Friday, July 1, 2011

Highline Park

Highline in use

This past weekend, I visited NYC, the transportation capital of America. Because of New York’s extreme density and concentration of humanity, the city has so many unique situations and opportunities to build upon itself. The Highline is one example where designers have found potential within the concrete jungle to do something unique and groundbreaking. Utilizing industrial remnants, the Highline Park has been a large part of the transformation of surrounding neighborhoods, Chelsea and The West Village, sprouting development and artwork all along its 1.5mile length. It is acting as a beacon of green design and offers a solution to how we repopulate our urban areas with good contemporary design while also maintaining the history and sense of place of the area. The Highline serves as a valuable example as I study the ideas of transforming the image of a city.
An Industrial Past

Originally, the above-grade tracks were built between 1929 and 1934, in order to reduce the number of crashes between trains, cars and pedestrians. This itself was a major transformation, as the surrounding Lower West Side was known as “Death Avenue” before the grade change. Trains regularly ran here until the early 1960’s and the last train rode ran in the 1980’s. Soon, there was no action on the tracks and wildlife began to sprout. Called a “self-sown landscape,” the Highline was both an eyesore and intriguing. Half ghost town, half meditation garden, The abandoned tracks sat quietly with the Empire State Building and other skyscrapers as a backdrop. In 2000, threatened with demolition, many local artists advocated preserving the landscape, and in 2004, a competition was held for redesign of the highline. Over the next 7 years, two sections of the park have been opened and the third and final section is underway.
Self-Sown Landscape
Joel Sternfield

Overgrown Tracks
Barry Munger

According to “Designing the Highline,” the park followed eight design principles:

1.    Keep it simple. Keep it wild. Keep it Quiet. Keep it Slow.
2.   Preserve typical railings and upgrade to fulfill code and ensure safety.
3.   Preserve North-South sight lines and linear consistency.
4.   Preserve slow meandering experience through varied conditions.
5.   Preserve and reveal the structure providing opportunities to inhabit and appreciate details.
6.   Preserve unusual and found conditions on the Highline.
7.   Preserve wild opportunistic landscape by enhancing existing plant species.
8.   Preserve industrial presence of the Highline at street level.

Current Highline Park
Ben Samson

Mostly, the designers sought to preserve the unique quality of a self-sown landscape and accentuate the structure’s industrial past. As I design Pittsburgh’s transportation system, I too am looking to build on the city’s industrial roots and explore the distinctive hilly landscape. The Highline teaches us that building on the uniqueness of a place can be achieved with simplicity and contemporary design ideals. It maintains the character of its past, yet is entirely modern and offers the hope of a brighter, greener future.  


Hazari, Patrick. Designing the Highline: Gansevoort St. to 30th Street. Friends of the Highline. New York, NY 2008.

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