The High Line: A “Landscape for Health”

If the definition of a “Landscape for Health”(TM) is “any outdoor space that facilitates health and well-being through connection with nature,” then the High Line, which opened about three weeks ago and which I visited for the first time yesterday, definitely fits the bill.* New York City already has many wonderful parks, from small community gardens and vestpocket parks to the many-acre pastoral settings of Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. And many of these could also be considered Landscapes for Health, in the Therapeutic Landscapes Network’s broad definition (the definition for healing gardens, therapeutic landscapes, rehabilitation gardens, and restorative gardens and landscapes is more specific – see this and this previous TLDBlog posting on the subject). But a linear park on an abandoned elevated railroad that glides above the city streets? This is a first for NYC, and a truly inspiring addition to an already pretty great city (for more information about the High Line’s history, designers, construction, and so forth please visit the Friends of the High Line website,

Bill Cunningham of the New York Times On the Streets‘ latest slideshow expresses the same kind of unfettered, unabashed enthusiasm I felt when I got up there among the high-rises with my fellow revelers. As one might expect, I was less focused on fashion and more on plants and design, as you’ll see from the accompanying TLN Flickr set. People were strolling, talking, taking pictures, looking at the plantings, pointing to things within the park and outside (amazing views of the river and the near and far Manhattan skyline), eating the gelato and drinking the coffee sold from the two intra-park vendors (now that’s gotta be a good business!), resting on or just trying out the many varied and inventively designed park benches, and of course, watching other people do the same. Bill Cunningham talks about the park as a “fashion promenade,” and though there was less of the fashion going on on a drizzly Thursday afternoon, it certainly has the promenade feeling.

When we refer to outdoor spaces as “healing gardens,” we are usually talking about the positive, salutary effect that they have on people. However, I’m also a firm believer that the best kind of healing garden, or restorative landscape, or Landscape for Health, is one that is also healthy for the planet. Taking a brownfield site, cleaning it up, planting trees and shrubs and perennials and grasses that exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen, and providing a landscape that people can benefit from in a multitude of ways is a win-win scenario that I wish more cities, healthcare facilities, and other institutions would take a cue from. To get a sense of what I’m talking about with this particular park, see images of the High Line pre-construction on theHigh Line’s and Piet Oudolf’s websites.

But there’s plenty of grunge still there to remind us of the High Line’s past. I think what makes the park so successful is a very artful combination of gritty and refined. When Joshua David and Robert Hammond first saw the high line back in 1999, they loved the wildness of it – the tracks overgrown with weeds felt like a magical wild secret garden floating above the city streets. That weedy character has been retained, under the guidance of the master of the “new wave” planting style, Piet Oudolf. Yet the wildness has been gently reined in; I’m sure some people will look at the grasses, and coneflowers, and shrubs like sumac and chokeberry, and think it all still looks like a bunch of weeds. To me, it felt like walking through a beautiful meadow in full bloom without having to worry about getting covered in ticks. James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro have also successfully blended the gritty with the urbane. The linear “tracks” of the paving surface that die into the planting beds, the wooden benches that rise from those tracks, the wooden decking and the benches that rise from said decking, the black-painted railings, the sleek but unobtrusive lighting, and of course the existing tracks, sometimes covered and sometimes exposed, sometimes on the path and sometimes wending their way though the plantings, are all composed in a delightful dance…

…okay, I know, I’m gushing. But if Bill Cunningham can gush, so can I! The main point is that I’m in good company. I saw so much delight and joy on the faces of people up there on the High Line, and it’s sure to be a big attraction for a long time to come. A major construction, a swath of public open space in the heart of the city, that gets people outside, walking, talking, smiling, interacting with each other and with nature in a truly urban environment – that sure sounds like a Landscape for Health to me.