Governors Island: New York City, New York
Governors Island in New York Harbor just off Manhattan has a long history of military use, dating back to the 17th century. After the U.S. Coast Guard closed its base and left in 1996, there was significant debate about the fate of the Island.
Van Alen Institute hosted an ideas competition that attracted more than 200 participants, with ideas ranging from a World’s Fair site to a resort spa. In 2002, the U.S. government sold the island to the State of New York for $1, with the land placed under the management of a joint city-state agency, the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (the predecessor of the Trust for Governors Island). The purchase agreement stipulated that the land had to be used as parkland and for "educational, civic or cultural" purposes.
The changes to Governors Island were planned, designed, and constructed in two phases between 2007 and 2016. The island master plan was created by landscape architecture firm West 8 through an inclusive planning process that involved an expansive cross-section of community members. Authentic and engaging public input programs — including an interactive photo booth where participants posed for photos in front of their favorite design rendering — and meetings with community boards, advocacy groups, and the general public, were implemented to involve the diverse community in the design response.
The Governors Island Park and Public Space Master Plan was released in 2010. The plan encompasses 85 acres of public open space on the island, including new visitor amenities and improvements to the landscapes of the Historic District, a new park on the island’s southern end, and a new 2.2-mile promenade around the perimeter. The first 30 acres of newly developed park opened in 2014, and in 2016 the Hills on Governors Island opened to the public. Funding for the promenade is still being sourced.
The project team faced several challenges. How would the island’s redevelopment incorporate future concerns like sea level rise and salty soil conditions? To ensure it would be resilient against rising sea levels, the island was lifted out of the flood zone by up to 70 feet. Environmental design research helped select tree species that were planted according to their salt tolerance, and topsoil was placed above predicted sea level rise to protect their roots and ensure healthy trees for future generations.
How might the team address the need for engaging programming to draw visitors to the island? Accessibility was improved by upgrading an old ferry terminal and providing 10-minute ferry rides from Manhattan and Brooklyn for only $3 ($1 for seniors and free for children). New landscapes offer visitors a range of new experiences: picnicking on gently sloping lawns, biking the island’s pathways, swinging on custom hammocks, or playing softball on fields, plus an expansive assortment of events. An Urban Farm and Teaching Garden offer hands-on demonstrations to students and visitors, and the Billion Oyster project has created two acres of oyster reef habitat with the help of students from the New York Harbor School.
Visitors to the island have increased from 8,000 in 2005 to nearly 750,000 people in 2018. It acts as a regional anchor, drawing residents from all five boroughs, reflecting the true diversity of the city. The project’s success highlights the importance of improving human-environment relationships by increasing green, open space in high-density cities.