Gardening in the Sky: What Makes Good Habitat for Humans?

I began my last post about bird habitats by talking about the white-throated sparrow because this is one of the animals that enriches my life and makes New York City livable for me. We tend to think about wildlife when we talk about habitat, but what about us humans? What kind of habitat do we need?

Personally, I need plants and other animals to be part of my daily life. There is growing evidence to suggest that I am not unique in this regard, that having a connection to other life forms is important for everyone's physical and mental well-being. Access to planted landscapes – in some cases just viewed through a window – is associated with longer life-expectancy, reduced stress, lower blood pressure, faster rates of healing, improved focus and educational performance, and higher employee satisfaction.

As Rachel Kaplan, a pioneer in the field of Environment and Behavior, writes, "Nature is not merely an amenity, luxury, frill or decoration. The availability of nearby nature meets an essential for human need."

Visitors enjoy a moment of peace in the shade. Photo by Eddie Crimmins.

In 2017, when every ecosystem on the planet has been altered to some extent by human activity, "nature" can be tough to define. While there is no one right definition, examining our perceptions of nature is essential to preserving both the biosphere and our experience of it. In New York City, where we have limited access to wild spaces, it can feel difficult to have a strong connection with and understanding of the living systems that surround us and undergird our society. Some conservation biologists worry that urban parks, while providing valuable spaces to play, exercise and gather, do not always offer opportunities to engage with nature on a deeper level. Biologist Michael Samways writes, "there is a downside for biodiversity conservation when children experience nature only in the urban environment. They are effectively exposed just to common, widespread and generalist species, with the specialists relegated to the remnants of wilderness." A lack of biodiversity prevents many New Yorkers from experiencing the full richness and complexity of nature.

Obscured views create a sense of mystery and anticipation. Photo by Tim Schenck.

Landscape designs that reflect the diversity and character of wild landscapes engage us on an emotional level. Piet Oudolf, who designed the High Line's gardens, describes his approach to garden design as follows, "My biggest inspiration is nature. I do not want to copy it, but to recreate the emotion." The High Line has succeeded largely because it feels wild, as if nature, rather than human hands, had shaped it. Hundreds of plant species evoke the patterns of woodlands and grasslands. Birds and insects thread through and animate the plantings. The mood of each garden changes with the seasons, conveying the wonder and mystery of wild places.

The mood of the gardens change dramatically from one season to the next.

While the High Line reminds us of the wild, it can support only a limited number of wild species. Most songbirds, for example, cannot survive in the fragments of habitat provided by the park. To sustain such species New York would need to expand and connect different types of habitat throughout the city. As critical as biodiversity is to human wellbeing, many people may not prioritize habitat creation because they do not have an emotional connection to the plants and animals that rely on such habitat. Public spaces inspired by wild ecosystems give people the chance to develop curiosity about and love for the living parts that make up such systems. When love for the many species that enrich our daily lives develops, a powerful conservation ethic develops along with it.

Through patterns, textures, and color, the design evokes a wild meadow. Photo by Liz Ligon.

Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line's most important gardening projects.

TD Bank is the Presenting Green Sponsor of the High Line.

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