By Kristie Hildebrandt.
Rick Darke heads a Pennsylvania based consulting firm focused on the design and management of living landscapes. His work is grounded in an observational ethic which blends art, ecology, and cultural geography.
"What is wilderness?" Rick answered his own question at the meeting: "It is where we are not."
Rick spoke of how the High Line is a model of creative, conservation-based design and stewardship. It is a post-industrial elevated railway re-imagined into a park. The High Line is where the art of observation should be keenly deployed so that one can delve deeper and beyond the surface to a beauty past its prime, and where there's a deep story and context, as well as beauty in the practical and simple. Rick illustrated this by showing us two paintings: one from 1930 of a ship’s graveyard and another from 1918 of a simple landscape with an aqueduct.
The High Line was part of a 1934 New York City improvement project opened to trains and designed to run through the center of city blocks carrying goods to and from the industrial district. It was also called the Life Line because it fed the city. Steel rails forty feet in the air with a concrete bed transported goods and food, and saved many lives because of how the trains and traffic would run together and result in fatalities.
The last train ran in 1980 and it then became an untouched, abandoned overgrowth with what most would call weeds and wildflowers. It was already a habitat at the time. Of course property owners wanted it demolished.
The organization Friends of the High Line (FHL) was founded in 1999 to advocate for its preservation and reuse as public, open space and the framework began in the next few years with an open ideas competition. Out of 720 entries from 36 countries, lead firm James Corner Field Operations, architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Dutch plantings designer Piet Oudolf were selected.
The High Line is now a 1.45-mile-long park in New York City created on an elevated spur called the West Side Line. It’s a dynamic greenway inspired by the Promenade Plantée in Paris and its fabrication is a work of art in the spirit and dynamic of the wild, rebuilt with the rhythm, flow and cadence of it’s past history.
The High Line is a four season garden filled with native and exotic plants including several species that originally grew on the rail beds and drought-tolerant perennials and grasses that thrive and spread. Its living population of plants shifts with color, light, and translucency in a constant state of flux, creating year-round interest. The park is maintained, operated, and programmed by Friends of the High Line (FHL) in partnership with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
It now includes eighteen different gardens from 34th Street, along the Hudson River, through Chelsea’s tree-lined blocks and art galleries and finally through the heart of the meat packing district.
Today, it’s much more than a public garden. It’s a central plaza, a cultural center, and a walkway that's home to more than 400 species (including us!). Topping FHL's original expectation of 300,000 visitors annually, 7.6 million people visited in 2015 alone!
The garden's dynamic design gives us many ideas for our own gardens, such as water conservation, erosion control, designing from big to small, plant selection for hardiness and purpose, foliage in the context of space, and how to paint with texture and variety. The garden also teaches us to accept the beauty of decay.
For much more information on this beautiful New York City treasure, read Rick Darke’s latest book, co-authored with Piet Oudolf, Gardens of the High Line: Elevating the Nature of Modern Landscapes.