During the past two weeks I’ve spent time exploring New York City’s High Line. Last week I wrote about how the High Line spaces create a sense of both expanse and enclosure. This week I consider how the park design fosters strolling and sitting, and why those two activities are potentially important for park visitor engagement and learning.
Each year 6 millions visitors (4 million tourists and 2 million New Yorkers) explore the park. This incredibly popular park, built on a former raised freight railway, and listed in many Top 10 NYC lists, is a rich site for thinking about the layered history of landscapes. As the founders of Friends of the High Line point out,
“In a place that changes so much, things that survive have the power to transport you. I felt it the other day as I showed a new friend around the High Line, explaining that before this neighborhood was defined by contemporary art, Google, and Martha Stewart, it was all about trains, ships, and factories. We stopped just north of West Twenty-fifth Street to look between the warehouses at a pair of smokestacks that would have been active when the High Line was built. At West Sixteenth Street, we admired the rotting pilings in the Hudson River a view framed by the former Nabisco factory and a former refrigerated warehouse. The pilings were all that was left of the piers where ocean liners used to dock” (p. 128).
In Japanese garden design, strolling gardens typically feature a path that circles a pond; as visitors stroll they encounter purposefully framed views of plants, waterfalls, and/or mountains. The High Line can be conceptualized as strolling garden. It is 1.45 miles in length and stretches across the city from Ganesvoort Street to West 34th Street. The pathways are narrow (ranging from about 8-12 feet in width) and the route is a straight line with a C-shape that arcs around the rail yards at the northern end of the park. The path features city views and has purposefully designed stopping points that invite visitors to walk at a leisurely pace and to stop and view the surroundings, both within and beyond the park.
I walked the pathway back and forth multiple times a day and at different times of day. In the early morning hours I observed a few runners and a few walkers. At peak hours during mid-day (especially if it was sunny) the walking path was full (literally full) of people strolling in both directions (north and south). During twilight and evenings the path was less travelled and I often observed couples walking hand in hand, looking out at views, or sitting.
While the long narrow pathway fosters strolling, the abundant seating areas and benches foster sitting. I did a rough count of the plentiful and purposefully designed seating on the High Line. I began to conceptualize each bench or seating area as an invitation. As visitors walk along the pathway they pass many, many invitations to sit. These visual reminders encourage visitors to slow down or sit and to observe. Kaplan & Kaplan (1998) remind us that, “While one is moving along the trail, much of the surrounding world is background, but when one stops for awhile and sits on a bench, the background becomes the focus” (p. 97).
The High Line has 20 group seating areas—these are designed to seat at least 25 people. These areas include a radial bench that stretches the length of an entire city block, viewing spurs with seating steps, groups of benches, lounge chairs, and tables arranged to face the pathway or a view, and there is a large patch of grass.
In addition to the group seating areas, I counted 135 individual benches. For a pathway that is 1.45 miles in length, that is a lot of invitations to slow down and sit. I observed visitors using the benches for a wide range of purposes: to people watch, take in views, lay down, read, eat, talk with other people in person or on the phone, or reorganize their bags.
Implications for Visitor Learning and Engagement
Visitors bring their own perspectives and experiences to informal learning environments like the High Line, and these impact how they engage and learn. In many ways the High Line responds to this diversity of experiences and interests—there is much to observe—railroad tracks and trains at the rail yards, a vast range of plants and people, public art, the cityscape, and views of the Hudson River. As visitors walk the pathway many different aspects of the city are revealed; the expansive views make the park seem much larger than it actually is.
A park setting that creates a sense of a whole different world—a world raised up to mid-level between the street and skyscrapers—fosters restoration. Kaplan and Kaplan (1998) highlight the importance of nearby nature for supporting humans to 1) build understanding, 2) restore from mental fatigue, and 3) take meaningful actions. They note while taking in views is often described as a passive form of learning, “passivity” is a poor way to conceptualize having a view of nature. Views of nearby nature, such as a view of a tree, plantings in a park, or the Hudson River, have consistent positive impacts on restoration, thus supporting humans to recover from information overload and mental fatigue.
Environmental psychologists have identified landscape attributes that create understanding, exploration and restoration. The High Line attends to both coherence and complexity by providing a clear sense of pathway and access to rich and layered views that capture interest. The High Line also attends to way-finding and mystery by having distinctive features that help visitors become oriented and experience the sense that the more they explore the views, the more they will discover (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1998).
Engagement can take many forms. The act of slowing down and observing in informal learning environments provides a variety of reflection and learning opportunities.
Visitors who stop to look at the plants amongst the railroad tracks might reflect on the history of the High Line as an elevated freight railway, or observe the plants or birds, or consider the stark contrast between the planted space and the teeming streets below.
Visitors who slow down to observe Gabriel Sierra’s Device for Measuring Trees, Objects and Parafunctional Structures might reflect on plant growth cycles, how human use measuring tools, the connections between art and science, or notice the juxtaposition of trees and skyscrapers.
Annik La Farge writes thoughtfully about the High Line and how the New York City landscape changes over time in her blog Livin’ the High Line. She has documented the building of the High Line and changes to the neighborhood since 2009. Her writings engage the dilemmas of development—gentrification, community building, changing views as skyscrapers are built, creating inviting public spaces, and honoring historic sties as new buildings are built.
Viewing the many street scenes from the deck of the High Line supports visitors to reflect on the joys and challenges of urban life, the history of the buildings that surround the park, or how landscapes and neighborhoods change over time.
Observing the massive scale of construction around the High Line supports visitors to reflect on how cities constantly change, how “exponential gentrification” (as one visitor described it) impacts neighborhoods, or the power of humans to transform and re-transform landscapes.
Observing the diversity of people visiting the High Line fosters “seeing and being seen” (Bluestone, 1987, p. 538) and frames “the crowd itself as a desirable object of leisure” (p. 547). Whether visitors stroll or sit, the park’s design supports reflection on engagement in public spaces, style and fashion, or the global influences that have shaped New York City and the United States.
Park Visitors and Park Design
The 6 million people per year who visit the High Line are a part of a long history of park visitors; “the heterogeneous urban crowd, with its tenuous social connections was transformed into a unifying body of leisure, enjoyment, and refinement (p.529). The ongoing tensions of humans’ relationship to landscape and how “park planning often helped order and control the architectural (artificial) evolution of the city” (p. 530) is evident in the massive scale of construction adjacent to the High Line. In essence, this is a park knitted into the city.
The High Line walkway, or promenade, with carefully planned vista lookouts, and group and individual seating, supports park visitors to slow down, observe, and reflect. It embodies the tensions of park design by engaging related ideals—strolling and congregating, leisure and work, natural scenery and urban development, community coalescence and diversity of interests, public fellowship and social structures of behavioral discipline, and class mixture and social inequality (Bluestone, 1987).
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Bluestone, D. M. (Winter 1987). Promenade to park: The gregarious origins of Brooklyn’s park movement. American Quarterly, 39 (4), 529-550.
David, J. & Hammond, R. (2011). High Line: The inside story of New York City’s park in the sky. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Kaplan, R, & Kaplan, S. (2005). Preference, restoration, and meaningful action in the context of nearby nature. In P. F. Barlett (Ed.). Urban place: Reconnecting with the natural world. (pp. 271-298). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Kaplan, R., Kaplan, S., & Ryan, R. L. (1998). With people in mind: Design and management of everyday nature. Washington, D. C.: Island Press.
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