A Happy Accident on the High Line?

Yesterday I had the unexpected chance to hear a talk – in my own home-town, and free of charge – by Robert Hammond, Executive Director of the Friends of the High Line, and one of the two men responsible for instigating the project (you can read my earlier post about it here)

He’s out here for a Thriving Neighbourhoods conference, and a group called Melbourne Conversations had managed to grab him for this free event at Melbourne Town Hall.

In addition to just wanting to hear the story of the High Line, I went along armed with two questions ie how controversial (if at all) was the appointment of Piet Oudolf, a non-American, for the planting of the High Line?; and what proportion of the phenomenal success of the High Line can be attributed to the sensationally sophisticated and highly engaging planting?

The talk was fabulous.  Robert Hammond is highly irreverent and energetic, and refused to conform to the dry, formal atmosphere into which he was introduced.  Given that the terms ‘presenting a paper’ and ‘plenary session’ have me frantically scrabbling for the escape hatch, he had me on board from minute one.

I won’t go into the content of the talk – if you’re interested you can see it on YouTube in a week or so (I’ll add a link below when it appears) – but it turns out that my first question was answered incidentally (and a little disconcertingly) during the talk.  Piet Oudolf was never appointed, as such.  He was just part of the team that won the design competition, and he wasn’t even the leader of the team.  This was a little freaky – realizing how close we came to their being no PO-planted High Line!

I managed to ask my second question through a microphone at the end of the talk, the downside of which was that I was so nervous that I kind of forgot to listen properly to the answer.  Weird, that.  I did radio for years without a twinge of nerves, but if I ever ring up talk-back radio myself, I get so worked up waiting in the queue that I can barely speak once it’s my turn.

RH replied that the planting certainly changes people’s behaviour.  He stated that NY isn’t a very romantic town.  People don’t hold hands, and they walk fast.  His observation is that on the High Line they slow down, and you see them holding hands, and part of that he attributes to the quality of the planting.  At least I think that’s what he said.

It was quite a good answer, but different to what I expected.  My fear is that if anything similar was attempted here, we’d probably end up with acres of mondo grass punctured by ornamental pears, or Poa lab punctured by spotted gum.  If Robert Hammond’s brief explanation of the process is anything to go by, then it would seem that even on the High Line, which is to my mind the best bit of garden design – and the best bit of gardening – I’ve seen in the last couple of years, the quality of the planting wasn’t particularly high on the priority list.  The planting really only emerged as a part of the winning submission.  Looked at from this angle, it would appear that this astonishing planting – in my opinion the best work of the best man working with perennials – comes frighteningly close to being a stroke of very, very good luck.

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  1. Interesting observation by RH about the change in a New Yorker’s behaviour. I think it’s all about flowers. Green is all very well, and trees rule OK, but a flowering anything engages, even romances people in a way that no other plant does. Maybe good looking fruit might do the same. It’s also the only explanation of why people can look at a god-awful garden and still like it – that ‘nice bit of colour’ wins them over, even when you or I cringe. And I think in Sydney it would be Lomandra ‘Tanika’ punctured by tuckeroo. And I’m still trying to imagine you looking nervous with a microphone….nope, can’t see it.

    1. Yeah, what is that about flowers? I’m sure there’s some theory about flowers inducing a response as flowers form fruit and fruit is food. And as for me and stage fright – here’s a bigger image for you to confure. Me playing Captain Von Trapp in the local production of Sound of Music – opens next friday. Hilarious!

  2. How fascinating, Michael. Looking forward to the YouTube link.

  3. Was it a happy accident that you posted this on Halloween, a most unfortunate import. There were dozens of cars along our street last night, dozens! However to more important matters like the High Lines planting. I think it proves the need for more intricate , stimulating and as you say sophisticated plantings in public spaces. Evolving plantings with seasonal interest that engage people to the point that they are compelled to slow down, as if they are being nurtured in their own garden with no business of traffic in the immediate vicinity . This is a garden created for a personal level and the fact that it is almost streamlined means that people can remain in a personal space anywhere along it’s length, with only pedestrians moving past. It is particularly appropriate for New Yorkers most of whom live in apartments but as you say one and all love it.

    1. That’s a really interesting point – that its linearity means that it’s experienced on an intimate, personal scale anywhere along its 2km length.

  4. Would LOVE to see the High Line, it sounds amazing..do you think if we sent some local council gardeners along they’d be inspired? Will have to book a ticket to Sound of Music! You’ll be great!

    1. Thanks Penny. In my experience the council gardeners are also frustrated. It’s those above them that set the tone. Incredible thing about the High Line is that it receives absolutely no funding from the City of NY. It’s entirely funded by the friends group – the whole 8mill/yr it costs to maintain it! as tough as that is, at least it means they stay in full control.
      As for tickets – all sold out a month before opening night. Otherwise I would have been too shy to say anything…

  5. As Catherine says, there’s something about flowers that affects behaviour. I was with a Ross Garden group at Lambley earlier this week and David Glen told a funny story about the ambivalent attitude Australian men have towards flowers (present company excepted of course!). He took a bunch of flowers to a local friend. She was out so he handed the bouquet to her adult son, who held them like they were a bunch of rotting rodents the whole time they chatted on the doorstep. David delighted in extending the conversation – and the son’s evident discomfort. Will we ever get past lomandra+tree when men have fear of flowers?

    1. I love giving blokes flowers for that reason.
      But the Lomandra/Tuckeroo combo surely isn’t a man-fear thing. I think its much simpler. Flowers means dynamism and dynamism in any planting always means both maintenance and management. Static planting is the cheapest to look after. Check out my reply to Penny below and see how the High Line dodges around this.

  6. If you haven’t already, have a read of the great debate about clumping or intermingled planting (like the High Line) going on between Thomas Rainer and Noel Kingsbury at Anne Wareham’s ThinkingGardens blog http://thinkingardens.co.uk/articles/mingle-or-clump-by-thomas-rainer/ Excellent writing by both. So excellent in fact, I feel too intimidated to leave a comment, although I find Rainer’s arguments more compelling.

    1. I hadn’t seen this thread Catherine, but am so grateful to you for linking it. Have just read the entire thing while lying awake on a squeaky camp bed in shared accommodation, try to lie as still as poss so as to not wake the whole room. An incredible discussion – so multifaceted that trying to get a grip on it is like attempting to juggle three large flaccid freezer bags each containing a cup of water.

  7. This comment from a reader via email (below). Wanted to add it here as I loved the idea of the leaps of faith required – leaps of faith that seem, according to Robert Hammond, to have been largely fuelled by their ignorance. If that’s what ignorance about the necessary political processes etc can do, bring it on!

    ‘Thank you for the great post. We loved the High Line too and were lucky to visit soon after it opened. Thank you very much for highlighting Robert Hammond’s visit to Melbourne – I look forward to following the link to his lecture when you post it. It is a truly fabulous experience and a wonderful example of great place-making. I’m really glad it’s being discussed so widely as a civic exemplar and as a reminder of the imaginative leaps of faith – and the huge effort – that ideas and designs like this require.
    Catherine Anderson Aff RAIA’

  8. Great discovery, this blog! Interesting post – can I subscribe by email ? I can’t see that available….. Xx

    1. Hi Anne. The home page should offer subscription in a box on the top right of the page. Let me know if it doesn’t, and I’ll try to add you from here

    2. OK – will look. Thanks Xx

  9. We loved the high line,arriving in NY luckily the last day of a heatwave,walking the HIgh Line the next day, everyone sort of in slow motion then it started to rain,so then with huge smiles as well,just was wonderful,even the far end that was full of wonderful weeds,I don’t know why but this derelict bit was fascinating too,then turned and walked back through the rain to the other end,still loving every step,great design,planting and flowers. I live in the sub-tropics,for a long time I have worried about the idea that colourful foliage can replace flowers. I don’t think it can for humans and certainly not for animal life in our gardens. Amazing and rather awful to imagine the High Line without the trees and gardens and birds and other unseen animals,or not all all,awful.

    1. You’ll be pleased to hear, Phoebe, that due to budget restrictions that temporarily limit the full development of the weedy north end of the High Line, the plan is to build a walkway to the side of what is there, so you can access this part – currently fenced off – and see what the whole thing looked like before development. You’d better plan a return trip in a couple of years

  10. What a wonderful project. I’ve not been a fan of Piet Oudolf (all that grass!) though his wavy hedges are interesting. You’ve inspired me to look again at his designs in more detail and not be so dismissive.

  11. […] the High Line New Yorkers slow down – and even hold hands! (Read the rest of Michael’s post here, as well as the comments it generated about flowers and their effects on […]

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