During the 2007 design competition, the West 8 Team sketched an idea for Governors Island’s park and public spaces: create a dramatic vertical landscape on the Island. This idea was based on the notion that in order to transform it from a flat, utilitarian site to an attractive, vibrant public space, the Island needed to have a vertical presence relating to the skyline of Manhattan and the New York Harbor. The idea was further developed in the design process and is now embedded in the Governors Island Park and Public Space Master Plan.
While the Historic District has a park-like feel, the southern portion of the Island reflects its use as a military base. Wide roads that were once functional for vehicles are empty and oversized for park uses. Trees are stunted from compaction and a lack of quality soils. The landscape is exposed to the intense maritime weather. The flat, open landscape is boring and tedious to walk through.
It is hard to imagine that such a place could become a destination. So the West 8 Team’s proposal to sculpt and manipulate the topography had to create not only the drama of a Governors Island “skyline” but shape the southern part of the Island into a place for long-term park and public space uses.
THE TRADITION OF TRANSFORMATION
As New Yorkers and visitors stroll through Central and Prospect Parks today, they are scarcely aware of the transformation that took place below their feet more than 150 years ago. In the mid 19th century, the sites of these parks were level and limited in appeal.
Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s designs significantly altered these landscapes by manipulating and sculpting the topography – creating rolling hills, new lakes, and grassy overlooks that would draw visitors to these new places. Not only did their designs create two of the greatest urban parks in the world, but they also helped transform entire areas of New York City.
The West 8 Team’s concept for Governors Island is similar in its ambition and its purpose. The Trust for Governors Island seeks to catalyze the overall transformation of the Island beginning with the creation of the park and public space. To support this aim and bring the Island back to life, the West 8 Team’s key concept for the Master Plan design is to dramatically sculpt the southern part of the Island — transformation through topography — to create a true and lasting landscape with a rich array of experiences, views, and settings for trees and plants.
The re-shaping of the landscape integrates the abandoned southern part of the Island with the northern Historic District that many visitors already use today. This deliberate approach is essential to create a thriving mixed-use destination, both for public space uses and the future of the Island.
A SECOND-GENERATION TRANSFORMATION OF GOVERNORS ISLAND
This concept is not without precedent on Governors Island. At the turn of the 20th century, the Island was half the size it is today. Between 1901 and 1911, more than four million cubic yards of fill material were added to the Island’s southern end, nearly doubling its size from 92 acres to 172 acres. These man-made landscapes were flat and treeless, in stark contrast to the lush rolling topography of the northern portion of the Island.
The dramatic difference between these two areas remains today. When visiting the Island, you can stroll through the Historic District and enjoy the shade of mature trees and verdant open spaces. As you continue to the Island’s southern end, you are presented with a dramatically difference experience — 80 acres of a flat, barren landscape. It is harsh and uninviting, with few trees and little shade to protect you from the hot sun or wind. Much of the area is below the projected 100-year flood line by 2100.
Building upon the Island’s first major physical transformation, the West 8 Team’s design proposes a “second-generation” of topographic transformation. Hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of fill material, reused from Island demolition and brought in from off-site, will be used to shape spaces within the park and public spaces.
SCULPTING THE LANDSCAPE FOR PARK USES
Sculpting the flat barren landscape gives character and scale to areas of the park and public spaces, creating a variety of places that people want to visit and explore. Shifts in topography give opportunities for different activities, transforming the Island physically and programmatically, and creating a humane sense of place that was missing before. Views shift as you move through one area to the next, drawing you in to explore.
Raising and sculpting the topography in the southern part of the Island unifies and knits together the entire Island. As you travel from the northern part of the Island toward the south, you experience the original rises and hills of the Historic District, then the undulating Hammock Grove, then the lightly sloping Play Lawn which eases into the gentle lower slopes of the Hills.
Grading and the topographic changes also address the predicted effects of flooding and climate change so that the park and public spaces will last for generations. Some areas, such as the Wetland Gardens and parts of the Great Promenade, are designed to withstand flooding. Other areas of the park, such as the Hammock Grove, are raised to ensure the trees’ long term health.
A DESTINATION WORTHY OF THE JOURNEY
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