Transformation Through
Topography

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.

EXISTING CONDITIONS
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
Your visit to Governors Island culminates at the top of the Hills where you take in breathtaking 360° views of the New York Harbor.

  • Design Principles

    Governors Island offers a world apart from New York City, an extraordinary vantage point on New York Harbor and its icons, and the chance to experience the sounds and smells of a green Island surrounded by water. The Governors Island…

  • An Island Like No Other

    Governors Island is truly an island like no other, with a unique vantage point on the Harbor and a treasured historic landscape.

    VAST WATER, BIG SKY
    In Manhattan, tall buildings create canyons with their own shadows. There is little sense…

  • Carefree Island

    Governors Island already embodies a special carefree spirit. Its first generation of visitors remark that a visit is like a vacation. The park and public space design preserves the Island as an oasis for bicycling, play, the arts, and the…

  • A Sustainable & Feasible Design

    SUSTAINABILITY
    Sustainability is a core principle driving the Master Plan.
    Creating and preserving 87 acres of open space on Governors Island and making them accessible to millions of urban dwellers of course addresses larger goals for the livability and sustainability…

  • Ideas from New Yorkers

    “Island of a thousand hammocks.” “A place to go with the one I love.” “Kite
    flying.” “A field to play.” “Ice cream.”
    Thousands of New Yorkers contributed ideas about what they would like to see in the park and public…

  • What Happens Next?

    The Park and Public Space Master Plan is the first phase of the Island’s multi-phase, mixed-use development strategy.
    The Park and Public Space Master Plan will transform Governors Island into a destination, take advantage of its unparalleled setting in the…

Comments (30)

Comments —

  • How about a municipal pier with floating docks for recreational boaters, sailors and HPVers?

    By Ed Bacon on April 24, 2010 10:02 am
  • Governor’s Island is beautiful. I hope it remains that way.

    A Nature Haven away from the hustle and bustle of the other Boroughs of NYC. A quiet place to enjoy, read a book, ride a bike, picnic and just be at peace for a day. Central Park is nice but not like that.

    New Yorkers need more quiet space. Please keep it quiet.

    By Gloria Bynoe on June 13, 2010 7:37 am
  • Can I bring my own bicycle to the island? If not, why not!

    By Bob Jones on July 9, 2010 7:02 am
  • You can indeed bring your own bike! Currently, you can rent one while here (we have more than five miles of car free biking) and bikes are free on Fridays.

    By admin on July 13, 2010 6:56 am
  • Hi, In 1958-59, I worked as a secretary for the Military Personnel Dept, a building located to the left as I walked off the ferry. I also recall walking past a bldg where soldiers attended a movie and another where we could eat lunch alongside the soldiers. Are these buildings still there to view.
    Onelia

    By Onelia Warren on August 6, 2010 4:56 am
  • Took our first family visit to the island today. What a great place! We are excited by the future plans for the island. Please don’t throw away this opportunity to leave one great place that is truly “for the people” out of the hands of over zealous developers.

    By Michael Cosmai on August 6, 2010 2:36 pm
  • Yes, this building is still on Governors Island and currently houses our security offices. This building, like the other historic buildings in the National Historic District, are landmarked and will remain on Governors Island in the future. They are available for adaptive re-use and will be home to a mix of uses.

    By Ellen on August 8, 2010 11:23 am
  • We should put the UN HQ there.

    I think (i heard it also from other people) that we can offer the united nations to rebuild there HQ there, this will solve a lot of problems at once.

    It will free up primary space in NYC
    It will solve the parking problems in NYC,
    and much more….

    Thanks

    By Adardesign on August 20, 2010 9:16 am
  • How about seasonal events like for Halloween or Christmas ?
    Great place for a respectable Haunted attractions for all ages and other holiday events..
    The revenue it would bring would help preserve the Historic District.

    By John on September 11, 2010 7:06 pm
  • To start off i will say I LOVE GOVERNERS ISLAND! I’ve only been once but i told everyone what a great day we had. We will be returning before the season is finished.I agree with John. Some holiday events would be superb. Easter egg hunts, Halloween, Christmas etc. I would also love the island to remain car free to the public, keep its historic vibe and keep QUIET! Except for the odd event. Please, no high rises or filling in the greenery with buildings and knocking down the old ones. My favorite thing on my day trip was looking at the old buildings and thinking of what it would of been like to live there. I would LOVE to see more photos of the old days and what used to go on. A ranger was very informative when we asked about the fort. Another thing i would love to do this is CAMPING!!! Many people don’t get to do this in NYC and i think here would be a great experience for every age!

    By julia on September 21, 2010 4:35 pm
  • I served on Governors Island in the U.S. Coast Guard in the early to Mid-90′s. We were among the last families to transfer when the Coast Guard shut down operations in ’96. What I remember most is the tranquility. We loved going into the city to work, shop, catch the Knicks, etc, but when we’d had enough of the hustle and bustle, we’d jump (or drive) onto the ferry and return to the quiet tree-lined streets of the island. The bright green ball fields, the 9-holed golf course, the tennis courts, the annual cook-outs – the springs and summers were awesome! From the living room window of our 5th floor apartment we had a priceless view of Lady Liberty standing across the harbor. From other vantage points on the island we had daily looks at the twin towers, the Hudson and East Rivers, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Additionally, there was the convenience of a primary school, a commissary and a gas station. We even had a one-screened movie theatre. It was a small quiet town on the edge of a metropolis. It was very family-oriented. Sounds like it still is. I’m glad that New York recognized the treasure in its possession and didn’t allow commercialization. We’re back home in the Carolinas these days. Can’t wait to go back and show my son his first home. He was 1 when we left – he’s now 15.

    By Kevin Morrison on December 30, 2010 6:48 pm
  • I love the plans for the historic district and Liggett Terrace. I am not so wild about the Hills and Liberty Terrace. First they seem like a lot of work for what they are. Second they won’t seem so great when compared with the rest of the harbor. The hills will look puny and unimpressive compared with hills in Staten Island and Brooklyn, and hilly sections of parks are rarely very popular. Sorry to be a cynical NYer, but the “shell” looks like it will quickly become little more than a public urinal (oh yeah — where are all the bathrooms anyway?). Instead, consider a wetland, which will attract more conspicuous wildlife (like the great blue heron you illustrate with the South Prow) and is more in keeping with the maritime flavor of the island. As an example, consider the nature walk / wetland recently added to Randalls Island. And instead of a “shell” that looks like a weird kind of cave, how about a simple amphitheater? Also, the Great Promenade could be greater — wider, that is. It looks much narrower than what is there today, which already fills up with pedestrians and bicycles. And consider some way of separating bike and pedestrian traffic, perhaps with a double walkway — one paved in bumpy stones for peds, and another with nice smooth asphalt for bikes.

    Thanks, its overall a very exciting plan.

    By Peter Greenberg on March 18, 2011 3:19 pm
  • How about making it a small airport, same as london city airport. serving the regional flights and easing the traffic of our 3 busy airports.

    http://www.londoncityairport.com/

    By Braun on March 21, 2011 9:20 am
  • [...] 7. The Trust for Governors Island views the project as a long-term effort that will be developed in phases. The project budget — estimated pre-crash — is $200 million. Construction is tentatively scheduled to start in 2012. SeeGovernors Island: What Happens Next. [...]

    By The New Public Landscapes of Governors Island: An Interview with Adriaan Geuze | Urban Choreography on April 8, 2011 1:37 am
  • I lived on the island for 4 years in the 1970′s. My father was in the USCG. My brother’s played little leaugue baseball on what looks like now “the play fields.” Great memeories including spending July 4, 1976! Getting to see all the tall ships and fireworks from that island is now considered to me to have become a part of great history. It was a family oriented island and I am glad to see it becoming more then a dump. I look forward to a visit back there.

    By Michelle Cobaugh Fowler on April 21, 2011 9:09 am
  • My kids and I love the ferry it makes the trip special and reminds us that we live on a an island surrounded by water, it’s like taking a vacation, it also adds security. It would be a tremendous mistake to replace the ferry with a bridge or tram, recently proposed by the MTA/NYC DOT. Growing up in New York, I remember when it was in vogue to “widen streets to reduce traffic” the traffic increased and was not reduced, more people were killed in traffic accidents and the quality of life went down for the people who live here. I think New Yorkers should get to vote on that idea, we pay the taxes. I think it is only fair that visitors who do not live and pay taxes in NYC, be asked to show their ID and pay for their ferry ride. As New Yorkers we are asked to pay admission to beaches in Connecticut, New Jersey, Long Island, Westchester, etc. because we are not residents, there should be some benefit for paying all those taxes to NYC. I have had to paid $7 a day per person to go to the beach in New Jersey because I don’t live there. The money raised could be used to improve the Island. The Ferry and Parks Department personal deserve a lot of praise for the excellent job they do everyday, they keep the Ferry and Park running smoothly and safely, they are helpful and polite, they are the best.

    I also think the artists who contribute to making the Island a special place deserve praise, every time we play miniature golf or interact with the sculpture I think how lucky we are to experience there things for free and how important it is to provide a venue for local talented up and coming artists to reach out to the public, and for the public to be uplifted by them. Historically in New York culture and prosperity have followed in the low rent areas where artist work, and visitors have been drawn to those area. At one time SoHo was a vital home to artists, now it has been completely commercialized, and the artists have been pushed out.Let’s keep that aspect of the Island going for the future. Please don’t lose sight that the island provides one of the few affordable oasis’s for the families who live here. For example the MTA one day get aways cost about $45 per person, for a family of 4 that’s $180. for the day, that’s not affordable for most working families especially in light of the current state of the economy, we need this park. The private exclusive expensive events that are sometimes featured in recent times at Governor’s Island can afford to find other venues in New York City they have the money, and it should be a park for all the people who live here. Thank you for providing this forum.

    By E. Cohen on May 28, 2011 7:55 pm
  • Water access. Think Zach’s Bay at Jones Beach. And unstructred playfields. Baseball fields are not needed as much as open fields where pickup football games can happen without the permit nightmare. If this is destined to become another structured Bloomberg tourist attraction, I’ll root for a hurricane/global warming to wash all the garbage off the island.

    By L. Katz on June 10, 2011 10:12 am
  • Noisome NYC Invades G.I. – Friends and I visited Governors Island on Saturday July 16th, almost a year since my first visit. The first trip was very pleasant with a comfortable number of people picnicing, biking, and walking. This time we were greeted by ugly disco thumping from huge speakers, crowds jockeying space with bikes, pedestrians, and service vehicles packed in. We managed to get away from the noise and had a reasonably good time, but we could see from the mob coming to the rock concert that you had better time your visit. Otherwise, you will encounter all the NYC you got on the ferry to avoid.

    By Martin on July 18, 2011 6:41 am
  • I watched the documentary spearheaded by Bloomberg on TV this morning. My thoughts:

    When I first heard that Governor’s Island now belongs to NYC my immediate thoughts were: Refuge, Contemplation, Inspiration, Art, Drama, Health and Fitness. Mostly, Governor’s Island should become a place to embrace and share thoughts, creativity, learning, and expression. An embracement of the freedom we were promised and fight to defend, but also freedom from the confines of a City of Steel and Mortar. We have an opportunity for a revitalizing breath of fresh air during these tough economic times in our great City, Nation and the World.

    Therefore I propose that the name of the Island be changed from Governor’s Island to “Freedom Island”, a name written in the Island’s and the City’s past, present and future. It is the embodiment of a unique and special City and its inhabitants; our City which we lovingly call “The Big Apple”. The Island must become what we love about the Big Apple and not what we hate, disgusts us, stresses us or makes us upset about The Big Apple. Not taking a positive and proactive mental approach will confine us to the shackles of unhappiness.

    We should “put on our thinking caps” and propose ourselves to change our views to the possibilities. The answers are much more difficult and challenging than the questions but we New Yorkers, I believe, are up to the challenge; as usual.

    By Rafael E Alfau on July 31, 2011 9:53 am
  • What a waste of money. Spend the money on parks where people live.

    By VoiceOfTruth on November 3, 2011 2:30 pm
  • Hey I enjoyed walking true the park this summer and i was thinking how about adding some of the rarest stuff that we have in the world and bringing it to the park and making the park one of the wonders of the world and adding some of the largest trees in the world like the coast redwood and adding some rarest and in danger species of animals like the panda bear and more, HEY THIS NEW YORK PEOPLE WE HAVE TO THINK BIG:)

    By RONALD on January 13, 2012 7:12 pm
  • Add: Wild flowers, naturalizing bulbs, a butterfly garden and a nature center.
    Leave some naturally wooded areas.
    Thanks!

    By Courtney on March 19, 2012 10:26 pm
  • Add a vistor’s orientation center with changing exhibits, historic video displays, a cafe, and bathrooms.
    Thanks!

    By Courtney on March 19, 2012 10:30 pm
  • I was stationed on the island from 1970-1974 and the most I remember is watching the Twin Towers climb into the sky. We would go to sea for 30 days and then in port for 30 days and I was amazed at the progress of the Towers. It was quite a shock to see them come down. Something should be done on the Island to help the visitors remember what used to be there.

    By Mike Packer on April 3, 2012 5:48 pm
  • It’s a shame the island will be closed on Fridays. I would go every Friday with my kids for the free bikes and picnic. This place is one of a kind, the way it is right now. I wouldn’t change anything except to give people more access to more places all over the island, and to add more hammocks to the picnic area

    By Sylwia on June 7, 2012 6:25 pm
  • This is probabaly the only project that the Bloomberg administration ever did for the good of the people of NYC. Especially the working class, who is the 99% & who make this City run and Who also cannot afford to go anywhere. LI is nice but it takes forever to get there. Riverside Park is OK except too many tourists. This a nice day trip without the hassle of the LIRR and stress-out of needing to leave by 6am to get a day of relaxation. Only to get stressed out going home. I am trying to get there this summer. It might actually happen this time.

    By eleni Papageorge on July 5, 2012 5:02 pm
  • I just visited Governor’s Island for the first time today and was very impressed with this lovely, unspoiled space. I will definitely be back soon. I just hope that it doesn’t change beyond recognition under the new development plans.

    I agree with the poster above who says that it’s probably the only good thing to come out of the Bloomberg administration for the 99%. For the good of the people of New York, this unique space must be protected from private business interests so that it continues to be a lovely, relaxing place that we can all enjoy for free. The last thing I’d want to see on the island is any further commercialization – there are more than enough places to buy stuff practically everywhere else in the New York Metropolitan Area. The bike hire, food carts and vending machines are more than enough.If money is needed to cover restoration and upkeep – though we certainly pay enough in taxes, and should be getting something back which isn’t primarily of benefit to Bloomberg’s cronies – some suggestions for unobtrusive fundraising are outlined below.

    Really, a little maintenance on some of the buildings – especially those with historic value – is the only thing that’s really needed to enhance the place. Perhaps individual buildings could be turned into a series of museums where artifacts from throughout the island’s history are combined with information and photographs? This approach would allow visitors to tour the island visiting each in turn if time permits, or take an a la carte approach to exploring the in-depth history of the structures that interest them most.If funding is needed for this, perhaps an optional guided tour could be offered for a fee, but please keep access open to all for free if they want to explore without a guide.

    Finally, as a runner I was surprised at how few joggers I saw there, especially since it’s obviously a popular spot for cyclists. How about organizing a handful of races on the island throughout the year? Most races have entry fees – keep the cost reasonable and plow the proceeds back into the upkeep of the island. Also, it would be better to hold them on days that the island is not normally open to the public, if possible, since a clear path will be needed and usual public access should be obstructed as little as possible. This would help raise runners’ awareness of the island. Free shower facilities and locker rooms would also enhance the island dramatically for runners, since running is inevitably a sweaty activity (I’d suggest a refundable coin- or credit card-operated deposit system for the lockers so that keys will be returned).

    By Alli on July 22, 2012 7:23 pm
  • I remeber living on Governors’ Island from 1985-1991 because my father was in the USCG and taught at the electronics school and shut it down too. I remember living in Building 877 on the 2nd and 5th floors and going to the primary school there on the island and wish to come visit the island sometime in the future.

    By Virginia Bragg on August 11, 2012 3:16 pm
  • I served in the US ARMY from 1963 to nov. of 1964. I would visit the island some time next year

    By Ricardo on September 16, 2012 6:45 am
  • I really like the new park, eslleiapcy the plaza and the idea of the furniture. The specific design of the chairs I’m not crazy about because of the backs- they have a very high head rest with a big hole between that and the seat. The first (and only!) time my two-year-old climbed into one he tried to lean back and ended up falling right through the hole in a pretty scary way.I love the garden on the west side. On the east side, I thought the plan included doubling the width of the sidewalk so that there would be more room to walk around the farmers’ market without walking through the grass? It is already becoming clear that there is too much foot traffic to maintain the grass on that stretch. At first I was sad at how many trees were cut down, but now I’m really liking the space. It still feels shaded, and the extra grassy areas provide more usable space.Thanks!

    By Faty on December 29, 2012 2:58 am

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