In New York, an inspiring project has resulted in the creation of a beautiful and unique green space and walkway on the Lower West Side of Manhattan called the High Line.
This has its roots in the early 20th century, when the frequency of accidents between freight trains and street-level traffic led to the construction in 1934 of a steel railway about eight metres above the streets to transport goods to nearby industrial premises. It was known as the High Line.
When the trains stopped running in 1980, the High Line fell into disuse. An activist, Peter Obletz, living in the nearby suburb of Chelsea purchased it for the princely sum of US $10 (AUD $12), and then engaged in a long and ultimately unsuccessful court battle to preserve it for rail-based tourism.
Left in limbo, the track grew weeds during the 1990s when it again fell under threat of demolition under the mayorship of Rudy Giuliani. This time, a group of residents came to the rescue, proposed the idea of creating an elevated park, and got the city authorities on board with the idea. Their efforts were boosted by urban photographer Joel Sternfeld, whose work documented the hidden beauty of the weed-strewn tracks.
After a decade of planning and construction, the first section of this unusual park opened in 2009, to be followed by a second in 2011. A third stretch was completed in September, 2014, following two years of work. The park’s full 1.5 mile (2.3 km) length runs across 19 blocks, and is used by both locals and tourists, who crowd the footpaths, admire the vegetation, and relax on benches, enjoying a temporary reprieve from traffic and tedious waits for pedestrian signals to turn green.
Today’s plantings are inspired by the species that naturally appeared in the 25 years after the line was abandoned. Growing in shallow beds of soil, the gardens feature more than 300 species of drought-resistant grasses, wildflowers, edible plants and smaller trees. These were specially chosen so that something is always flowering throughout the growing season.
Another way of looking at the park is to see it as the world’s longest green roof, and it offers many of the same benefits. It ameliorates the urban heat island effect, stormwater runoff is reduced by 80%, and the plantings offer shade and oxygen while serving as bird and insect habitat.
The only potential downside of the project is that its role in urban renewal has resulted in the gentrification of Chelsea and the Meatpacking District, through which it passes. Leaving behind their colourful and sometimes violent pasts, both are now home to numerous upmarket art galleries and boutiques, while real estate values along the High Line have shot up. New York authorities anticipate that the park will bring substantial additional investment and revenue to the city over the coming decades.
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore.
Friends of The High Line www.thehighline.org
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