Beautiful Native Plants

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Monday, June 27, 2016

NYC’s High Line Park: a community restoration

NYC’s High Line Park is maintained by a non-profit,
Friends of the High Line,” which hires the gardeners
and organizes the many activities. 

After a long wait…

I’d been wanting to visit the High Line Park in Manhattan (a public park built on an abandoned elevated train platform) since I first heard about it back in 2009 when the first section opened. I finally made it on a recent Monday morning when my daughter and I walked the whole length—1.45 miles. What a wonderful community project!

I’m writing about this project here because I think it shows that when you build habitat areas, even in densely crowded urban areas, that it’s good for the birds, the humans in the neighborhood, and for the economic health of the area. In other words, if you build it, the birds will come and so will the humans. See below for my conversations with 2 of the staff gardeners for the care that is required to keep up the planted areas.

The elevated rail platform had been owned by CSX, the freight carrier, and had been unused since 1980. Over the years, Mother Nature had taken over and had planted it with both natives and invasive exotics. People were fascinated that trees could grow there. In 1999, Friends of the High Line was founded. The members saved it from demolition under the federal rails to trails program. CSX donated the tracks to the city and it is under the jurisdiction of the city parks department, but the Friends of the High Line manages it and raises enough funds to pay the staff, organize events, and make improvements. This deal was made during Mayor Bloomberg’s term as New York’s mayor.

The platform and everything on it was removed including plants, the tracks, gravel, and concrete. Only the supports were left. The lead-based paint was stripped off, the structure was solidified, and redesigned for the gardens (basically a green roof), and for human access.

A Google Earth view of the southernmost end of the park.
Note the hotel that straddles the park at the top of the photo.

The southernmost end

We started our walk at the southernmost end of the park, which was the first part to open. (It opened in 2009 and the second part opened in 2011.) The park opens at 7am and we were there at 7:15 and there were already many people out enjoying the park. They were jogging, strolling, sitting to read the morning paper, or heading to The Chelsea Market (2 blocks north of the southern end) for their morning coffee. This is NYC’s meatpacking district.

We walked under the luxurious Standard Hotel, which straddles the park and was built after the construction of the High Line. Its street level area has been designed as a public plaza with access to its restaurant and beer garden using reclaimed bricks in keeping with the historic nature of the neighborhood. You can see this hotel in both the Google view and in the photo below.

This is a prime example of how once the public has invested in an attractive asset that the private dollars will also be spent.

You can read more about the history of the High Line and other details on the park’s website.

The street view of the High Line at the southernmost point. This is the oldest part of the park so the plantings are more mature. Note the Standard Hotel, the blue glass building.

Early on a Monday morning, a New Yorker finds a shady perch to read his paper. Note the Standard Hotel in the background again…

Raised beds are used where there are trees. Even small trees like the birches require more soil than the flat beds where small shrub and herbaceous species are planted.

You can’t see them in this photo, but there are 3 yellow-shafted flickers in the shadows gorging themselves on these berries. The garden designers provided plenty of fruit & seed-bearing plants to feed the birds.

There are several places along the High Line park where the canopy is merging atop the walkways. Note the train tracks used in this part of the walkway.

The design of the benches and the water fountain
 repeat the linear nature of the space. I love that
the water fountain has no drain, so the leftover
water dribbles into the gardens.

The design

The park spaces and various elements were definitely designed, but in a subtle way so that you almost don’t recognize it, but it just feels right for the space.

The linear feel of the walkway and the use of the reclaimed rails in some areas reminds the visitors of the history. The water fountains continue this linear feel and were specially designed so there are no drains. The extra water dribbles into the gardens rather than being flushed away as a waste product. How sustainable!

The landscape was designed by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with the consultation of planting designer Piet Oudolf.

Hey look! You can see New Jersey from here! The Hudson River is not far away and this increases the value of this linear habitat. Chaise lounges are built on rollers over the tracks.
Orin, a staff gardener, took a short break to answer
some of my questions. He has 3 volunteers
who work with him.

The gardeners

I talked to two of the gardeners on our trip through the park. Each gardener manages a few blocks of the park and has volunteer helpers. Their duties are what you’d expect: weeding, trimming, replanting and also picking up trash and whatever else is needed. Their salary is paid by the Friends of the High Line.

I asked about what percentage of the plants were native. They both said about half, which was surprising to me, because from my perspective I recognized very few aliens. Maybe they were discounting the native cultivars in their count.  The website says that plantings are “mostly” native and were inspired by what grew there in the 25 years of non-use. Mostly grasses and graminoids in the wide open areas and more trees in the areas protected by buildings where the sun and the wind are mitigated.

The species of perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees were chosen for their hardiness, sustainability, and textural and color variation, with a focus on native species. Many of the species that originally grew on the High Line’s rail bed are incorporated into the park’s landscape.

While the space has a built-in irrigation system, the gardeners do spot watering for the wet beds and during the hot, dry summers.

I asked about the birds. Orin said that the diversity of birds has increased in the last couple of weeks because the mockingbird nesting season is over. They had a nest on almost every block and chased away the other birds. Now *things* are calmer.

The gardeners told me that the whole space is irrigated, but extra water is provided during the hot drier parts of summer. This tank/pump/hose caddy makes it easier to accomplish the manual irrigation.

Late summer asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) are more sustainable than over-planted and non-native mums and just as beautiful. Plus they are attractive to pollinators.

This bog bed is host to horsetails (Equisetum sp.), saltmarsh mallows (Kosteletzkya pentacarpos), and rushes (Juncus sp.). Extra irrigation is needed for these moisture-loving plants.
There were several species of milkweed along the High Line, but the most common is the butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa). The monarchs will be pleased to find this welcoming habitat.

The neighboring buildings have become cooler in both senses of the word. When neighboring buildings are upgraded to expand upon the High Line’s habitat space for their own humans, the birds will also benefit.

Artistically placed sculptures punctuate the park.

A spur, where there are no public paths, provides better habitat for birds and other critters.
An important part of High Line’s success is the financial support from the community. The plantings may look natural, but they need ongoing care to look their best.

The street trees and small parks near the High Line provide better habitat for birds than those without a continuous canopy nearby.

The third section of the park will open later this year. It’s at the north end near the freight yards and the Jacob Javits Convention Center.

Another visit will be needed

After the northern (and final) section opens later this year, I’ll need to revisit the area again. It does look interesting and it will be different from the rest of the park because it curves toward the Hudson River. Anyone care to join me?

(For other projects where people have initiated the restoration of native areas in public spaces, see: Eco-activists: A few people can make a real difference! and Native Park restoration.)

© Ginny Stibolt