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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