High Line the undeniable highlight

Christopher Lloyd, speaking to the Canberra Press Club in 1992 about the landscaping around the recently opened Parliament House stated that “the Landscape Architect clearly knew four plants,” then assumed a tone of mock admiration to add “and managed to use all four in his design.” 

I reckon I could count on one hand the locations where you see good Landscape Architect-designed hard landscaping and good planting together.  One of those locations is the Cranbourne outpost of Melbourne Botanic Gardens, and another being the Elephant enclosure at Melbourne Zoo.

But the prize goes, in my opinion, to the highlight of my recent trip checking out gardens for a new tour – the High Line in New York (being pummelled by Hurricane Sandy, as I write).

I was there a couple of weeks ago, and I expected it to be very good.  The planting is by Piet Oudolf, after all.  But I don’t think I was ready for it to be this good.

This phenomenal linear park is built on a disused elevated railway line, winding amongst apartment and office buildings.  Read more about its fascinating history here if you want, as I don’t intend spending any time on that.  I just want to get into its extraordinary combination of planting and constructed detail.

I mean, check out this fabulous seating, in which the long slabs of concrete rise out of the paving and morph into timber benches.  The birches that create a rare canopy overhead (it’s mostly just open to the sky) match perfectly with the ageing flowers of a nearby Hydrangea paniculata form.  (If you could zoom in on the pic above (sometimes when you click on it, it allows you to, but not always – haven’t worked that out yet), you’d see the Statue of Liberty framed by that footbridge in the background)

Also, check out the detail as the concrete strips just fade into the planting, with a wave at the end to simply imply an edge underfoot, to discourage walking over the plants that squeeze in between (1.).

Here and there it wasn’t doing it’s job as well as it might have, and they’ve had to rope off the edges of the beds to prevent trampling, but it’s a fabulous, if not-quite-perfected idea.

My buddy Tony and I entered at the northern end, from West 30th Street, and it looked at first like the planting was going to be pretty much planar, creating a waist high plateau in typical, highly textural, Piet Oudolf style. But it soon rose up to engulf us, and along it’s mile-long length ranges from an almost solid tunnel of woody plants to an ankle-deep carpet of perennials.  Sometimes you were simply on it, and at others you were right in it (2.).

BTW, check out the railway lines that lie right where they were when it was a functioning line.  They’re mostly hidden deep in the planting, but sometimes emerge into the paving (3.).  In other places they’re conspicuous in typical railway gravel, with only thin or deliberately sparse planting.

Just when you’ve walked quite far enough, and it’s time to change your memory card (for the second time), you emerge from under one of several buildings which fly over the High Line to find this communal chaise longue (below). It’s right next to a fabulously low-key water feature in which water just simmers up onto the paving, then runs back down a few slabs away, leaving a thin film of water that tinkles away prettily, and that’d probably splash if you stamped on it hard enough. You can see it on the left of the pic.

It was all very autumnal, which, along with late summer, is when Piet Oudolf’s plantings are at their best.  There were berries everywhere on deciduous hollies, blueberries and the most beautifully placed and well-managed Rosa glauca I’ve seen (right).

I can’t wait to see how it looks when we’re back there in spring.  At a glance, it looks like it’ll be well carried by the woody stuff, like the magnolias, dogwoods and roses, that I didn’t really expect to see in a Piet Oudolf planting.  I’m hoping that there might be a few bulbs as well. A few autumn-blooming Crocus speciosus in there this time was a promising sign.


  1. Wouldn’t it have been fun if they had thought to create something similar along the mono rail in Sydney which I think they have now dismantled. What a delight for a pedestrian to amble high above the noisy hubbub below ,through ,in and amongst not so pedestrian planting. Missed opportunity.
    I agree it is very hard to think of planting in public spaces that rises above the municipal but we need to acknowledge the Children’s garden at our own Botanic Gardens in Melbourne . To see children’s experiences carefully and skilfully manipulated by plants alone is an inspired concept , far better than any expensive playground equipment designed for unimaginative and safe play. Thank you Andrew Laidlaw.
    One more thing. Personally I think Cranbourne BG is distinctly lacking in planting expertise. it is a venturesome and provocative thing to say but then i think some of the problem is that the overall concept of the garden is too venturesome. Better to have created a few particular ecosystems suited to our climate ie the Mallee, heathlands etc, rather than attempt all that is there in such small scale. Maybe it is the gardener talking rather than the Landscape Architect.
    oh and don’t forget the roundabout in Bacchus Marsh.

    1. It was the combo of excellence both in hard landscaping and in planting that I loved so much on the High Line. There’s clearly really good examples of hard landscaping around, and of planting (though rather less of these – and the planting in, and just outside the gate of, the childrens garden is a truly great example). It’s the overlap that is so, so rare.

      My memory of the monorail is that it would have meant a tight-rope walk with no room for planting. But there must be somewhere appropriate there, given Libby’s comment below. Perhaps they’re planning to purpose-construct it, which given the amount of work that had to be done to the High Line to make it fit for it’s new usage, may not be a whole lot more expensive.. On the other hand, there must be plenty of decommissioned roads and railway lines worldwide that could be landscaped, even if they’re not elevated, like the High Line

  2. So now they are planning a ‘Highline’ in Sydney. Dare I hope that the planting will be more than just Cordylines and Westringia? It would be such a thrill if they were to engage a true plantsman to bring New York to Sydney, albeit a different climate with different plants, and spend some money on maintenance!,

    I so enjoyed your photos and commentary on this wonderful urban landscape Michael.

    1. You may dare hope, and I’d honour your optimism. But I couldn’t share it. Firstly I think it’s extraordinary that the group in charge of the High Line saw fit to employ a designer from The Netherlands to do the planting, and that it seems that it’s really well staffed by keen and excited staff who look like they’re fully aware of the privilege of working on the coolest garden/landscape project in the world.
      The big challenge which it is yet to face is the long-term management, rather than the day to day maintenance. They’re entirely separate things, though never recognised as such. What are the chances of anyone, let alone us, getting all three of these aspects right? (and I’m not even counting the hard landscaping, as that knowledge is the easiest to source)

  3. I very much like The High Line, visited summer 2013, what a great garden/project of our Dutch Piet Oudolf

  4. One of my favourite hard landscaping is at the Observatory area just outside the boundary of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens. It blends the observatory itself, the cafe and seating and the gift shop into a beautiful welcoming whole, immediately you leave the fantastic Children’s garden. It’s always a delightful transition.

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