE
- (And for some photographs of the High Line as an abandoned railway line, and naturally seeding garden, this one’s a great one:)
Joel Sternfeld: Walking the High Line >>> CLICK HERE