Organic Growth in the Big Apple

Nearly every time I travel to New York City, mostly for work, I walk the Highline. It is the most fascinating stroll to take, guiding me through historic reflections, views of many city aspects, interactions with a wide variety of people, and reflections on green design and development of all kinds.

I always hear at least a dozen different languages…

Lunch picnic, but not on the grass.

Lunch picnic, but not on the grass.

This last time I visited I started to get…worried. I mean, my mind is boggled by the intensity of the property development and it is seemingly out of control. Each time I walk the line i see changed views, older buildings are gone to make way for new, and sunlight seems to shine less on the park. I was sad when I saw the rails I used to walk on as a balance beam were no longer there, but now changed to a slightly elevated walk-over. Maybe they’ll be back. I saw with amazement the Hudson yards growing up so high and with such perspective over the train yard, but I worry the views into the city will no longer exist. I am a bit sad the development will cover the train yard over time. And I am also beginning to see the wear and tear that so many park patrons can’t help but create, so much so that the last four times I’ve been to the park, the large grassy field at 23rd street has been blocked off. Even still, people were stepping over the barrier because they are so much more important than respecting the community commons they are enjoying.

Train yards at 30th

Train yards at 30th

Taller and closer...

Taller and closer…

Should I worry? I bet the Friends of the Highline and the volunteers and staff worry a lot, especially about the peripheral development that has been justly spurred by the park and that can’t help but potentially negatively affect it. The city is exploding with development of high rises over 700 ft, and many of them embrace the Highline at the northern end. Will there be a limit to this development? Should I think of it as a natural system, like a fallow field that naturally grows up with fast deciduous trees and then transitions to pine, then after 50 plus years decays back into a lush forest again fostering green leafy saplings? Should I embrace the diversity and transitions…they are so much like a forest and like a city at the same time, ever-changing, vibrant, synergistic?

Yes, I should embrace it and revel in it, so long as we can maintain diversity. That’s a tough one. Who decides and manages this? What role can government play in encouraging growth without squeezing out certain communities or squeezing in communities only to create resentment? Will the tourist traffic, from the city and from outside, be enough to maintain that variety of activities, views and residences? We all know diversity brings strength, but is that knowledge compelling enough to support the level of needed attention? And in actively managing this process of organic, seemingly chaotic change in the Highline and its environs, would we invariably stagnate it, to its eventual detriment? I mean we often manage nature in truly horrible ways. Like the farm producing all corn and only corn, we strip the soil of nutrients and the yield will eventually fail. We simplify our yards down to the plants we think are pretty, or grass (yuck) and we load it with toxic fertilizers and pesticides to keep it looking as we like it to look, no matter the need for seasonal or other cyclic variance. Even grass wants to be brown sometimes, and we don’t let it be. We want grass green and only 1″ tall! We love the woods until we have eroded the paths, and we plan maintenance fires that quite often get out of control. We manage the rivers and landscape their edges until they run too fast and straight and bust through the hardened edges with exceptional drama.

Nature’s systems are very well-managed with a light hand (external if you are religious, internal otherwise) in their organic unfolding. At a high level, I feel cities and other vibrant communities may have the same fundamental frame guiding their development over time. Essentially unplanned, NYC is vibrant and diverse. However, at the level dealing with one park, recently revealed along 15 or so blocks of the west side of NYC, I’m not sure if the framework will hold true. There are so many micro managers pushing that framework to meet their own goals: the developers wanting to make their bucks, the residents sucked into the view of the Highline or angered by the increased activity, the influx of restaurants, exhibits, tourism books, snack kiosks, volunteers, birders, school kids, musicians, wedding planners, fundraisers, and the whole world looking over the tracks of the first successfully repurposed elevated rail line.

Or maybe they are the system? The chaos is part of the plan?

Vendor area near the Chelsea Market

I don’t have the answers. I would love your input into this discussion. As for me, I plan to visit the Highline every time I’m in the city. I’ll taste the new food vendor fare, I may visit the Whitney, and I will certainly look over the river at each break in the cityscape. I will admire the plants and plan gleefully to introduce some of them to my home garden (which I will never do) and I will thank the volunteers and paid workers when I see them. I will pick up the occasional piece of trash and shake my head. I will try to give people space when they are taking a picture and I will swear only under my breath when someone stops right in the middle of everything without warning and without awareness of the ebb and flow and jostling of bodies affected by their actions. I will watch and enjoy the changes, and try to quiet my apprehensions.

In the end, it’s all good in some way. Every experiential change is part of the joy of the Highline. You may go to Central Park for its space and its history, but you go to the Highline for its edgy peace in the middle of the intensity of the urban fabric. The contrast informs, the transitions keep me aware, and even with an occasional worried thought, I am glad for all of it.

Hope you get to visit soon,


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