Take a breath of fresh air along the elevated urban parkway that beats a new path through the sprawl of the city.

On the western fringe of Manhattan, parallel to the Hudson River, a steel bridge hangs nine metres in the air, like a new horizon. This is the High Line Park, once an expanse of derelict elevated railway that was sentenced to death by demolition, now reinvented as a pathway. From Gansevoort Street in the former industrial hub of the Meatpacking District, it runs north as an uninterrupted mile-and-a-half-long promenade through artsy Chelsea and the Garment District to 30th Street, invigorated by art installations and more than 100,000 indigenous shrubs, trees and flowers. Beneath the promenade, the 10th Avenue traffic muscles its way uptown with its customary urgency. Yet on the High Line, there is no driver bullying or interference from crosswalks and commerce. Here, it’s the old-fashioned, open-air enchantment of walking, surrounded by nature and interacting with art, all while being suspended above the city.

The High Line’s history is humbly utilitarian, yet it is a masterpiece of urban infrastructure that has twice succeeded in fulfilling its function: the first time around, its mission was commercial and industrial; this second time, the mission is aesthetic.

From 1934, its 13 miles of elevated track carried tonnes of carcasses and other produce to the factories and meatpacking warehouses that gave the district its name. It was built as a public safety measure. Before the High Line was in place, goods thundered along a 10th Avenue rail line, but so many pedestrians were killed by the dangerously heavy freight trains it was nicknamed ‘Death Avenue’. Men on horseback were hired to ride out before the trains, waving a red flag to warn approaching traffic and pedestrians; they were called ‘West Side Cowboys’. However, a more effective system was required, and the High Line was born.

It prospered until the ’50s when road freight became more popular, and in the ’60s, its southern section was demolished. The final train, bearing three carloads of frozen turkeys, ran in 1980. The structure was chained off and abandoned to nature. Along its length, high grasses, wildflowers and even trees sprang up, creating a nine metre-high streak of greenery in the Lower West Side. Considered beautiful by some and an eyesore by others, the obsolete structure sparked a feverish lobby by property owners and real estate speculators anxious to build to their heart’s content where it once stood. Then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani sided with the demolitionists. The High Line was verging on extinction.

In 1999, sheer coincidence sat a couple of urban history buffs, Robert Hammond and Joshua David, next to each other at one of the obligatory community board meetings convened to discuss the High Line’s imminent demise. Both men were stunned that no preservationist or historian spoke up for saving the structure. After leaving the meeting, they hatched the idea for a non-profit conservation organisation – Friends of the High Line. First they investigated the feasibility of preservation, then they came up with a plan for repurposing the railway as an elevated park in the spirit of the Promenade Plantée, a tree-lined walkway atop a railway viaduct in Paris.

The pair worked together to draw attention to the High Line, engaging local artists, designers and galleries, and successfully managed to stop the demolition order. A contest for the best park design followed, attracting entries from 36 countries, and raising a staggering $130m (£84m). Friends of the High Line grew from the shared vision of two men to a cause célèbre, with supporters including Bette Midler, Edward Norton, Hillary Clinton and Diane von Furstenberg.

The fashion designer’s studio virtually winks at pedestrians from 14th Street. She and her billionaire spouse, media executive Barry Diller, have made significant financial contributions to the park, and one of the most popular High Line features bears their name. Regardless of the time of year, sun worshippers congregate on the Diller-von Furstenberg Sundeck. Sunset worshippers do, too, reclining on wooden chaises in the late afternoon to take in the view of the New Jersey shoreline across the Hudson River.

Robert Hammond stands on the High Line just south of his office on West 20th Street. ‘I was always secretly scared that I wouldn’t like what we built,’ he says. ‘It was such a lonely, magical space before, I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to recreate that, but I actually like it better now. The design isn’t just beautiful, people act differently on the High Line, as if it changes their mood. People hold hands, they let down their guard.’

Room for a view
In the midst of a cacophony of cars and cabs on the historic cobblestones at Gansevoort Street is a grey metal staircase leading up to a zone of relative quiet amid a grove of birch trees. This is the start of the High Line Park, the first section of which opened in June 2009 and stretches north, crossing over 10th Avenue and through the Chelsea Market to West 20th Street.

From the staircase’s first landing, the view includes the windows of the niche boutiques that now decorate the formerly drab and industrial Meatpacking District where butchers once dominated – Ted Baker, Trina Turk, Tory Burch and the High Line’s star benefactress, Diane von Furstenberg. These days, designer clothing on mannequins takes precedence over carcasses on hooks.

There’s a sudden roar from below: revellers are sampling pints of German beer and cabbage-sized pretzels at the Standard Hotel’s Biergarten. Opened in early 2009, the hotel literally straddles the High Line: the Standard’s columns rise above the park like a grey rocket, albeit one made of brick and glass.

Beneath it, at street level, are cafés, the raucous Biergarten and the stylish Standard Grill, where designer-clad patrons click-clack across the floor – made from a composition of copper pennies – and lounge on curvaceous banquettes made from soft, berry-coloured leather.

Out on the footpath by the hotel, Michael Adams, an editor who has lived in the neighbourhood for 20 years, is walking his golden retriever, Pym. He saves his forays upstairs for human companions: he has to. The High Line conveys pedestrians only: no bicycles, skateboards or dogs.

‘I don’t mind that dogs aren’t allowed up there,’ he says. ‘The High Line is a little ocean of tranquillity whose sole reason for existing seems to be to make people happy. It’s a kind of masterpiece.’

Near 14th Street, a toe-deep water feature spills over the walkway, encouraging pedestrians to remove their shoes and wade through a rippling pond as a rustic border of cattails catches the breeze. Women take off their sandals. Men remove their sneakers. Babies rush right in and plop themselves in the shallows.

Patient customers queue for ice lollies at the People’s Pops stall, where a handchalked sign describes today’s flavoured ices, made with locally grown, sustainable fruit and herbs: a pungent toasted yellow plum and appealingly astringent apricot & lavender. Further along, above 15th Street, the Porch café serves artisanal beers on tap. Chilled-out groups chat and drink at umbrella tables, looking out to the river as cruise-liners pass by the Chelsea Piers. Beer and wine are confined to the Porch premises, but the ice lollies, like the purple asters and radiant coneflowers blooming in the gravel track-beds, are enjoyed everywhere.

At the Sunken Overlook, the 10th Avenue traffic below doubles as the entertainment: wooden benches form a mini-amphitheatre where viewers experience a voyeuristic slice of hectic street life through a four-sectioned window. Nearby, passers-by experiment with the ‘talking’ drinking fountains – pressing buttons to take a sip and listen to poetry, singing and helpful messages.

‘Drink freely,’ says one. ‘However, please do not lick the fountain.’

Life in the slow lane
The park’s second phase, from West 20th north to West 30th Street, opened in June 2011. This added 10 blocks to its length and introduced new features. When frequenters of the first phase of the High Line commented that the park lacked a picnic lawn, the designers took note.

At 23rd Street, there is now an emerald green lawn that runs for half a block. It has become a magnet for city folk who want to feel ‘cushiony’ grass, not cement, beneath their feet.

Landscaping comes to the fore in this section. Different areas have names such as Chelsea Thicket, Wildflower Field and Woodland Flyover. The authenticity of this green belt, designed by landscape architects James Corner Field Operations and Dutch horticulturalist Piet Udolf, is confirmed by the presence of bees, dragonflies and even crickets, whose cheerful chatter can often be heard on summer evenings.

‘Someone asked me how we managed to pipe in the sound of crickets,’ says High Line co-founder Robert Hammond. ‘I said, “We didn’t. Those are the real thing.”’

The High Line gardeners are articulate advocates for their flora. Johnny Linville, the horticulture foreman, is busy yanking up weeds and asking pedestrians not to sample the plump, dark serviceberries.

‘The artistry of this job lies in how you maintain and manicure a landscape without having it look maintained and manicured. By design, it’s a wild landscape, so you have to hide any evidence of grooming,’ he says, looking out over the beds of Korean feather grass, yarrow, black-eyed Susans and coreopsis by the Meadow Walk.

‘A weed is, by definition, just a plant in the wrong place,’ Linville notes, as if apologising to them. ‘There are mornings when I’m up here weeding and I forget I’m 30 feet above the city. It’s a kind of magical feeling. I like to think this is a place people are escaping to.’

New Yorkers can come here to escape some of the problems of the city streets below. The crime rate in the park has been a refreshing surprise – it is zero. Feeling safe exploring the High Line’s nooks and crannies, people also seem to behave less like strangers and more like conspirators in an urban experiment.

Eye contact happens often and when a toddler in a Ramones T-shirt pauses to perform a wobbly dance in front of a lone saxophonist crooning a melancholy rendition of La Vie en Rose above 20th Street, walkers stop, smile and soak it in.

The television chef and entrepreneur Tom Colicchio runs a restaurant, Colicchio & Sons, just west of the High Line at 15th Street, but for the summer of 2011 he also organised The Lot on Tap – a casual amalgam of food trucks and locally sourced keg wine and beer at The Lot, a temporary public plaza beneath the High Line’s 30th Street terminus.

Unfortunately, The Lot occupies land where there are plans to build a condominium tower in 2012. However, Mr Colicchio hopes that a different space can be found for it nearby. He can see the High Line from his apartment on Horatio Street and often uses it to walk to work.

‘It’s very active,’ he says, ‘but even so, there’s a sense of not rushing to or from some place, an old-time feeling of slowing things down.’

The next level
The High Line ends too soon. At 30th Street, the ‘Viewing Spur’ – an empty billboard frame that affords views over the surrounding neighbourhood – overlooks a temporary roller-skating rink and active rail yards to the west of Penn Station. At the park’s end is a chainlink fence, but the High Line itself stretches on another half a mile to West 34th Street, its green, overgrown expanse still untamed.

Soon it won’t be necessary to stop here and descend to street level. The High Line’s third and final phase has been planned for completion in 2014, just in time for the original’s 80th birthday. Costing $70m (£45m), it will curve west toward the Hudson River and terminate at 34th Street.

Other projects will continue to pop up as this one invigorates the whole area. Even now, constructions are appearing along the structure’s length, not least the $435m (£280m) Whitney Museum of American Art, presaging a new cultural anchor downtown. The High Line has come a long way from that community meeting in 1999, when the structure looked certain to be destroyed. ‘Josh and I had no experience,’ says Robert, ‘not just with elevated railroads but with urban redevelopment in general. I hope this project proves that it’s possible for people to look around their own neighbourhoods, and if they see something worth saving, to make a difference.’


The article 'Walking New York City’s High Line' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.