Can a walk be a garden? The High Line revisited by Bridget Rosewell.

January 25, 2017

in Articles, General Interest

We’re back, troublesome as ever. Has anyone else bar Bridget found the High Line less than perfect? Count on thinkingardens for a different view…

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham portrait






Bridget Rosewell:

What is it about the High Line in New York which generates such plaudits?  I visited it in the summer of 2015 with high expectations and was pretty disappointed.  But I’ve hesitated and havered about writing about it for fear that I’ve missed the point or that I’m looking for the wrong thing.

At first sight, it’s a great idea.  Take an abandoned railway freight line which supplied raw material to a factory and turn it into a garden walkway.  And perhaps that’s the problem.  Is it a garden or is it a walkway?  Does it refresh the spirit? Or enable a better way of getting from A to B?  Is there a sense of place? I was there in the middle of the day; it was crowded, jostling and quite noisy.  We sat on a bench in one of the wider sections to have some lunch, while visitors passed swiftly or gawped at the view.  No one seemed much interested in the planting.

view from lunch high line.jpg rs4

View from lunch on the High Line

There is an ecological and climate benefit.  Growing things in the middle of concrete and stone absorbs carbon dioxide and breathes oxygen.  Getting people to walk at this level adds to fitness and gives a different view of the city.  Odd moments in the planting did indeed work, particularly where small trees and shade created an oasis effect.  Where the path was more open though it felt much more like a way to get from A to B more pleasantly than at street level.

Oasis on the High Line

On reflection, I think my problem is that the planting isn’t varied enough to hold my interest on its own, yet neither does it integrate with the surrounding buildings or create captured moments of views into or out of the walkways.  The lost opportunity is that of surprise.  It would be fantastic to open up a different aspect of a building or to frame a distant view, make a virtue out of borrowed landscape.  There is the potential for stop and stare moments and to get people to stop looking at their feet, and they need to be taken.  Equally the surrounding buildings, especially those open to the public, could add a dimension to their views into the planting.  The lack of this from the Whitney museum was most disappointing.

A rather different approach has been taken above the new Canary Wharf Roof Garden for Crossrail in London, and this crystallised my thoughts about the High Line.  This is definitely a garden, not a walkway and therefore it has a focus on planting and on variety.  The partly roofed structure draws the eye upwards and creates views and frames of the surrounding buildings as well as being interesting in its own right.  The planting is effective and varied with lots of greenery contrast.

Of course it is new and newly planted and has yet to get the footfall now experienced by the High Line and the information boards on the different continental plant mixes are rather didactic.  It may well get crowded and jostled and become uncomfortable in the same way as the High Line.

Canary Wharf Roof Garden

But for now I know which I had rather visit and which makes for a better experience of plants and what they can do for us.  Perhaps I should make a further comparison in another few years, since there is no such thing as a static garden, which is both their joy and their frustration.

Planting in Canary Wharf Roof Garden

Incidentally my High Line experience makes me rather suspicious of the idea for a Garden Bridge in London.  I love walking across the Thames, where the tide is always giving a different aspect to the river and its banks.  I love the views this gives of the city and its skyline.  I can’t therefore see the point of a bridge with trees unless this frames the view differently. The plans don’t seem to do this as far as I can see.

However, mostly I just think a garden is not about getting from one place to another.

Bridget Rosewell


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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Rosie Irving January 28, 2017 at 10:08 am

Thank you Bridget for kick starting such an interesting and lively debate.

I visited the High Line late summer 2012 having heard of it but read nothing about its history and formation. Yes the planting was underwhelming but I wasn’t expecting a garden and I still enjoyed looking at the plants. Emotions engendered were pleasure at being amongst people enjoying getting from A-B in pleasant surroundings and the mild early autumn weather.

The High Line’s website gives an insight into the intentions of the creators and is printed below:


The High Line’s planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew on the out-of-use elevated rail tracks during the 25 years after trains stopped running. The species of perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees were chosen for their hardiness, sustainability, and textural and color variation, with a focus on native species. Many of the species that originally grew on the High Line’s rail bed are incorporated into the park’s landscape.

Notice the word ‘park’ in the last line. This walkway is classified as a linear public park.

I wonder if calling the High Line ‘the High Line Public Park’ would have influenced and changed your feelings on the area Bridget?


Continuing the theme of reactions to external stimuli, my reaction to the first picture of this area was to shudder. I’m mildly claustrophobic and the tightly packed, tall overhanging greenery below the enclosed casing with its heavy wood structure leading the eye up to the crowded buildings created for me a very negative response.

This has made me think that maybe a large part of my pleasurable reaction to the High Line was because of its very open nature…


Tony Spencer January 28, 2017 at 12:19 am

To my ear, it sounds like the writer perhaps brought their own contrarian preconceptions and imposed it onto the High Line without experiencing it for what it is: a visionary elevated public park retrofitting an industrial ghost of Chelsea’s past almost consigned to the scrapheap – far from simply being a mere garden.

The entire length of it is modelled on a south to north journey moving from woodland to meadow with echoes of the spontaneous vegetation that was there before. The hardscape and plantings are all imprinted on the structure of the original railway, which again is neatly reflected in the nuanced hardscape. This was not worthy of notice? History and nature intertwined at every turn.

Public art plays a key and often amusing role, and is constantly changing. You look through the plantings to experience Manhattan surrounding you and from my perspective, each transforms the other. This is best exemplified by the window steps looking out on the street below where the local scene becomes a performance piece.

I’ve been there a couple of times but would never visit anywhere at peak tourist hour. Yikes! No two times were the same as the seasonality changes everything.

The cumulative effect of the High Line is to give a feeling of nature in one of the most hyper-urban spots on the planet. It’s all a giant green roof planting and I think it succeeds magnificently — the concept is a winner and now beyond viral as other cities, including London with its bridge, want one of their own.


Cindy at enclos*ure February 1, 2017 at 10:23 am

I think you capture the special qualities of the High Line succinctly and beautifully.

(However, is a public park not a garden? It is for me.)


Martha January 27, 2017 at 5:37 pm

I’ve been to the High Line, and previously lived in NYC for 10 years. I take issue with the author’s hypothesis, that “The lost opportunity is that of surprise. It would be fantastic to open up a different aspect of a building or to frame a distant view, make a virtue out of borrowed landscape.” The HL keeps your view to the HL, and I found that fantastic. NYers see buildings as they walk all the time. That’s all they see.

The HL instead allows people to walk along nature, like walking through a back yard. Sometimes there is an expanse of lawn — available for picnicking, sunbathing, reading — sometimes through “woods.” Admittedly I’m no gardener of 1,000 of varieties of plants, so I found the variety on the HL perfectly enjoyable.

As for whether it’s a walk or a garden? Why is the author concerned about this definition. The HL is a walk through a garden.


Martin Owen January 27, 2017 at 4:36 pm

Visit Coulée verte René-Dumont in late Spring. What Paris in the Spring should evoke. The promenade plantee does what it says on the tin.


Candace Young January 26, 2017 at 7:25 pm

I think John’s comments above are correct about the park’s intentions. I would also like to say I have been to the High Line many, many times and have many beautiful photos of my experiences there. I have admired many of the plantings with their different textures and structures and find it incredible that these plants manage to coexist with the conditions they are faced with. It is not “a garden”, you are right, but it is a thing to be admired. One should go on a chilly, cold day when the tourists are huddled in the coffee shops and museums. And go soon as it might be at risk with all the building going on around it. If it is a garden you want to see, go to Linden Miller’s Conservancy Garden at the upper end of Central Park. It is a beautiful site throughout the seasons.


John Schucker January 26, 2017 at 5:20 pm

I do not think it would ever have occurred to me to call The Highline a garden. In fact, I do not believe I have heard anyone use that term before for what I would simply call a city park. A park may include a garden, but I think the general purpose of a public park is much less specific than that of a garden. This park is a rather ingenious addition to a great modern city already blessed with what is, in my opinion, one of the most incredible urban parks anywhere in the world – Central Park. The city planners had brilliant foresight when they set aside such a large piece of land for a public park on such a small, increasingly densely populated island which includes some of the most expensive real estate anywhere. And, to my mind and many others, the re-purposing of something that was otherwise a blight on this intense cityscape into a new type of park was also a wonderful idea. Could it have been done differently? Of course. Since the original purpose of the structure was to get from point A to point B efficiently, it will necessarily be a mainly straight path and its narrow linear form will present certain obvious limitations. An added intended limitation, I believe, was imposed by the decision to use North American native plants. (Though I am still a very part-time New Yorker, I’ve only visited once, but I think that is the case). On top of this, the plants had to necessarily be those that could withstand extremely harsh urban conditions and the shallow soil, thus narrowing choices even further. In some instances, the impression given by the planting resembles what might have occurred naturally, if the native flora would have been allowed to recolonize the barren, decaying structure over decades. Of course it is not in any sense that wild and I do not know that this was an intentional idea behind any of the design choices, but one only has to imagine a sapling taking root in a crack in the pavement in order to make this connection.

The great majority of people visiting The Highline could be considered a fairly typical cross section of humanity that is, for some reason or other, drawn to an urban center. Very few of these people will be plant geeks who will stop and study the individual plants as the readers here would likely do. I think the greatest problems we face nowadays as humans, such as climate change and religious fanaticism, are rooted in our fear of mortality and our desire to subtract ourselves from the natural world; to think and behave as though we are not part of it. However, there is something uplifting in knowing that such a large number of residents and visitors to New York are drawn to this thin thread of greenery amidst such a man made, unnatural environment. I will honestly admit that, having experienced it once in early August on a rare, perfect summer day a couple of years ago, I don’t currently feel a great need to make it a destination of mine in the future. However, I have no doubt that if The Highline had been as it is today when I lived near it full-time 30 years ago, I would have appreciated it immensely and would have visited regularly and often. Its obvious popularity is clear proof that it is a huge success, no matter one wants to call it.


Katherine Crouch January 26, 2017 at 12:12 pm

I should certainly want to visit the High Line if I ever got back to New York. The trouble with visiting gardens you have only ever seen in pictures is that those pictures will have been composed, taking the best framed shots. As you walk through a garden you will see the in-between bits that are between the famous shots – the gate at HIdcote, the tower at Sissinghurst from a low angle through roses and the curved hedges reflected in the pool at Veddw, never with people in shot.

Garden or walkways usually look smaller without the benefit of wide angles lenses, just as houses fo sale do not look as big when you go to view them. Twice I have taken Chelsea virgins round the show, only for them to mutter ‘is this it? I thought it would be bigger, I can’t see for the bloody crowds…..’

It can be disconcerting to see in-between bits that lack meaning, or are weedy in a bad kind of way, just as it is disconcerting (and very enjoyable) to see celebs at Chelsea Press Day, most unlike their photo-shopped pictures in the media, looking considerably wrinklier than you imagined.

So, my gardening friends, I love your gardens and your money-shot views, and I also celebrate your in-between bits and wrinkles. You know who you are….


Rupert January 26, 2017 at 11:40 am

I visited the High Line in November 2015 on a cold crisp day. It was not crowded but still well used. I admired the hard landscaping and although the plants were in winter mood, I did not find it dull.

Noel Kingsbury in his address on the opening of the Piet Oudolf gardens at Hauser and Wirth made the valid points that the High Line planting suffers from shallow soil levels in part and from a high number of visitors.

It is definitely a garden and a major contribution to city life.

I share some of your doubts about the proposed Garden Bridge. Soil depth will be limited except over the arches and the wind will stunt most of the trees.


kjeld slot January 26, 2017 at 11:04 am

Perhaps one shall refrain from commenting on this post, (never been there my self)? But I find the review both tedious and deficient. First: Plants are much more than individuals with names and parentage. Plantings are living beings and have an indescribable great impact on all living individuals on our planet. And people who have not learned or studied how to “discover or experience plants” may be affected by vegetation in a different and equally valid way as botanists, garden experts, gardeners, etc. They might not list plant names or point out where they originally come from. And?

As I said; I’ve never seen The High Line, (looking forward to the day it happens). I expect an iron construction on high metal pillars high above street level, born to something else than a garden or park, and which has now been transformed so people (not trains) can move from A to B. (people did it for many years long before the restoration) I do not expect a garden you can walk into, and be surrounded by. On the other hand I expect hordes of people, as the place is located in a big city, – and it stimulates me, how it might feel to be there, without all these people. I do not expect that the location, views and buildings are integrated into the plantations, because I know that they are chosen based on an interpretation of the wild expression on the old worn out railroad tracks. Highline is interesting to me because it is an old railway transformed into a new function. The High Line has a history and a reason why it looks like it does.
A good deal of the more ordinary parks and gardens around the world, could learn a great deal from it.


Edward Flaherty January 26, 2017 at 10:47 am

Ambient sound levels. If the decibels are too great, the beauty of special moments in a garden as inspired by plants, just will not occur. And benches on a busy walkway–busy with strangers–never afford the opportunity to get into the plants.


Helen Gazeley January 26, 2017 at 10:39 am

Hear, hear, on the Garden Bridge. Another reason not to like this project.


James Golden January 25, 2017 at 2:59 pm

I find this annoying and tiresome, and I think Bridget Roswell’s is by far the minority opinion on The High Line. She misses the point (many points) entirely. It’s almost as if she visited with blinders on. The High Line isn’t perfect, and it’s been overwhelmed by crowds, but it can be a startlingly beautiful place; the plantings are like music. (I know, one opinion against another.)


Adam Hodge January 25, 2017 at 2:48 pm

A fair critique Bridget. I’ve been twice, the second visit in August 2015. You made the remark-‘ No one seemed much interested in the planting’ . Why should they ? – It was planted in a very naturalistic style so it’s all green background to most folk. The only colour I recall seeing was the occasional Hydrangea paniculata and even that had to be pointed out to the folk I was with, as they ambled along ,deep in conversation.

The fun of the walk is its elevation above the streets amongst greenery, with occasional places to sit and enjoy watching people walk by, the water features and the imaginative seating styles. The assorted buildings along the walk, be they old or vamped up newer ones puts the whole thing into perspective-its now a green city walk way.

If it’s is to be deemed a garden then what jo public associate with gardens-flowers, need to be included in fairly aggressive sized plantings to get noticed and admired- maybe festivals of seasonal flowers and damn the landscape style elitists when they get all flustered at such gauche schemes !


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