Natural nature

New York High Line

New York High Line

[POST BY Bennie Meek, Vincent Wittenberg and Yuka Yoshida]

There is a wide variety of green typologies to be found within our Cities. These types of green differ from each other in terms of use, maintenance, funding and design and all are appreciated in different ways and by different people.

Urban green is in contrast with the build environment. The build environment slowly falls apart if we would stop putting energy in it. Life on the other hand evolves, grows and expands by itself.

Urban green is (like the rest of the city) so highly regulated and controlled that it cannot evolve by its own, in a natural way. Because of the way it is maintained in some cities, the biodiversity is relatively low.

Sometimes, by accident, in spaces which are neglected or which are a blind spot on the map, nature can evolve. An interesting example of this is the High Line linear park in New York City, a former elevated railway freight line which naturally evolved into a green stretch, rich in pioneer species and biodiversity.

While property owners were lobbying for the demolition of this obsolete infrastructural work, residents saw potential in this unplanned wildlife. They started their own lobby group: Friends of the High Line. The group launched an open call. The winning, and internationally acclaimed, design by New York-based landscape architecture firm Field Operations and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with planting design from Piet Oudolf. Paradoxically, on the one hand it’s the property owners who benefit and on the other hand the people who had been living next to the High Line were forced to leave the area because of high rents.

There is another story behind the success: the story about biodiversity. For they did not only add stairs, paths and furniture, but also removed the existing vegetation and replaced it with a carefully designed greenery by the internally acclaimed garden architect Piet Oudolf. In the interview ‘Emotive landscapes’ Oudolf talks about his design (the plant scheme) for the High Line; “[…] then you regard nature as an example for your designs. That inspiration, that natural feeling”, “that image. I’m good at recreating that in new situations. It reminds you of nature even though it isn’t”

We have a romanticised image of what nature is in our collective memory. This image, of what we expect and appreciate, seems to be more valued than the ‘reality’.

Not so well known is the runner up proposal for the Highway line by D.I.R.T. studio. This proposal was more about perseverance and about saving the High Line with its spontaneous and biodiverse wild scape, proposing a process more than a product. And focusing on designing the access and paths for the visitor over the greenery to explore the nuances of a degraded landscape’s natural succession and experience that wildness in contrast to the other cultivated parks along the Hudson River. However this proposal was not chosen over the now executed and famous High Line park design with it’s big capital investments and high maintenance costs.

Why was the proposal by D.I.R.T. studio not chosen? Is it possible to create a more natural and biodivers city habitat that the city dweller finds attractive? Or does it take a mind-switch, provoked by a better understanding of nature to appreciate a more autonomous and authentic greenery? Or is the reality of an authentic wild scape not satisfactory (anymore)? Is biodiversity suitable for high end design?