Sunday, October 16, 2011

Contradictions? Not here ... plant and human ecology on the High Line

This simple planting of Birch, Amelanchier, Huechera, and Carex has remained a favorite of mine through many visits to the High Line. It's a good illustration of how a layered planting can work--small trees or shrubs underplanted with a simple, pared-down selection of perennials--a good way to pack a lot of impact into a small space.

Much as I admire this extraordinary community of plants, it is not a natural environment. It is, in fact, a giant planting box embedded in a concrete surface. It bears some comparison to an exhibit in a zoo.

How strange that a naturally evolving  and self-sustaining community of plants on an abandoned railroad trestle could have been the genesis of such a sophisticated, very expensive, and ultimately unsustainable construct as the High Line (unsustainable because it can't continue to exist on its own). This High Line seems almost a contradiction of the original, "natural" High Line.

Don't get me wrong. I admire the High Line as a masterpiece of garden and urban landscape design. But I think we need to call a spade a spade. This is a complex recreational, aesthetic, and perhaps spiritual machine, requiring enormous amounts of money and labor to create and maintain it. Without continuous funding, knowledgeable planting and horticultural expertise, and hordes of maintenance and security forces, it couldn't continue. It is not natural, and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you a bill of goods.

But it is a superb example of naturalistic planting, and the horticultural practices that sustain its plant life are derived directly from observation of nature. This simple planting uses small trees and shrubs to create a micro-enrivonment. Within their shade only two perennials--carefully selected for their ability to thrive in understory, rocky conditions, and for their aesthetic qualities--make a beautiful design.

Both Heuchera villosa 'Brownies' and Carex eburnea look great in their rectangular island planting, even now, well into autumn. They are reminders of "Nature" in the big sense, but also of nature on a stage set, displayed with great self-consciousness and much forethought, the better to attract the interest of the human ecology of the High Line ...

... for human ecology is very much what the High Line is about.


  1. The continuous funding - is being diverted from where? Does provide employment so that part is 'sustainable'.

  2. I didn't intend to imply that the High Line's funding was being diverted from any thing else. To my mind it's money put to very good use. My concern in more with the future, say 20 years from now, when the High Line isn't a new toy, and maintenance may be left in the hands of New York City, which is notorious for its poorly managed and underfunded parks. But perhaps the High Line will be endowed well into the future.

  3. Very interesting questions you've triggered, James, and I don't pretend to know what a last word might be.
    These installation-gardens, (I mean gardens installed in otherwise non-natural, human-made conditions), are sprouting everywhere, and do so because we've taken over so much of the planet in such over-riding ways, yet need to have nature near us. We have a duty of care to these plantings...I reckon they're wonderful, as long as we look after them and cherish them. They benefit humankind, so we must reciprocate.
    Mmm. Beautiful choice of species.
    Can they compare to a zoo or exhibit? Zoos have turned wild animals into objects to examine, often destroying them or their quality of life in the process. A difference with plantings like these is that although they're looked at, and examined, they're part of a bigger, pervading context, giving them a certain space to get on with their life, if that makes sense.
    I'm sure alot more could be said.

  4. I really enjoyed this post. I have read quite a few on the High Line all very positive but none of them question its sustainability. A most thought provoking post

  5. Faisal, you raise some big questions that my little post can't begin to address. But they are important questions. The zoo metaphor perhaps isn't appropriate, as you point out. I do tend to see the High Line as an "entertainment," perhaps in the sense of the old wild west shows of early in the past century, which brought some simulacrum of the "wild open spaces" (though they probably no longer existed at the time) to the public. In a more accurate way, the High Line brings an image of nature into the city, makes the visitors encounter actual plants, perhaps opens some eyes and minds. The movement to "re-green" cities is a promising one. Where it will go, I do not know. But I do remember that the Franklinia alatamaha, originally observed growing wild in South Carolina by John and William Bartram in 1765, soon after became extinct, except for the trees grown from seed by the Bartrams. As a result, we still have that beautiful native American tree--but only in gardens, not in wild nature.

  6. Helen, perhaps I overstated the case. Certainly most gardens are unsustainable by the definition I used. They will all become something approaching chaos without regular maintenance. But the High Line, relying as it does on a rather untraditional and intricate infrastructure, and currently enjoying a very high level of care and maintenance, is a delicate and demanding garden. A spectacular garden--but a demanding one.

  7. James, I liked your zoo metaphor because I often see plants slapped down into a public space 'to cheer it up', with little subsequent care. Plants, like animals, aren't here simply to entertain us or be used off-handedly, to me - I believe in stewardship.

  8. I don't mind plants used as "tools" in a planting at all, because the idea of a thriving plant community underlies that, but I abhor them used as living "paint" to brighten things up.

  9. O, on last comment - how do you tell the difference?: both are about intention not result.

  10. Anne, in responding to Faisal's comment, I had images in my mind I didn't express. I was thinking of the use of plants by someone like Piet Oudolf and contrasting that with something akin to Victorian bedding out with garish annuals. Both are about intention, and I'd say both are about result, but two very different results. One being an emotionally appealing naturalistic plant community designed with respect and care for all the qualities of the plants (structure, texture, shape, contrast, ability to thrive in existing conditions, etc.)--what Faisal calls stewardship--and the other being simply a way to inject color into a scene, without regard for the nature of the plant or for its intrinsic characteristics other than color. The former results in a planting with integrity and respect for the plant "tools" used, the latter, a careless disregard for the plant materials, a tarting up and exploitation for short-term color and nothing else.

  11. James,
    It would be a very interesting experiment to leave the plantings in the High Line to their own devises but maintain the sidewalks, seating, walls, etc. The High Line is one of the few gardens I know whose inspiration was the weeds that grew from neglect. It might look much better than we think it would.

  12. Michael,

    It might ... but I think I hope we don't find out, at least not what it would look like with total neglect. In walking the High Line I have wondered if I've been seeing some experimentation with letting the plantings "go wild" to some degree. I have a few photos that seem to show plants spreading into other plants, or seeding into places where they were not originally put. Perhaps the High Line staff will let some of this just happen to see how it affects the planned plantings. That will be interesting to watch.

  13. A good example of what it is, right there in the city.

    You mentioned spectacular and demanding, I reckon less zoo, possibly more theatre.

    City spaces like this are good for the mind. Surely that's a good bit of 'modified environment'.

  14. Well, Rob, I'd say "theater" is much more appropriate than "zoo." This "modified environment" is certainly good for the mind. Good for the spirit too.

  15. James,

    There is an interesting article in the NYTimes today. The High Line received a $20 million gift, the largest ever to a public park, from the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation to help complete the final section of the High Line. They report that the Friends of the High Line, have assumed the responsibility for the $3 million/year operating costs from the start.

    It is amazing achievement. But as with all public parks, building the park is the easy park. Maintenance is the main challenge.

  16. Michael,
    Thanks. That's great news. So it appears the High Line is well on the way to a well endowed future. I recently got a copy of High Line: The Inside Story of New York City's Park in the Sky. I haven't read it yet, but expect it to answer a lot of questions. I have dipped into it to read about how this design concept (James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf) was chosen over other shortlisted teams, and it's a revealing story.



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