NYC’s High Line Park: a community restoration

High linesign
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 rails 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.

Chaise lounges are built on rollers over the tracks.

Chaise lounges are built on rollers over the tracks.


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.


Orin, a staff gardener, took a short break to answer some of my questions. He has 3 volunteers that 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.


This bog bed is host to horsetails (Equisetum spp.), saltmarsh mallows (Kosteletzkya pentacarpos), and rushes (Juncus spp.). 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.

High lineasters

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.


The neighboring buildings are being upgraded to expand upon the High Line’s habitat space for their own humans and as a bonus, the birds will also find new places.


Neighboring buildings have become cool in both senses of the word.


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.

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.)


© 2014, Ginny Stibolt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. Corner Garden Sue says

    I live far enough away that I most likely will not make it there to see the garden, so I was pleased to get to view it here on the blog. I have seen one other post on it that I can recall that was a number of years ago. I’m glad to see it is doing well, and new projects are being pursued. Thanks!
    Corner Garden Sue recently posted..From the Front Porch, August 15, 2014

    • Ginny Stibolt says

      Hi Sue, I live in Florida, which is also far away. While I normally write about gardening in Florida, I thought that this impressive project might inspire people elsewhere that a community can restore itself by providing an attractive asset that will attract more people and more investment in the neighborhood.
      Ginny Stibolt recently posted..Spaghetti squash recipes & planting

  2. suzanne dingwell says

    Ginny, what a lovely online field trip! This beacon of achievement is a blazing light shining out a message to planners and planters everywhere – here is a ‘win-win’ kind of project. As you said, “build it and they will come!”

    I’d like to mention that it took a tremendous effort from the believers and supporters who banded together to battle nay-sayers, regulations and regulators, as well as economic challenges to make it happen. The High Line is a fabulous example of outcomes made possible by those who get out and get going. (!)

    Walking on the High LIne provides a an instant uplift not only physically, but also mentally, for city dwellers and visitors, even those who love city living. It’s hard to describe the sense of space and freedom that comes from even a brief walk there. Thanks for featuring it here.

    • Ginny Stibolt says

      Yes, I’m sure it was a David & Goliath type of battle and probably seemed out of reach for a long time, but the believers won. So now it shines like a beacon for others who wish to save or restore a community feature.

      And what is so relevant for this blog is that these mostly native gardens are changing the way people view what an ideal garden should look like. For the High Line it should look like New York, not “Anywhere, USA.”
      Ginny Stibolt recently posted..Spaghetti squash recipes & planting

  3. Marilyn says

    Hi Ginny,

    The High Line is a wonderful idea.

    I was concerned to see the shrub in your photo with the hidden flickers. It looks to be the invasive glossy buckthorn which can look similar to some natives. Do you know what shrub it is?

    • Ginny Stibolt says

      No Marilyn. I didn’t recognize it. Both of the staff gardeners I spoke to said that they work to eliminate invasives and that because there are invasives in surrounding areas, it is a constant battle.
      Ginny Stibolt recently posted..Spaghetti squash recipes & planting

    • mary lutz says

      this plant looks a lot like ‘pokeweed’ (Phytolacca Americana). Being a transplanted New Yorker/Long Islander, this grew in my yard……….a poisonous weed, but yummy to birds. Early in spring, the tender leaves of the plant are said to be delicious eating, and the berries are a good source of dye, used by native peoples.

      • Ginny Stibolt says

        Mary, it wasn’t pokeweed (P. americana). I have that in my yard now. The leaves look like the invasive buckthorn, but the fruit does not. It might be another species of Phytolacca, though.

  4. Tony McGuigan says

    Stunning post! Now I must see High Line Park. Nice to see your progress photos — the canopy is growing in.

    • Ginny Stibolt says

      Thanks Tony. It is worth the trip. I’m planning to go back after the third section opens.

      The gardeners do a lot of pruning. Even though it was early in the day when we walked through, One of the gardeners’ carts was piled high with trimmings.
      Ginny Stibolt recently posted..Spaghetti squash recipes & planting

  5. Carole says

    Visiting the Highline has been one of my goals so I always read articles about it. Yours gave me a better understanding of the layout and plants. Thanks for the update. We have a rails to trails line running through Milton, a wonderful way to see our little town.

    • Ginny Stibolt says

      Hi Carole,

      I lived near a rails to trails project in Maryland. It was well used.

      This project goes well beyond the normal conversion and it had to, given its location, to attract the attention of the New Yorkers and the business community.

      I hope you can see it in person soon.



  1. Chicago’s Lurie Garden: a very public native space says:

    […] what a real garden is supposed to look like. In a way this is a follow-up to my last post on New York’s High Line Park. (Piet Oudolf was also the planting designer for the High Line Park, so there are many […]


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