a design feature inspiring us to wonder: Are nature and the built environment really as separate as we thought?

Decay Inspires Creation: The High Line’s Perennial Plant Selection

Plants cultivated at the High Line mimic a successional ecosystem - an ecosystem that emerges from disturbed, post-industrial, or degraded land.

The High Line’s gardens mimic a successional ecosystem that emerges from disturbed or post-industrial land. 

The High Line, an innovative urban public space opened in 2009, is 1.5 mile long elevated railway-turned-park. Running from 34th Street to St John’s Park Terminal at Spring Street in West Manhattan, the High Line epitomizes the romance of former eras of industrial expansion, when New Yorkers depended on elevated trains to bring them meat and flour. Abandoned for decades, the rails became home to a beautifully spontaneous community of plants—trees, grasses, and wildflowers thriving above a mostly oblivious New York.

Many wished to see the High Line preserved forever as a wilderness area. Unfortunately, the platforms were rebuilt to make the rail lines safe for the public, and the original plant community was lost in the process. Yet it was the plants that created the charm and mysterious value of the space. In reconstructing the original look and feel of the abandoned rail line, the plants themselves likely played the most important design role. This article strives to showcase these mostly humble specimens, which in their simple beauty inspired a new kind of public park, borne from decay and inspired by weeds.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) nears the end of its perennial life-cycle here, but its brown seed-heads are allowed to linger, creating a relaxed, unmanaged feel to this bed.

Yarrow nears the end of its lifecycle, but its brown seed heads linger – creating a relaxed, unmanaged feel to this bed.

Perennial Plant Selection

The architects responsible for the design from James Corner/Field Operations employed the natural planting style of renowned garden designer Piet Oudolf to imitate the original flora growing at the site.

Oudolf championed the use of perennial plants in gardening, becoming the founding father of the New Perennial Movement. Rather than focusing on bright, colorful arrays of annual plants; Oudolf was one of the first to design with perennial plants for texture, form, and seasonal interest. He used the natural life-cycles of his chosen flora as part of his design, embracing nature’s temporality as a source of beauty and mystery.

This style indulged the emotional experience of the original High Line – a space where viewers felt they had stumbled upon something nostalgic and melancholy, yet magical and unexpected above the concrete, advertisements, and traffic of the city. Oudolf chose a palette of half native plants; plus many grasses, small shrubs, and trees to create a randomized, naturalistic effect.

 

Bursts of color create visual interest along the rails.

Bursts of color create visual interest along the rails.

Stress tolerance and adaptability characterize selected species, as they are constantly exposed to extreme temperatures and winds. Typical of gardens built on raised structures such as roofs, the High Line has a thin layer of constructed soil – only about a foot. Wildflowers and grasses native to prairie ecosystems and other difficult environments, therefore, play a key role in the design.

Thread-leaved bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii), is a Southern native with a feathery yellow autumn foliage. It can tolerate dry conditions, and looks stunning in mass or planted among clumps of grasses. It contrasts boldly with the striking purple-blue of aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’), a native wildflower and important nectar source for butterflies.

Flameleaf sumac (Rhus copallinum) provides a splash of russet red color as Eastern redbud’s (Cercis canadensis) heart-shaped leaves begin to turn yellow.

Flameleaf sumac (Rhus copallinum) provides a splash of russet red color, drawing the eye to a mural beyond.

Rebuilding the Natural Environment

Though the park opened in 2009 and has made itself a beloved New York mainstay, the High Line is young enough that it’s still developing. A new section – the High Line at the Rail Yards – just opened this past September. While several new design features give a modern twist to the historic space, wildflowers and grasses satisfy a human longing for nature that is timeless.

The flora growing at the High Line is a community inspired by the dynamics of a tenacious world. Faced with habitat fragmentation and an increasingly urbanized Earth, plant communities still manage to spring forth in the most unexpected of places. This rebirth isn’t just a feature of the “natural” world: it’s the nature of our world.

Recovery, regeneration, and emergence is the name of the game. Plants are incredibly resilient, and they are the energy producers upon which the web of life depends. It’s our choice if we want to become active, responsible participants in the unfolding of life occurring all around us. Because it’s not only ecosystems which are successional and ever-adapting, but also the way we as humans value and interpret landscapes. These words and pictures are a humble exploration in horticulture as merged with urban design. The author and photographer hope that they inspire stewardship of nature, wherever it may be found.

Recommended Reading

Bringing Nature Home, Doug Tallamy
Landscapes in Landscapes, Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury
The Flora of the Future, Peter del Tradici in Projective Ecologies, edited by Chris Reed and Nina-Marie Lister

Feature Image: Feathered grooves in the platform blur the boundary between garden bed and walkway. Photo by Claire Sundquist.

Photos by Claire Sundquist

About The Author

Jenny is the Rose and Flower Garden intern at Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania. She became interested in horticulture after spending a summer farming with Re-Imagining Cleveland, an urban land-reuse project transforming vacant lots into gardens and small farms. Foxgloves and Eastern red columbines are her favorite flowers. She hopes you will get off your computer and go outside soon!