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The High Line: Think, Reuse, Grow Up

When the High Line opened to the public a day early on June 8th, I didn't know how excited I was until I started to climb its steps.
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When the High Line opened to the public a day early on June 8th, I didn't know how excited I was until I started to climb its steps. Looking down upon Gansevoort, the High Line gave me pause and made me smile. As an American, I cherish both wild and cultivated public spaces. New Yorkers all have a favorite neighborhood respite, and make trips to the wooded areas and expansive lawns of Central and Prospect Park, where recreation and picnic can be had (almost) out of sight of the looming buildings. Regardless of how far we travel, parks are an escape to urban life. Walking up the steps to the High Line seems an impossible and immediate journey to a tranquil space where wild grasses and hard steel converge. It's an amicable stroll through a rooftop garden, but also a brilliant reuse of space that humanizes and harmonizes the surrounding city instead of hiding it from view. While sometimes it's hard not to escape New York's congestion, brick, and concrete, walking along this previously abandoned expanse of railway allowed me to reconnect with its natural beauty. The High Line unfolds the city's buildings like giant sculptures, and presents a stage where the New York of cars and cement is viewed aloft amid soft wood and silenced behind glass. It exposes the city's expansiveness but also reminds us that we live on an island.

A park can be many things to many people. In the US we are most familiar with recreation and landscaping that revolves around color and bloom cycles. The High Line is the "poster child for the passive use park," says Patrick Cullina, VP of Horticulture and Park Operations for Friends of the High Line, harking back to Victorian eras and Japanese stroll gardens where meandering lost in thought was its goal, not a means to traveling to another place.

Unlike many cities in Europe, few US cities were planned with integrated public space in mind. With our rapidly diminishing natural resources, climate change, and tendency to dispose and make new instead of revitalizing what we have, the High Line is a first of its kind. Not only does it reuse a space destined for demolition, it looks up in answer to the question: where can we find more public space? It's impossible to walk the length of the park and not imagine the vastness of naked rooftops covering our city that could be cultivated to similar success, making the issues of public versus private space mostly irrelevant.

Patrick likes to think of the park as "a living roof" and so do I. Immediately I wanted to know, "but can you eat it?" While he said there are currently no edible plants, ornamental relatives of mint, sage, allium, and echinacea can be found in the park. Also thriving are some species traditionally used for medicinal properties such as American Quinine for treating Malaria, ipecac for treating poisoning, witch hazel to soothe itching, and catnip to drive cats crazy.

Anyone dreaming of a rooftop garden, edible or ornamental, must look to hearty plants that can thrive in a shallow soil. Extreme shade, sunlight, and potential winds created by the surrounding buildings are also key considerations. But as Patrick helpfully points out, "There are cues in nature that will lead you to believe what might do well in that scenario." James Corner Field Operations and Dutch planting designer Piet Oudolf's looked to plants already thriving on the High Line as well as hearty species of the Mediterranean for inspiration. Oudolf's New Wave Planting designs with the full cycle of life and seasons in mind, and is more concerned with shape and form than blooming and color. Future gardeners of New York can look to the High Line for inspiration when designing a new space. Patrick hopes to "expand the vernacular beyond the usual suspects" of plants. As New Yorkers, we need to think higher to grow up.