Andreas Späth

Walking the High Line

2013-12-09 10:43

Andreas Wilson-Späth

I recently had the opportunity of visiting New York, a place I've been wanting to experience in person (as opposed to in the movies) for many years. Near the top of list of sites to see was the High Line, probably New York's most innovative public park, which is saying a lot in a city blessed with a multitude of beautifully maintained green spaces that includes the totally astonishing Central Park.

But the High Line is different. It's a park in the sky: a narrow, 1.6km long tree, grass and flower lined walkway on a disused elevated railway track that winds itself through Manhattan's Meatpacking District and Chelsea.

It's a creative, beautiful and yet functional example of how even the most ugly and decrepit piece of outsized urban furniture can be recycled and turned from a useless eyesore into a valuable public asset. I'm sure all of us can think of such structures in our own home towns. As a Capetonian our famously unfinished highway flyover on the foreshore comes to mind. Anyone who's seen the High Line will be brimming with ideas on how to turn that weirdness into something amazing.

The original High Line was constructed in 1930 and used to transport goods into the heart of the city right up to its last recorded delivery in 1980 – three rail-car loads of frozen turkey. For almost two decades it stood unused and dilapidated until the threat of demolition prompted two concerned locals to found a non-profit organisation, the Friends of the High Line, which would spend nearly another decade convincing the New York City Council to revamp it.

In 2009, the first section of the new High Line park was opened to the public, followed by the second part in 2011. The third and final bit is scheduled to be unveiled next year.

Walking the High Line, even on a chilly autumn morning, was wonderful. Accessible via stairways from various points, it's got stretches of lawn, tiny birch forests, benches and sunbeds, a little outdoor theatre with a projector to screen films against the wall of a neighbouring building, arty statues, old pieces of rail road track and an amphitheatre that offers a mesmerising, TV-like view of the traffic on 10th Avenue below.

But it's more than just a vegetated path on stilts. Not only does it provide New Yorkers with outdoor greenery, pretty views of the Hudson River and a venue to stroll, relax and meet, to me, it felt like it had symbolic significance as well.

Perched over the city streets and buildings, the High Line stood out above the flood waters that devastated New York when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, like a timely reminder that we need to future-proof our settlements in the face of a changing global climate that is expected to bring more frequent and more intense severe weather events in the years ahead.

Taking that train of thought a bit further, walking the High Line made me think about the sustainability of cities in general. New York is an exceptionally huge example, of course, but the issue is relevant at a variety of scales and it's certainly pertinent to our own South African cities.

Faced with ever-growing urban populations and diminishing cheap natural resources, how are we going to continue to supply our cities with electricity, building materials, clean water and food? And what about the pollution and waste they generate in such large quantities?

Continuing to ship in everything we need from far away and dumping the refuse in our own backyard is not a realistic long-term option. We need to change the way we do things, as individuals, households and cities.

Many alternatives are being experimented with all around the world, from intensive urban agriculture on tiny plots to using roof tops for collecting rainwater and solar power. While I have come across some of these types of initiatives in South Africa, I have yet to see anything that's big and widespread enough to make me feel that we're ready.

Keeping our cities liveable by retrofitting them for a future without fossil fuels and making them resilient enough to cope with the impacts of climate change is one of the biggest challenges we face in this century.

You don't need a walk on the High Line to conduct a simple yet instructive thought experiment: plant yourself on an elevated spot from which you can survey as much of your home city as possible, and then start imagining what's required for all of this to continue to exist for generations into the future.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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