Dim View of the High Line

Yesterday 5/15/11 The New York Times published in their Opinion section “Bringing The High Line Back To Earth” by Witold Rybczynski, professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Rybczynski feels compelled to warn us that the brilliant success of the High Line park on Manhattan’s West Side is probably not replicable elsewhere and not a viable model for urban parks. He warns us not to put our trust in urban design, which has “failed” us all too often.

The professor also deems the planting designed by Piet Oudolf “relentlessly hip.” As opposed to bedding out begonias? What exactly does that mean? The professor continually breaks down this magical experience into units, planning board units, yet this park was born out of a love of neglected places and nurtured (with private money) into something astonishing. Personal, historical layers such as these cannot be dissected and pinned to a planning layout. The very act of retaking a neglected place, that historical narrative alone, brings immense vitality to a neighborhood. If not an elevated railway, perhaps an abandoned military fort. Or, as in the case of my own neighborhood, an unused armory (first meeting tonight). The High Line is not an exact blueprint but a brilliant suggestion.

I visited what’s now known as Phase I of the High Line in autumn 2010, which was probably the major impetus for finally spending a few days in NYC rather than just a flyover. Phase II opens in June.


In attempting to persuade us that the High Line is a one-off phenomenon, applicable only to New York, there’s some circular logic at play here, as in his assertion that “In no other American city do residents rely so much on communal green space, rather than backyards, for relaxation.”

Perhaps the word “enjoy” should be substituted for “rely.” The great legacy of Olmstead’s Central Park has become grafted onto New York’s identity, and, like its iconic buildings and neighborhoods, is inseparable from its allure, just as Golden Gate Park is for San Francisco. Both parks are intrinsic to these popular cities’ livability and have become interwoven among the reasons why young people will always leave home to squeeze into tiny apartments with multiple roommates. These vast urban parks that course through cities, lapping up against multiple neighborhoods, soaking up a myriad of personal, unique experiences, are a far cry from suburban parks with their predesigned activity layouts — clearly marked areas for sports, picnics, playgrounds. Great parks, great cities.

The professor lists several cities contemplating elevated parks and advises against it. I say go for it.

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14 Responses to Dim View of the High Line

  1. James Golden says:

    As an admirer of the High Line, I have to say the professor may be right, or at least partially right. There are probably other cities with environments, densities, and perhaps other crucial unknown characteristics (such as San Francisco, Chicago) that will make similar parks possible, but few where another “High Line” could be viable. At the same time, I agree with you. I don’t think we have to look to the High Line as a model to slavishly imitate, but as a creative idea to spark similar creative concepts for other urban areas. I wish we were seeing more abandoned industrial sites, for example, turned into gardens and parks, as we has been done in Europe. I do find some of the professor’s language off-putting. Why is the High Line planting “relentlessly hip”? That’s a criticism, and it reveals something of the writer’s prejudices and predispositions. But I won’t try to guess what those are.

  2. Denise says:

    James, it’s true that the High Line is an expensive project that may not make sense for other cities, but this review struck me as unnecessarily petty and quarrelsome. His lack of empathy for what parks mean to citizens can be found throughout the piece. One of the last lines seems especially cynical: “American cities are always looking for quick fixes to revive their moribund downtowns.” Pasadena, Santa Monica, the Embarcadero in SF have all had success with pedestrian-centric revivals of old downtowns or former industrial sites. The people who funded and pushed through the High Line with herculean odds lined up against them didn’t have in mind a “quick fix.” If other cities pursue such a project with that limited goal in mind, success will be elusive. But every city can think through where such neglected spaces can be reclaimed and gifted to its citizens, whether above ground or at ground level.

  3. Interesting. I should have taken the time to read the article you link to before commenting but just going off what you’ve written I take objection with his statement “In no other American city do residents rely so much on communal green space, rather than backyards, for relaxation.” Here in Portland on a sunny afternoon you will find every park in the city full of people. From the waterfront park downtown, to our own neighborhood park. Families, kids, friends meeting up, our green spaces are highly used, even with the high percentage of folks here who have their own backyard to enjoy. Maybe we don’t have to rely on it we just enjoy it.

    As for that “relentlessly hip” comment so what? Even if it is is that bad? It reflects a certain current planting style…and it’s beautiful.

  4. Denise says:

    Loree, thanks for bringing a Portland perspective. That’s my general understanding of the few cities I have personal knowledge of. Not to mention a big reason why Americans love travel abroad — for their great parks and outdoor spaces! Personal backyard retreats are great — I love mine — but they don’t replace public parks.

  5. hb says:

    Here in my neighborhood we have a long, narrow park built on a former rail line that used to service the now vanished citrus-packing houses. Not elevated, though. It’s DG plus native and water-thrifty plants and trees that are not irrigated except by winter rainfall. Twenty feet wide, a mile long. It’s always got walkers, joggers, and strollers, and on weekends it seems like everyone in the surrounding suburban, not-very-densely-populated neighborhood, all of whom have backyard retreats, appear to be out there walking and more remarkably, socializing. It’s one of the most-used neighborhood, non-urban public spaces I’ve ever seen. People love it.

    Maybe that author needs to get out a little more?

  6. Denise says:

    Hoov, I’m loving hearing these local stories. Manhattan Beach also has an amazing railway easement conversion/jogging path.

  7. Les says:

    The High Line is such a site specific place (both physically and culturally) that I can’t see how it could or should be replicated. However, there are thousands of equally unique locations where the principals that were used to build the High Line Park could be applied. Here in Norfolk at what was once an industrial site on the harbor, an old tank the held up to 500,000 gallons of molasses was converted into a Chinese pagoda and an Asian styled garden was built around it. I have a backyard and I visit the Pagoda garden frequently. Though pleasing and varied, the plants are not relentlessly hip, we will save those for swell Manhattanites.

  8. Pam/Digging says:

    I haven’t read the article yet, but I know Austin would embrace a project like the High Line. We love our outdoor, communal spaces, as evidenced by the (almost smothering) love we give our distinguishing natural features like Barton Springs, hiking canyons and greenbelts. We could use a great urban park. We don’t have one yet.

  9. Denise says:

    Les, I agree completely. Maybe I overreacted, but I hate to see any kind of park get slammed. I live in a very park-deprived neighborhood!
    Pam, maybe in places of great natural beauty like Austin there’s the sense of Who Needs Parks? But parks are different from wild places, and every city needs them! BTW, I love when you write about Barton Springs.

  10. Scott says:

    What a strangely pessimistic view…although I agree it might not be the best possible solution in every application (meaning, literally, the elevated rain idea), I think the basic principle could be used anywhere. I think once we get past the idea that it has to be elevated, everything else is pretty logical…and I’m boggled at the idea that the plantings are too “hip”…not sure what that even means (what is his comparison?). I think any city would be lucky to have someone of Oudolf’s vision design a park for them, especially in an era of the architect-designed landscape (which are all-too-often cold, brutal and impractical). I do have to say, however, that the 2nd phase seems far too full or gimmickry for my taste…especially when you consider the restrained beauty of the first phase…time will tell.

  11. Denise says:

    Scott, I thought so too. And the term “landscape urbanism” he used was new to me. I had to wiki it. It seems it’s a retort to New Urbanism’s emphasis on walkable, less car-centric cities, that this is foolish, misplaced effort in a car-centric culture. Apart from the novelty of being literally inserted into a skyline, another one of the great sensations this park gives is to be safe above the streets and cars. And I thought that second phase sounded a little busy too.

  12. Ryan Miller says:

    i wasn’t going to comment as I thought many others here captured my thoughts quite well. I love the High Line, I love Oudolf and I think that guy is a stick in the mud.

    Rybczynski’s article is muddled and doesn’t make a coherent point. He seems to scoff at the idea of the project as coming from “landscape urbanism” on one hand, but on the other points out that a place like the High Line could only work in a less car-centric big city like New York.

    Of course the High Line, or any park that is NOT focused on picnicking and sports isn’t going to work everywhere. I would hope that any city that is going to spend tax dollars on a large project carefully consider its usability in the context of its location. We all know that this doesn’t always happen.

    **BEGIN RANT**

    as to “landscape urbanism”, it sounds like a cop out to me. Although practicality is great, I’d rather not accept the status quo. If you’ve travelled almost anywhere else in the world you realize that cities don’t need to be as car-centric as they are here. I lived in Japan for a couple years and most people get around in downtown areas via bike, foot, train or taxi. Covered shopping arcades are found everywhere (imagine a long linear street lined with shops and paved for foot traffic instead of cars), and these arcades are often important traffic arteries for pedestrians and bicyclists. I don’t think it’s futile for us to try and move away from car-centric cities and suburbs with projects both big and small.

    Here in Portland things are changing, bicycle and transit use grows, and one can see with the expansion of the bicycle and pedestrian space on the Hawthorne bridge that people will take advantage of that space. I live in the Portland suburb of Beaverton where many of the neighborhoods feature non-linear layouts and culdesacs but also many right-of-way paths that cut through from one street to another. Every Saturday when the Farmer’s Market is open I see people set out walking or biking from miles away to get to the market. Without those right-of-ways, I doubt this would be possible. Without the Burnside and Hawthorne bridges in downtown Portland, I doubt you’d see so many people walking or biking to work. Almost half of the employees where I work downtown ride bicycles from the east side of Portland to get to work everyday. The rest of us live downtown, or take transit from the suburbs on the other side of the West Hills, with only a handful driving to work.

  13. Ryan Miller says:

    I also googled “landscape urbanism” and as usual google suggested some interesting search keyword choices as I typed.


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