Perhaps it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that New York City is the center of America’s cultural universe, but when it comes to park history and design, it’s an accurate accolade. It is the home of the first major park in the country, Central Park, as well as the most modern park innovation, High Line Park, an elevated railroad re-purposed into an urban trail park. We will visit those parks in today’s post and think about what has changed and what remains the same in the 150 years that separate the design of those quintessentially American parks.
Central Park was designed and built by Frederick Law Olmstead and Albert Vaux before the Civil War. It opened in 1857 to great fanfare and has been as central to the vitality of New York City as its name implies, since its opening. It reflects the design sensibilities of Olmstead and the engineering genius of Vaux. It looks completely natural, but virtually everything in it—its lakes, its streams, its hills—was constructed.
Olmstead was partial to a green landscape with long vistas across meadows and lakes. He wasn’t inclined to plant colorful flowerbeds, though he could oblige when his clients demanded it. The trees and plants he chose for Central Park were as likely to be native to New York as not. His previous experience in agriculture informed his choices so survival of the landscape was ensured.
It’s not a coincidence that Olmstead’s plant list was not confined to native species because the concept of “nativeness” wasn’t defined when Central Park was designed. “The modern division of species into native and alien first appears in the writings of Hewett Cottrell (H.C.) Watson in the mid-nineteenth century.” Watson was an amateur British botanist who was aware that some plant species had been introduced to Britain and he decided that some sort of classification system was needed to keep track of such species. “He was the first to define ‘native’ in the modern sense: ‘apparently an aboriginal British species, there being little or no reason for supposing it to have been introduced by human agency.’” (1)
Watson acknowledged that distinguishing between aboriginal and introduced species wasn’t easy and he did not consider introduced species inferior to aboriginal species. For the next one hundred years, opinions of the relative merits of aliens and natives varied. Sometimes aliens were considered a problem and sometimes they were considered a benefit to ecosystems. Sometimes such problems were attributed to the introduced plants and sometimes they were attributed to underlying factors.
“All this changed in 1958 with the publication of Charles Elton’s book The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants. Today’s invasion biologists, if questioned, generally claim Elton’s book as their inspiration, and it has been described as signaling ‘the beginning of the field of invasion biology…’ But in many ways it is an odd book. It isn’t a scientific book in the usually accepted sense, nor is it a textbook. It is in fact a popular polemic, based to a large extent on a series of radio talks that Elton gave to the BBC. But what is not in doubt is that it sits squarely in the tradition of blaming introduced species for practically any environmental ill you care to mention…” (1)
Olmstead was not burdened by the constraints of nativism in the 1850s and so he was free to plant whatever he considered beautiful and suited to the climate and conditions in New York. We are fortunate to have this living evidence today that native and non-native plants survive and thrive together in Central Park. Central Park is the home of hundreds of species of birds and the temporary home of hundreds more species of migratory birds every spring and fall.
High Line Park
The High Line began in 1846 as a railroad line on the West Side of Manhattan, which transported unprocessed meat to the meat processing district and processed meats out of Manhattan. In 1934, after many people were killed in collisions with the train, 13 miles of train were elevated 30 feet above the street, bypassing the cross-traffic from 34th Street to St. John’s Park Terminal at Spring Street. In 1980, the last train on the High Line transported frozen turkeys from the meat processing district. Soon thereafter, neighbors organized to prevent the demolition of the High Line. The re-creation of the High Line as a park began in 2006.
The first phase of High Line Park opened in 2009, the second phase in 2011, and the third opened on September 21, 2014. All three phases opened to rave reviews. The park became an instant success both with New Yorkers and with tourists. Over 5 million people visit the High Line every year. Having seen it, we can report it is no mystery why it is so popular. It is a safe walk above the congested streets of New York with fabulous views of the Hudson River, the surrounding neighborhood, and the dramatic skyline of the Manhattan.
But the beauty and functionality of the park is not its only virtue. It has transformed this formerly industrial neighborhood. The surrounding neighborhood is dotted with cranes engaged in building valuable new residential properties. Existing buildings are now covered with art to entertain visitors to the High Line. The entire neighborhood has been revitalized by the development of this new, innovative re-creation of the City’s past. It was atrociously expensive to transform the High Line into a park, but the park has already repaid the investment.
The design of the third and final portion of the High Line is different from its predecessors. Perhaps to reduce costs, the third section has retained many of the original structures of the railroad, including its weedy landscape. The landscape is described as “self-seeded,” which is another way of saying that it is populated by the weeds that blew into the railroad ties during its 30-year fallow period. The plant list of the High Line reflects its eclectic origins. It is a mix of natives and non-natives, including many reviled by native plant advocates such as Tree of Heaven. What is remarkable about the landscape in the third section is how similar it is to the earlier sections, which were planted. In other words, achieving a “naturalistic” landscape bears some resemblance to the weeds of a vacant lot. The final section of the High Line is no less charming and beautiful than its landscaped predecessors.
The High Line, like many parks in New York City, contains many enterprises that provide food and entertainment to its visitors. Such enterprises are very controversial in San Francisco, where many park advocates consider them intruders. We enjoyed a handmade cup of coffee on the High Line and wondered why San Franciscans have such a purist view of what “belongs” in their parks.
Comparing New York City with San Francisco
As we said when we began, we consider New York City the center of America’s cultural universe. We are therefore encouraged that we found no evidence that New York City’s park system is dominated by nativism. Their parks are both more beautiful and better maintained than those in San Francisco. We suspect that San Francisco’s obsession with native plants has handicapped its ability to maintain beautiful parks because the plants that are native to San Francisco are brown and dormant much of the year. New Yorkers looked back to their city’s 19th Century past to resurrect the High Line, while some San Franciscans are demanding a return to an 18th century landscape.
We also believe that San Franciscan’s objection to enterprises in their parks is one of the reasons why there isn’t enough money to maintain the parks to the same standard as the parks of New York City.
There are undoubtedly other factors at play. The parks of New York City are heavily subsidized by wealthy foundations. Its wealthy residents have been generous with the parks of New York City. However, San Francisco is rapidly becoming as expensive a place to live as New York, so we wonder why our parks can’t enjoy the same level of support. Is San Francisco’s “natives-only” approach to landscaping making our parks less attractive to potential donors?
Can you think of other reasons why San Francisco’s parks look so seedy compared to the parks of New York City?
(1) Ken Thompson, Where do camels belong?, Greystone Books, 2014