Saturday, August 08, 2009

The case against the “imaginative greening” of the High Line

“The case for the imaginative greening of "brownfields"—derelict industrial sites, in planners' jargon—was tremendously advanced with the opening this June of the first segment of New York City's High Line, a linear park superimposed on the eponymous long- defunct cargo railroad trestle that wends through nearly a mile and a half of Manhattan's West Side from midtown to Greenwich Village.”

So begins Martin Filler’s piece in the New York Review of Books [Aug 13, 2009 Vol. 56 No. 13] about the High Line park in Manhattan . Unfortunately, he unimaginatively accepts that “imaginative greening” is inherently good. His assumption, like that of the Friends of the High Line, is that we can “green” these places that nature has already greened and improve on nature’s agency. The “improvements” in the case of the High Line reveal little interest in preserving the actual plant community which inhabited the High Line. Rather, they developers of the new park destroyed that community shaped by the agency of nature and rebuilt a plant community to their liking and to the standards of human agency - of parkland and garden which creates the appearance of the actual marginal nature that formerly existed. Strange friends indeed.

Filler asserts, “The High Line marks a radical departure from the Classical model of the public park as rus in urbe —"country in city"—epitomized by London's Hyde Park and New York's Central Park, which allow one to imagine having been transported to an idyllic countryside. What makes walking the High Line such an intriguing experience is the way in which it celebrates rather than obviates the collision of natural and manmade environments.” However, although the setting – a rusting elevated railway – is a manmade environment, the new park is a facsimile of the former natural environment that inhabited the rusting railway. Filler points out that the new gardens are “meant to evoke the lush, self-sown greenery that thrived on the High Line during its three decades of desuetude” and the landscape design is an attempt, “to recapture some semblance of that volunteer vegetation.” That semblance excludes the unacceptable non-native species that transgress the code of native species championed by American conservationists, urban biologists, horticulturalists, and landscape architects. As Filler puts it, the High Line plantings are meant to look "messy," "unkempt," and "scruffy" and "less like a park and more like a scruffy wilderness," but the weeds have been banished. Thus, native sumac is used since it is “a shrub with compound leaves reminiscent of Ailanthus altissima, the weedlike "tree of heaven" apostrophized in Betty Smith's best-selling novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn of 1943 as an archetypal urban survivor accustomed to the toughest settings. (Conservationists now discourage use of that aggressively invasive species.)”

I find little to celebrate with the High Line since an occasion to learn from marginal nature and preserve the weedland on the High Line has been lost. The photographs on the Friends of the Highline website demonstrate how nonhuman agents assembled a cosmopolitan community that was aesthetically pleasing and inclusive of nonnatives which has been undone by the semblance of the former wildness imposed on the place by the human agents who think they know what is best for this kind of urban space. Where there was once freedom and unsanctioned creativity, there now is surveillance and only sanctioned nature is welcomed. Hence, no Tree of Heaven is allowed.

But give it a few years. Let the new park age a bit, and in the neglected margins a few weeds will return to remind us of what used to be.

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