Can an urban park be art? Can it expand your perspective, challenge your ideas, deepen your experience?

Central Park Construction

For a historical perspective, lets take a look at New York City’s Central Park. The Park is the result of a prize-winning design by American Frederick Law Olmsted and Englishman Calvert Vaux. Today, when a New Yorker takes a nature-loving stroll through the park, all appears natural, but the landscape is, in fact, entirely engineered. The original soil was so infertile, new soil was brought in from places as far as NJ. Thousands of trees were removed and thousands more planted. Lakes were dug, roads were sunk. The park is the intentional creation of the picturesque, highly influenced by European gardens of the time. 

The l999 NYC series which originally aired on PBS described the design as revolutionary, meant to remind visitors of American democratic ideals (access by all citizens, not just the elite) and while providing an idealized natural setting, so that residents could escape from city life. I imagine, for those first visitors who stepped out of the city and into this carefully crafted wonderland, the experience must have been awe-inspiring.

But could a park jolt a weary New Yorker out of their daily grind today?

For a modern perspective, lets take a look at the High Line, a NYC park created on the former platform for an elevated train in the Chelsea neighborhood. The platform fell out of use in the late 70’s/early 80’s and was, in part, demolished. Over the years, drought resistant plants, including grasses, trees and shrubs made their home in this lonely place, high above the city streets. In the 1990’s the elevated platform was slated for demolition, and would have been lost but for local residents and activists, who lobbied for a park. Their dream was realized in 2009, when the first part of the park opened.

So is it awe-inspiring? Well, I believe that The High Line is to modern New Yorkers what Central Park was to earlier residents. To walk along the High Line is to have an entirely new experience of New York City, one that combines past and present and even suggests movement to the future. The design incorporates some of those plants who took up residence on their own, as well as other wild meadow flowers. In other words, every plant is a subtle reminder of nature’s ultimate dominance and the limited life-span of industrial use. The long, grey walkways recall the movement of the trains, and the large windows provide a peek into former factories–a literal, though uniquely lateral, birds-eye view of the city. Most intriguing, perhaps, are the openings that originally held billboards. They are glassed-off and provide a hover-view of city streets which happen to make me think of the Paul Simon Song American Tune (…I dreamed I was flying, high up above my eyes could clearly see…).

If you want experience the High Line from home, the publication Garden Design provides some pictures of the recently opened second section. If you are a reader planning on attending RWA 2011 in a few weeks, don’t miss this unique NYC gem. If you are more interested in Regency English Gardens, check out my friend Miranda’s blog series In the Garden with Jane Austen Parts One and Two.

So, can a park be art? What do you think?

One Response to The Art of the Park: Central Park vs. the High Line

  • Hi Wendy,
    I love the High Line, and your comment about the marriage of past and present is spot on. On a more prosaic note, I also love the food markets nearby!

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