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Garden design lessons from the High Line, New York City

Two purple smoke trees flank the "S" curves path of New York's High Line park.

Design My Garden recently visited New York’s famously inventive High Line, a public park that has been made over from a defunct, elevated railway line. The High Line was a freight rail line called the West Side Line, originally owned by the New York Central Railroad and eventually taken over by CSX Corporation after decades of mergers in railroads. The West Side Line was operational 1934 to 1980. The last train on the line was in 1980 and carried three railcars of frozen turkeys.

The effort to rejuvenate the West Side Line into a public park was a 15 year journey, spearheaded by Friends of the High Line, a non-profit organization, started by Joshua David and Robert Hammond in 1999. The Friends of the High Line saw that the space could be remade into a unique public park rather than tearing down the defunct railroad line. Like much innovation in New York, the park was an instant hit and much lauded as an ‘aerial greenway.’ From a structural standpoint, the High Line is a green roof on stilts. Since then, the idea of re-purposing infrastructure into green space has caught on in other cities as well, including Atlanta, Dallas, London, Paris, Seoul, Sydney, and Toronto. And the High Line’s Canadian connection is: the TD Bank is the presenting green sponsor.

“In the three short years since the first section opened as a park, the High Line has become a treasured neighborhood oasis, a significant generator of economic activity for the entire city and a celebrated icon for planners, designers and leaders around the world,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg told The New York Times in 2012.

The High Line is open from 7am to 11pm daily and has sparked refurbishment of real estate all along the trail of the park. Unsurprisingly, real estate values all along the High Line have skyrocketed.

Garden design principles of the High Line

The Number 1 problem with transforming a railway line is: it is linear. Trains need to travel on straight lines. Gardens that are straight lines where everything is visible all at once are boring; there is no mystery and no sense of exploration. The landscape architects used the same garden design techniques that you can use in your garden, too.

The garden designers used the “S” curve throughout the High Line. Turning straight lines into “S” curves slows down the eye and creates instant mystery, because you cannot see what is around the curve. The “S” curve creates much more interesting walks.

The space all along the High Line is broken up by creating different areas, or “garden rooms.” They did this principally with different paving materials, including cut natural stone and wood boards.

Paving materials were laid at 45 degree angles (on the diagonal) to the edges of the High Line railway line. This has the effect of tricking the eye into believing that the High Line is wider than it actually is. This is a classic garden design technique that really works for long, narrow garden spaces as well as very small, square gardens.

Planting beds of two different heights (12 inches, and 20 inches) are used throughout the High Line to create visual interest, in addition to ground plantings.

The garden designers created a unifying visual theme, rooted in a railway bed itself. Narrow planting channels were created in stone for perennials; the same narrow railway beds are used on stylized benches throughout the High Line.

Emphasis on pleasant vistas. The High Line is punctuated by built-in long loungers, park benches, and arbours that frame particularly nice views for visitors to enjoy. Turn garden design problems into unique vistas. If you don’t have a great view, use garden art to create one.

Use of drought-tolerant, native species in the plantings. The High Line's planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew on the out-of-use elevated rail tracks during the 25 years after trains stopped running. The species of perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees were chosen for their hardiness, sustainability, and textural and color variation, with a focus on native species. Many of the species that originally grew on the High Line's rail bed are incorporated into the park's landscape. Here’s more on the horticulture of the High Line. Native species are important in a garden because of the symbiotic relationship between vegetation and insects, birds, and mammals in the park.

Sustainability is built into the High Line. The High Line is inherently a green structure. It re-purposes a piece of industrial infrastructure as a public green space. The High Line landscape functions essentially like a green roof; porous pathways contain open joints, so water can drain between planks and water adjacent planting beds, cutting down on the amount of storm-water that runs off the site into the sewer system.

An irrigation system has been installed. The High Line's green roof system is designed to allow the plants to retain as much water as possible. Because the High Line is elevated, evaporation happens much faster than at ground level. There is an irrigation system installed with options for both automatic and manual watering.

The High Line by the numbers:

Ownership The High Line is owned by the City of New York. Operations and stewardship Friends of the High Line maintain, operate, and provide programming for the park, in partnership with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Today, Friends of the High Line raise 98% of the High Line’s annual budget.

Duration of the refurbishment project 15 years (1999 to 2014)

Landscape architects (project lead) James Corner Field Operations

Architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro Planting designer Piet Oudolf, known for his love of grasses Length of the park 2.33 km (1.45 miles)

Opened to public Phase 1, June 2009 Phase 2, June 2011 Phase 3, July 2014 Duration of construction of each phase Construction began in earnest in 2006. Each phase took more than two years. Cost to build About $200 million, in both private and public money.

Annual operating budget $11.5 million

Friends of the High Line staff 80 full-time, year-round; 150 full-time during the gardening season

Annual operations and park maintenance $5 million Number of plant species More than 500 Percentage of native species Almost 50% Annual visitors 5 million

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