Photo credit: STUDIO MELANGE /

In a quiet corner of Chelsea, the pedestrian path of the High Line zigzags lazily between posh apartments and artsy lofts. On a sunny afternoon towards the end of summer, a gentle breeze from the Hudson River sweeps across the tufts of grass and colorful flowers. Rusty train tracks are the only reminder that the elevated walkway used to be a railway bringing food products into what was once a bustling industrial district. These days, the High Line feels like a tree-lined runway for aspiring models above the roaring traffic on 10th Avenue—providing respite for New Yorkers and the perfect Instagram backdrop for visitors.

Half of the plants on either side of the pedestrian paths are native species, but the chief designer of this sliver of green space in Manhattan’s gray concrete jungle does not want people to think it’s an attempt to bring a slice of wilderness back to New York. 

“It’s not nature at all,” says Dutch landscape artist Piet Oudolf in an interview with PBS NewsHour. “What we do is just—we create artificial sort of communities, but also enhance the beauty of nature in a smaller area.” The designer explains that the goal is to create a design reminiscent of nature. And Oudolf seems to have succeeded: The gardens conjure a vision of what’s possible if more derelict and unused open spaces are repurposed as pockets of greenery amid gleaming towers.

Originally built in the early 1900s, the officially re-named High Line was also called the “Life Line of New York.” And for good reason. Freight trains chugged along the elevated tracks bringing meat, fresh produce, and dairy by traversing directly through warehouses on the West Side, to more efficiently deliver supplies and leave car traffic undisturbed, at the height of a population and manufacturing boom in Manhattan. By mid-century, however, retail centers and office buildings replaced factories giving way for residential neighborhoods. By the 1960s, refrigerated trucks began transporting products on a network of interstate highways, gradually replacing rail traffic. The last train came to a halt on the High Line in 1980 “carrying three truckloads of frozen turkeys,” per a description on one of the billboards at the northern end of the tracks on 30th Street.

Another billboard features a photo of the co-founders of Friends of the High Line, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, on the abandoned tracks. Hammond, in an interview on PBS, described seeing the “one-and-a half miles of wildflowers in the middle of New York City” for the first time, “There was incredible tension between hard and soft, nature and manmade, the beautiful and the ugly, and you know, sort of the progress and decay of the city, and that’s really what I fell in love with.” 

Back in 1999, the two men had opposed the planned demolition of the railway line. While they wanted the High Line preserved, they didn’t quite know what to do with it. 

As part of their efforts, Hammond and David hired a professional photographer to document the High Line in every season for one year. The images taken by Joel Sternfeld show the bursts of color in spring, the orange and yellow hues of autumn, and the desolate tracks as a dreamy snowscape in winter.

The preservation effort picked up steam when then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a long-time environmental campaigner, threw his support behind the High Line in 2002. The railway owner donated the elevated structure. The City of New York revoked the demolition order and gave initial funding to the nonprofit Friends of the High Line to manage the public space in partnership with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Business and political leaders donated philanthropic money and mobilized some $20 million in federal funding for the large-scale landscape project. Names such as Hillary Clinton, Senator Charles Schumer, Diller-von Furstenberg Foundation, Tiffany & Co. Foundation, and Jane Lauder are inscribed on a metal wall at the 14th Street passage of the High Line.

Any visitor would be forgiven for thinking that the landscape designer Piet Oudolf had simply allowed the wild grasses and flowers to grow among the railroad tracks, but, in fact, everything had to be taken out of the elevated railway—including the tracks—before any planting could be done. 

“There was lead, asbestos, pesticide to keep weeds out in the past,” said Andi Pettis, who served as the High Line’s director of horticulture for 10 years. “We had to remove all that before starting to put soil and plantings. There’s a misconception that all the plants here are native, and we just used the same plants that were growing here before. That’s not true.”

Pettis has said that out of the 500 varieties of plants used on the High Line, only half are native to the United States, with about 30% native to the Northeast. The rest are introduced species. “It’s a very cosmopolitan plant design,” she says.

Meandering around the gardens, it is easy to imagine the trees, shrubs, and ferns just sprouting between the rusty tracks. In reality, it takes a lot of effort from the gardening team, working behind the scenes, to maintain the pastoral ambience. 

“The plantings on the High Line are meant to evoke what was growing here spontaneously when the railroad was in disuse,” says Pettis. “As gardeners here, our mission is to maintain the integrity of those designs.” She adds that her team allows for the plants to be dynamic: “There are a lot of plants in the design that self-sow so they kind of migrate and find their way to where they want to be. We edit that process a little bit. We’ll take seedlings out from over here, and maybe transplant them over there, so we’re looking for proportion and balance aesthetically in the gardens.”

Some 1,200 trees and 110,000 perennials were arranged carefully over 1.5 acres of shallow planted beds. Around eight gardeners tend the plants year-round with hundreds of volunteers welcomed in the spring to help cut back overgrown herbs and perennial species. The gardeners must use handheld shears and pruners because mechanical blades may be cracked by the gravel mulch, a design element meant to evoke railroad ballast. Composting is done on site, and Pettis says they avoid using chemicals or fertilizers, opting for integrated pest management instead.

“High Line is beautiful throughout the seasons, and it was intentionally designed that way,” says Pettis. In winter, she notes that the gardens look magical after a fresh snowfall because the “skeletons of the plants are persistent.” In the fall, the Chelsea Grasslands, native to the prairie states, are a favorite because the grasses look like a meadow.

But an artificial environment poses enormous challenges. “We’re essentially a giant window box, so we need to make sure that the moisture levels are carefully regulated, so we don’t drown any of the plants,” says Pettis. 

The gardening team also had to consider the construction of new buildings along the High Line. The towering buildings create a corridor for high winds coming from the nearby Hudson River, as well as additional shade for plants requiring full sun. The 30-foot elevation of the railway further exposes the plants to the elements. “We’re having to think about how the plants will succeed, so to speak, as an ecological process,” says Pettis.

Given the extraordinary conditions and meager space, the High Line’s custodians were understandably cautious about the entire experiment. “The thing that surprised me the most was that this worked at all,” says Hammond. “Would the plants live in just several inches of soil on a bridge that’s gonna fry in the summer and freeze in the winter?”

As the years passed and the design began taking shape, Hammond, the co-founder of the preservation project, recalled asking the landscape designer if the green space could be considered a wild landscape. “[Oudulf] said, ‘there’s nothing wild about it. This is idealized nature,’” Hammond explains. 

On a chilly Saturday in autumn, I joined volunteer docent Richard Graziano and four other visitors in the Meatpacking District during the weekly guided tour at the entrance of the High Line. Graziano is a retired social science teacher, who has been volunteering as a docent for the past five years. He recalled the area was not a very safe place for pedestrians when the first section of the renovated High Line opened to the public in 2009. Due to the district’s unsavory reputation, the Friends of the High Line estimated the public space would only get around 300,000 visitors. To their surprise, 1 million people came in the first year alone.

Our walking tour started near the Gansevoort woodland, where Graziano directed our attention to the large bells hanging from the eave outside the restrooms. It turns out they were sculpted out of metal salvaged from railway tracks. Some metal railings laid on the path still had numbers indicating their position on the railway from when they were removed during the renovation.

At the sundeck, where I had often seen people reading books or smoking weed while watching the sunset over the Hudson River, Graziano showed us how the seats could be rolled on the railroad tracks. Fittingly, wetland species such as cattails and swamp milkweed were placed in the steel planters where water used to run down the tracks in this area.

Much of the tour focused on architectural sights and landmarks: the former factory of the National Biscuit Company, where the Oreo cookie was invented, which is now the Chelsea Market; a little-known speakeasy in front of Little Island; the red brick building used as a warehouse to store uranium ore for the Manhattan Project; and the curvy Zaha Hadid condominium building. 

When we reach the field of wildflowers in front of a long row of seats, observing the huge number of people strolling along the High Line, even while the coronavirus remains a threat, our guide tells us that visitor numbers had been growing steadily, reaching 7.5 million the year before the pandemic. 

One of the impacts of the pandemic that landscape designer Piet Oudolf hopes will last is that people began to yearn more for gardens and parks. “I think that people will realize that we, as human beings, need that, to feel good,” he says.

The project keeps inspiring other neighborhoods to reimagine their own version of nature in an increasingly urbanized world. A case study from Columbia University put the cost of constructing the High Line park at around $250 million with more than half coming from public funds. The city government released an analysis citing 1 billion dollars in economic benefits in the first four years of operation. 

James Corner Field Operations, which led the design and construction of the High Line, takes pride in having won awards for urban design for the space, which the company says has served as a model for infrastructure reuse in other cities around the world.

From Seattle to Miami, the original concept has expanded into the High Line Network that is creating more green spaces from unused land and public facilities in more than 30 cities across the United States. 

“A lot of people think of the High Line as a design project, but in a lot of ways, it’s really a plant project,” said Hammond, who recently stepped down as the executive director of Friends of the High Line. “Even the people who don’t appreciate the planting, what they don’t realize is that it’s changing their whole experience. They’re in nature. They feel different.”

As the first snow flurries began to fall at the end of November, the trees had shed their leaves, littering the High Line pathways. Various shades of brown and bare branches dominate the landscape, casting a melancholy atmosphere. There are fewer visitors now, all bundled up against the chill and biting winds. For the fortunate New Yorkers, who get to experience the High Line year-round, it’s just another season to see what the changing gardens bring to the senses, in a city that desperately needs more natural spaces.

Yasmin Arquiza is an environmental journalist who has written extensively about biodiversity conservation and climate change issues.

This essay first appeared in BackMatter and is reprinted here with permission.