I remember the day when my curiosity for the narrow green swatch on Google Maps opened up in front of me in real life as I climbed the last stair and entered New York City’s High Line Park. The early morning sun welcomed joggers, walkers, artists on benches and avid readers intent on finding that quiet place in a bustling, growing neighborhood. I recall seeing the tall grasses blend with the planked pathway, mingling still with the remnants of a former industrial railroad life.
The nuance of space, sculpture, and the power of thoughtful design, sprinkles of nature… every few feet led to something new. The path wound around to miniature grasslands, thicker overgrowth, steps for sitting and viewing platforms for those who just wanted to watch the busy world below fly by below.
I fell in love, immediately feeling a connection with a place I wanted to experience in its entirety all at once. It felt like home, or some version of what the best of this world should really be. I was drawn to the space, the power of simply designed human scale perfection.
The High Line has been criticized for kicking off one of the most gentrifying development super-centers the country has ever seen in the Chelsea/Hudson Yards area. But let’s forget about that for just a while and see what makes this formerly abandoned, elevated freight rail line one of New York’s most visited attractions.
The first one is obvious, and yet not. The feature that makes spaces like the High Line attractive is the absence of cars. As we walk along the streets of a busy city like New York, our minds quickly adapt to the incredible noise and the feeling of danger at the hands of the automobile, normalizing this constant so that we may continue moving forward on foot. It is only when we step away from this assault on our ears and our fears that we breathe a little easier, slow down and embrace our surroundings.
If you want to know what I mean, simply take out you phone, travel to a busy 4 lane road or highway and record 20 seconds of video. Now go to a quiet side street nearby and record 20 more seconds of video. Play each video back, one after the other while listening with your headphones. The deafening sound of traffic juxtaposed to the tranquil sound of a side street is night and day, and yet our conscious brains don’t appreciate this effect in real life.
But our mind IS paying attention, carefully whispering to us about whether we feel good about being in an environment or not. In other words, while we might not realize how much a car-centric environment makes us feel uneasy, our minds favor places where we feel a sense of safety, calm and comfort over places that are loud and pose a risk of physical harm. In sum, one of the basic reasons we love places like the High Line is that it is an oasis from our mind’s unconscious aversion to automobile traffic while exploring on foot.
Next, it is the mind’s love of unique and thoughtful space that caters to the experience factor. It is why we are drawn to the farm-to-table restaurant, or the brewery constructed within a building that used to house a manufacturing hub. It is our desire to connect to history, to authenticity, to something that binds us to another time, another reality, and a layered sense of humanity. It is why we have fallen in love with the term, “re-imagining,” a sort of “new” while paying homage to the role that a certain space played before. In stark contrast to the horrors of 60s and 70s “urban renewal,” today’s most attractive urban spaces respect and embrace the former incarnation of structure or area while simultaneously giving it new and relevant life. For the High Line, this meant leaving much of the original railroad track in the ground. It is a constant assurance that old space can be re-appropriated to fill a current void, reminding us all where we came from as we walk forward toward a bright future.
Finally, the design and artistry of purposeful space stimulates the creative mind, with nuance and experiential elements lighting the fire of creativity. It reminds us all that we crave something new, something we’ve never seen before. We need space that comforts us, but also challenges us, teaching us something powerful and unique. There is an art, for example, in space that is designed to accommodate us and inspire us at the same time.
The High Line is just one example of captivating public space, but it’s important to understand WHY these places capture our minds and hearts so that we may include those elements in the future development of our cities. It’s not just important to experience amazing spaces, it’s important that we be keenly aware of why they relax us, inspire us and keep us coming back for more.