When I lived in Durban, South Africa, I was always intrigued by the speed at which plants would take root on buildings. Once I pulled from a roof gutter a fair-sized schefflera that was growing in the leaf litter there; elsewhere figs stealthily wrapped their roots around drains, pipes and brickwork in a process that was at once about decay and renewal.
On the other side of the world in New York, the same thing happened on a railway line last used in the 1980s. Called the High Line, the track was built to transport wholesale goods through Manhattan. It’s distinguishing feature was that it was above ground, elevated so carriages, cars and pedestrians could pass freely beneath it. When trucks superceded trains as the favoured mode of transport and the last cargo – Christmas turkeys – was delivered, the line was all but forgotten.
That is, until some locals began to mutter about it being an eyesore. In the intervening years, 25 in all, wind and small animals such as birds, bats and rodents brought seeds to the abandoned space. Leaves fell. Dust blew in. Water collected. In time plants took root in nooks and crevices between the tracks; they died, decomposed and formed humus which begets soil. More plants grew and in this no-man’s land of concrete and steel a green lung began to flourish on its accord. Some graffiti artists moved in. I expect it provided great habitat for urban wildlife but you can see why the locals didn’t like it.
The area was all set to be pulled down when it was rescued by a group called Friends of the High Line and was redesigned and replanted with species inspired by the self-seeded varieties that had grown there originally.
Piet Oudolf – one of my favourite garden designers and one known for informal, textural planting – was behind part of it. I expect it’s too early for an October Bloom List to have been put up but the September Bloom List , which you can find on the Friends site, is extensive and includes everything from echinacea to something called rattlesnake master to sweet black-eyed Susan.
On Saturday BBC News called the High Line ‘a masterclass in urban renewal, a kind of “strip-prairie” through the heart of the urban jungle’. Parts of it are still under construction but when it’s complete it will be a mile and a half long, running through the Meatpacking District, West Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen.
Access points will include stairs and lifts – expect you’d need to call them elevators out there – and the plans include plenty of places to sit and watch the world go by. It sounds fabulous and I can’t wait to see it myself one day, although when I do I’ll be sure not to pluck anything out of any gutter.
Pics copyright Clare Hambly.