Since its initial opening in 2009, New York City’s High Line has attracted millions of visitors a year–4.8 million in 2013 alone. And the thing wasn’t even finished yet.
Now, at last, the third and final segment of this abandoned train track turned elevated park, has opened, and it’s a gem. Continuing toward the Hudson River from the northernmost section of the second phase, this new section adds more seating options, a children’s exploration area, and beautifully incorporated remnants of what the High Line used to be, before it turned into New York’s hippest green space–an overgrown railroad trestle. Like the last two phases of the park, the new extension was designed by landscape architects James Corner Field Operations, architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and planting designer Piet Oudolf. Running across 30th Street from 10th Avenue and curving at the West Side Highway to run up to 34th Street, it offers spectacular views of the Hudson River, as well as of the behemoth construction site next door at the Hudson Yards. It’s both a sanctuary from and a stark reminder of the hustle and bustle of an ever-evolving metropolis–to an even greater extent than previous phases of the park.
All around the High Line at the Rail Yards, there’s a constant reminder that the city is a work in progress. Surrounded by a neighborhood that’s changing rapidly, shadowed by towering new luxury residences, it runs alongside a construction site and the railroad storage yard that construction will one day build over. From its heightened vantage point, with its expansive views of both the river and the churning city below, this new High Line is the most quintessentially New York stretch of the park.
Here are some of the coolest design features of the new space:
One of the coolest features of the High Line is the peel-up benches that seem to rise up as a natural extension of the path itself. Now, “it’s almost like High Line 3.0 as this next iteration comes out–there are elements that feel of the High Line but are a little bit different,” explains Lisa Switkin, a principle at James Corner Field Operations who oversaw the project. The designers have created a plethora of new peel-up bench types, including longer benches, a picnic table, love seats, a bench designed to look like a xylophone, and a rocking bench. “The furniture itself is a little bit more social in some ways,” she tells Co.Design. “There is this kind of playfulness that has become incorporated into this section,” she explains, an assertion borne out at the earliest moments of the park’s debut on Saturday. Before the ribbon was even officially cut, children were already clambering up onto the xylophone bench and toddlers wrestling away from their parents to use the gentle paved curves of the peel-up design as slides.
This new melange of seating, along with a wider pathway, opens up the park a bit. The first two stretches of the High Line can become easily cramped, and an afternoon walk through the urban oasis can easily become a march in line behind a thousand tourists. The designers expect the park to get even more crowded, as the new 7 Line subway extension eventually makes its way to the far West Side of Manhattan, and an estimated 65,000 people eventually pass through the Husdson Yards each day. To accommodate more foot traffic, the third leg of the High Line is wider. Greenery is still part of the DNA of the design, but there’s more pathway than there are plantings.
Just beyond the initial patio of new seating, subtle reminders of the railroad’s past are intricately woven into the landscape. The Rail Track Walks, which Switkin calls “a new way to express and interact with the historic rail tracks,” bring visitors down to the level of the old rail bed. The path gently undulates, dipping slightly onto full-on rail tracks. They’re designed to look like they’re lined with loose stone gravel, giving the landscape a more rugged feeling, but the material is actually a bonded aggregate–it’s smooth and solid. It’s also widely accessible for people with disabilities, despite its appearance. The designers worked with Victor Calise, commissioner at the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. He heralded the design of the new phase for “simple gestures that were included so elegantly.” Calise, who uses a wheelchair, tells Co.Design that “it’s inclusive design at its best.”
For kids and curious adults, there are plenty of new ways to interact with the old rail trestle. On the rail track walks, a few old rail switches have been retrofitted so you can actually move them. A sunken stretch of the park, called the Pershing Square Beams, features assorted play structures, like periscopes and a gopher hole that allows kids to pop up from beneath the deck into a bed of plantings.
At a bridge that spans 11th Avenue, the path inclines slightly, raising visitors up almost 3 feet for a heightened view of the river and the wide thoroughfare below. Long benches along the fence–its links and metal rivets a subtle echo of the once-freight-yard–provide a natural place to pause and enjoy the views.
This newest section is in the middle of a construction site, for better or for worse. “The two principles that guided the design were this future, brave new world and this new orientation to the river,” Switkin says. The High Line runs over a stretch of more than a mile of Manhattan’s West Side, between what Switkin describes as “this historic meatpacking district and old New York and Chelsea, and new development”–like a slew of starchitect-designed luxury buildings springing up in west Chelsea–“and now there’s almost like the future at the Rail Yards with what are going to be very tall buildings. So the High Line, in some ways, is this piece that really is a way for people to view the city.”
What will one day be a plaza at the Hudson Yards, a $20 billion effort to build an entire neighborhood on top of a 28-acre stretch of sunken rail yard, is nearly within arm’s reach, and its presence is inescapable. One day, the section of the High Line that abuts the Hudson Yards will connect to a plaza in the development, creating a kind of mega pedestrian space. For now though, a picnic on the High Line is accompanied by the sweet soundtrack of construction, clanking of metal on metal, and the slightest whiff of sawdust. For some, that may ruin the “garden in the sky” effect the park is meant to achieve, but it’s also an immediate grounding in the context of the city. “These clashes of being up against the city in all these different ways are what make it unique,” Switkin says of the High Line. This is a neighborhood in the midst of a remaking–one partially driven by the High Line’s own magnetic draw–and even surrounded by wild tufts of plants and looking out over river waters, the city does not recede into the background. Even high above the city, it’s very much an urban park.
Though the majority of the third leg of the High Line is now laid, the park isn’t completely finished just yet. One section, “the spur,” a small section that runs under what will be the Hudson Yard’s development’s first tower and curves to the west of the main path at 30th Street, is still in the design phase and is scheduled for completion in 2017. And the interim walkway, where the path runs alongside the wild remains of the overgrown rail tracks, is only designed to last 10 to 15 years. A more permanent version of the interim path will take its place once the massive rail yard development next door is finished, in theory, though that section is not yet funded.
The High Line has been 15 years in the making, and it still has a few more to go. As Friends of the High Line co-founder Joshua David noted at the grand opening of the latest section on Saturday, it’s an endeavor that speaks to “the power of great design to re-envision what a park could be.” It continues to re-envision not only what a park can be, but what the city is.
As Switkin puts it, it’s “this place that seems so otherworldly.” But at the same time, while you’re leaving the streets, you never quite leave the city. From a vantage point 30 feet in the air with the city laid out before you, she says, “you see the city differently.” And in a city that can sometimes feel like an entire, overwhelming world onto itself, that’s a valuable viewpoint.