12 of 17: Taking the green highground in New York.

Green space in cities is vital for environmental sustainability. But converting unused urban areas into green space can not only bring environmental benefits, it can also encourage social interaction and an improved sense of place, as team member Mayra Hartmann explores in this, our 12th article in our series of 17 Sustainable Ideas for COP17.

Going Up

In 2009, 10 years after the idea was first thought of, the first phase of The Highline park in the lower West side of Manhattan was opened. An innovative approach to urban revival, an abandoned freight railway track was transformed into a public park. Now, stretching from Chelsea right down to the Meatpacking district, it provides an escape for New York’s residents. Relying on memory, I believe the above image to be the access at 20th St. The Highline has several of these entrances scattered along Tenth Avenue, some of which include elevator access. From the ground the park itself isn’t visible, all you see are the exterior walls of the refurbished railway line My first time going up these steps, it almost felt as if I were stepping into another world. A world unknown to those walking below.

First Glance

Coming the 20th St access stairs we started our walk down the Highline roughly in the middle. We had been lucky as the second phase of the park had just been open a few months prior. All along the park the landscape architects sought to emulate the natural vegetation that had been naturally growing there for years. This choice gives the park a very organic feel and on a sunny afternoon at the end of a long sightseeing day there was no better place to calm the nerves and cool the spirits.

Bench Tracks

Little reminders of what it is you’re actually walking along are positioned throughout the park. The wooden beams are reminiscent of railway tracks. In a number of ‘Relaxation Oasis’ the boards rise out of the ground to create uniquely designed benches. Scattered splashes of colour enhance the playfulness of the surroundings. Probably because of the infamously small Manhattan apartments, New Yorker’s spend extensive parts of their lives in public. Walking through the park you get a strong sense of community, although we were all strangers. People preferred reading, lounging, relaxing, playing and socializing out in the open rather than hidden behind high walls.

In South Africa, crime is blamed for the lack of public life, but it was only 15 years ago that Manhattan claimed the “a crime every 8 seconds” reputation. So how can we strengthen community living in South Africa? What can we learn here?

Urban Viewing

This urban viewing area creates a different perspective into New York. I could have sat here forever and just watched time pass, people walk, cars drive, clouds float…

The passage slopes through the benches enforces the consistently applied concept of continuity. And even though it stops, the glass windows into the city eliminate the end. After witnessing this ingenious vantage point of 10th Avenue, it was difficult to understand why residents around The Highline were against its development. Perhaps that’s what we could learn: people don’t always know what it is they want.

Walking along old tracks

This image is another example of the parks’ humble origins. In certain instances it actually feels as if the tracks are guiding you along the Highline. Somewhat like the emergency lights on airplane floors, they quietly say: “Come this way”.


The Highline truly takes on the role of an escape. A combination of seating and lounge chairs let’s people relax, in its simplest form. An iconic feature of this railway line was how it passed through a number of buildings. In a few instances these passages were used as stations for on- and off-loading. These stations are now where the gastronomic activity of the park. I particularly noticed The Porch a quaint wine bar overlooking the Hudson River and the scores of carts selling flavoured ice.

Urban Cooling

I’ve never walked as much as I did during my visit to New York, so imagine my delight when I found this.

Floating Messages

In one of the aforementioned stations a man sells his “posie poems”. The boards hang on a string and written on each side of the boards are positive words. On each string hangs an ever-changing positive message. And when the wind blows…it’s a flood of positivity.

The walk along The Highline ended in the Meatpacking district where step by step we headed down into Gansevoort St, and back into the concrete jungle. I kept on wondering why we had left so at peace. And although I couldn’t quite put my finger on it I knew it had something to do with community and nature. We continued our walk through the city, where we found ourselves in the Financial District in the middle of an Occupy Wall Street protest; but that is a story all on its own.

17 Sustainable Ideas for COP17 is a collaboration between This Big City and Future Cape Town running alongside the United Nations Climate Change Conference from November 28th to December 9th.