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A High Line for London’s all very well, but what about the Low Line?

Admirers of New York’s High Line risk losing sight of street-level success, says Tim Richardson.

High Line fever has hit the British gardens world. But can we in Britain really learn from this privately funded “trophy” project which has been created in one of the most fashionable parts of Manhattan?

The High Line is the 1.5-mile elevated park on a disused railway line on New York’s lower west side which snakes its way between buildings about 30ft up, affording thrilling views of the city while still remaining connected with it. It is by some distance the most celebrated landscape intervention for decades, anywhere.

The naturalistic planting by Dutch wizard Piet Oudolf complements an architectural design based on the linear motif of railway tracks. Oudolf’s palette comprises more than 200 species, with a predominance of pink and yellow “prairie” flowers (such as heleniums and echinaceae) as well as native redbuds, rhus, amelanchiers, maples and birches.

The High Line has captured people’s imaginations, and now everyone wants a piece of it – especially politicians and grant-givers. There was a three-day conference on the project at the Garden Museum in London last month, coupled with an open competition inviting ideas for a “British High Line”.

The winner was a plan to reuse the disused “Mail Rail” tunnels beneath London’s Oxford Street as a moss and mushroom walkway (a curiously unoriginal choice: the artist Dan Lobb won the Hampton Court Flower Show conceptual garden section last year with something similar).

In the real world, the High Line’s landscape team (Oudolf and New York company Field Operations) has been drafted in to redesign the massive paved area at the centre of the Olympic Park in time for its reopening as Queen Elizabeth Park in about 14 months’ time. It will comprise a number of discrete landscape compartments containing sports facilities and play areas. The episodic nature of the design is somewhat reminiscent of the High Line.

There is talk of a High Line on an atmospheric railway viaduct in the Castlefield area of Manchester. I visited the site recently and was enthralled by the viaduct’s magnificent pillars – though at just 500m this park might have to be nicknamed the Short Line. Plans are also afoot for a revamp of east London’s Bishopsgate goods yard, which is to incorporate a 4.2 acre park on the Braithwaite Viaduct.

But does all this mean we are going to end up with a rash of wannabe High Lines? At the very least, any linear parks on old railway lines need to have a character and design rationale all their own, preferably intimately associated with their location. The High Line got away with a highly ornamental planting design of drifts and defined groups of shrubs and trees, which bears very little resemblance to the flora of the overgrown railway line it replaced. Those following will have to create a look that is quite different, not least because one suspects the Oudolf style may appear dated within a decade, so popular has it been.

One thing that jarred during the Garden Museum event, was the suggestion that what Britain needs, is more “Josh and Robs” to propel such ideas (Josh and Rob being the co-founders of Friends of the High Line). I found this quite difficult to swallow. I have met many British Joshes and Robs – people who have created wonderful projects such as the Edible Bus Stop in south London, which consists of community vegetable gardens in the pavements by bus stops. Or the phalanxes of “guerrilla gardeners” who gather around the standard raised by Richard Reynolds in perennially blighted Elephant and Castle.

These activists’ focus is not necessarily on “trophy projects”, but humbler, more localised, low-funded initiatives, often involving vegetables. Who knows, these might have a more lasting impact on local people than a big, shiny project which attracts lots of tourists but – like the High Line – has difficulty luring people living next door.

Walking the High Line is a transcendently unreal experience which deserves to be celebrated, but we should not lose sight of the value of what happens at street level. That’s the Low Line, and it arguably deserves just as much attention.

Original article found here

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