The Historic District’s protected conditions, higher elevations and quality top soils make for ideal conditions to grow large, beautiful shade trees and support other plantings. On the southern half of the Island, poor quality soil, exposure to harsh salty winds, and poor draining soils have resulted in the stunted and stressed existing trees. The Governors Island Park and Public Space Master Plan increases botanic diversity across the southern half of the Island — complementing the botanic variety of the Historic District and integrating the two parts of the Island into a thriving whole. The overarching planting strategies are:

• Use native plants as the backbone of different plant communities for four season beauty, diversity, and habitats
• Plant to micro-climatic conditions
• Utilize stormwater and grey water to support plant communities
• Plant more where the soils are better
• Use light and shade to vary and unify park and public space experiences

The creation of new topography provides dramatically improved soil conditions in the southern portion of the Island with the addition of new fill and high quality top soil. Projected rising sea levels would have roots sitting in brackish sea water — a condition in which trees cannot survive. To address this condition, the plan re-grades major portions of the southern end of the Island to elevations above the future projected flood levels. In this way, the hundreds of new trees planted in the Hammock Grove, the Play Lawn, the Hills, and the Great Promenade will have their roots clear from rising sea water and grow for decades to come in better quality soil.

The tree planting strategy varies the sequence of light and shade throughout the park and public spaces. This modulation of light enriches the drama of walking from one area to the next. While in the filtered shade of a tree-filled area one sees a bright, sunny spot beyond. By playing up this syncopated sequence of light and shade, the design gives visitors a variety of experiences that change with the seasons and times of day.

The treatment of sunlight also helps to knit the northern and southern parts of the Island into a related experience. The Historic District sets the bright and sunny Parade Ground in contrast with shady Nolan Park and Colonels Row. The southern portion of the Island’s landscapes similarly continue this rhythm of sunny open areas in the Play Lawn and areas of deeper shade in the Hammock Grove.

Because much of the site is close to the water and exposed to the Harbor, it has a complex microclimate system. Plant types and species selection takes microclimate variations into consideration to assure long term plant health. Environmental factors affecting microclimate, such as salt spray, high winds, poor soils, groundwater levels, and sun exposure, were identified and analyzed on the Island. Then, a range of species was identified that can tolerate, and indeed thrive, in the park and public spaces’ microclimatic conditions.


The backbone of the planting concept is a core selection of trees, shrubs, and groundcovers from plant communities that are native to the New York region. This framework reinforces the natural potential of the park and public spaces and allows specific design strategies to be met through the pairing of native species with adapted ornamental plantings.

Plant species selection will be based on the Island’s environmental conditions and the Park and Public Space Master Plan’s design intent of stirring the imagination, celebrating the seasons, providing shelter, and contributing to the diversity of habitat. The native-intense selections feature plants from six different native plant communities based on compatibility to different areas of the site. Plants are then selected based on form, seasonal interest, and texture. Tolerance to wind, varying soil chemistry and moisture also weigh heavily in the selection.

The native palettes are a unifying element allowing habitat transitions. The ratio of native to ornamental plantings will be developed during the design process. The intent is to consider native plants first and strengthen the visitor’s year-round experience with non-native plants that offer specific form and function within a specific programmed space.

An early name for Governors Island was Nooten Eylant or “Nut Island,” given by the Dutch in recognition of the forests of nut trees that once flourished there. These trees would have provided rich habitat for other plants, birds, insects and mammals, but no evidence remains of the trees or the other species they supported. The Dutch settlers cleared the Island in the 17th century, and the Island’s subsequent uses focused on military needs, not the creation of habitat. While the northern half of the Island has an array of trees with an understory of lawn, the southern half of the Island has acres of buildings and asphalt. Birds, including Canada geese, visit and reside on the Island but there is room to improve habitat qualities for their respite.

The Park and Public Space Master Plan transforms the Island into a productive habitat supporting birds, plants, insects, trees, and grasses with a strong focus on the selection of native species of plants and trees. More than 1,300 new trees will be planted as well as a rich array of plants designed to great interest for birds and insects, not just humans.

The Hammock Grove, sheltered from maritime winds, will be home to a rich array of trees and plantings, including species of nut trees. The Hills too will be greened with trees and plants and hopefully will serve as a beacon for songbirds and raptors as well as humans. The Wetland Gardens provide a unique setting mixing fresh and salt waters to nourish such native plants as sea lavender, black rush, and beach grass together with other water-loving plants to provide food, interest and cover for waterfowl, shorebirds, and insects.

Learn more about the plant communities on the Island by downloading this pdf.

  • The Way It Works

    “The Way it Works” explains how the elements of the park and public space function. While the design is at the master plan stage, considerable work underlies the plan to ensure a strong foundation for future implementation. The West 8…

  • Program

    The program brief for the park and public space is based on a number of key principles:
    • To provide unique experiences that capitalize on the attributes of the Island and its harbor location
    • To create a destination that…

  • Topography

    A landscape architect’s most transformative space-making tool is grading. Grading is used functionally to channel run-off and provide adequate drainage. Beyond the purely functional, however, grading creates heaving bulges and recesses, small dips and peaks, and swaths of smooth, flat…

  • Views

    Parks are more pleasurable and more memorable if they have a rich layering of spatial qualities. The new topography at the southern portion of Governors Island cultivates the views of the Harbor. The park and public spaces will be designed…

  • Circulation

    Clear, organized circulation is essential to the legibility of the park and public spaces and to the safety of users. A network of pathways and roads serves pedestrians, bicyclists, and service vehicles, with a hierarchy of path uses and path…

  • Paving

    There is a conscious effort to correlate paving treatments and expression to the character of different park and public space areas and experiences. The horizontal plane underfoot (or under bicycle tires) contributes significantly to the experience.
    Stretches of path and…

  • Edging

    Edging is another key element of the Park and Public Space Master Plan. Edging surrounds and defines the perimeters of lawn and planted areas and the “pillow-shaped” topography. Edging serves multiple functions: clarifying paths, guiding bicyclists, and retaining grade. Its…

  • Furnishings

    Seating, lighting and other furnishings are critical to the visitor’s experience of any public space or park. An array of well-designed and well-located furnishings makes for a comfortable and inviting experience. Furnishings help establish character and feel. They also must…

  • Park Buildings

    The Park and Public Space Master Plan includes conceptual-level designs for three buildings to serve visitors and their needs for rest, refreshment, and information: Soissons Ferry Pavilion, the Shell at Liberty Terrace, and the Cube at Yankee Landing.
    Governors Island…

Comments (13)

Comments —

  • I hope what ever design evolves from the experts, I hope in the end it will be a Park and not another recreational area with bicyclist and their hippodrome races or another group of baseball and soccer fields or entertainment stages. A real park experience of relaxation and contemplation and human exchange of greetings. No animals including pets, no hobbyist and model planes and cars. A human park and natural surroundings.

    By word of mouse on April 13, 2010 4:35 pm
  • I think this a great thing.
    I was there with my family during Holand week,what a fantastic experance.Free bikes,free ferrys,we never knew
    about Governors Island,the biking and the incredible views from everywhere. Now its going to be over the top.
    sonny ireland,Atlantic City.

    By sonny ireland on April 30, 2010 9:30 pm
  • What are “development zones”? And why is there not a single word about them on this website?

    By bob on June 1, 2010 6:07 am
  • Hi Bob,

    Development zones are 33 acres of space set aside on the island’s southern portion for new construction. These areas are not a part of West 8′s Park and Public Space Master Plan, but you can read more about them, and the Island’s future development, here:

    By admin on June 2, 2010 5:04 am
  • Include a subway stop at Govenors Island. Appears the Brooklyn Battery tunnel runs close to the Island.

    By David on June 2, 2010 5:51 am
  • Can’t wait till we see it. It sounds wonderful. My husband worked on Governor’s Island for the Coast Guard and thought it was beautiful back then. What a wonderful addition to NYC

    By j carapazza on June 13, 2010 11:46 am
  • I sail. How about getting this island connected to the harbor by building/expanding docks with slips where small craft can moor for day trips ?

    By Rick van Valkenburg on September 7, 2010 1:57 pm
  • My wife and I first saw Governors Island when we came over from our home in Scotland for the fifth anniversary of 9/11. We both were surprised to see such a lovely wee island with lots of beautiful buildings not being used very much. However,the thought of all this work being done to the Island, for me is a step too far. Governors Islands beauty is its history and its significance to Americas history.To turn genuine historic buildings into cafes, restaurants and theatres is daft. Especially as you New Yorkers have a wee area called Broadway in the middle of your city.You also have Central Park. So it’s not like you need new parks. Governors Island is also a place New Yorkers can get away from it all. Whether on a lunch break or just to be away from the city for a wee while and you will not get that if it’s turned into a Mini Manhattan. Come on New York, keep Governors Island exactly what it is,a place of not only your history but your countries history. My wife nad I shall be back in your wondeful city in December of 2012 to spend a month there for my 40th birthday and hope it looks the way it did in 2006.

    By Jonny Campbell, Dundee. on October 7, 2010 5:57 am
  • what about a light rail tunnel connecting lower manhattan with governors island and continuing on to the old navy base on staten island for commuting?If you followed that with useing the rail already in place you could bring this train to snug harbor cultural centre and over to make connections for new jersey commuters to ease traffic in our city.If you made this a maglev train and built windmills along the water and west shore xpressway you could power it and help the grid.Maybe the feds would see this as a job creator and an interstate commuter project and fund it.If a tunnel to jersey was added all the better for a successful attempt.A green project with a long term useful end and lots of good jobs.What do you think?

    By mark w lane on February 17, 2011 11:10 am
  • Really agree with you comments here. I am uncertain if I would do it though :)

    By football tips on August 3, 2011 11:27 am
  • I agree with Jonny Cambell! and disagree with those who would add an interstate!! It should be kept as a historical place with the added plus of a place of relaxation. Keep the commercialization, cars, noise & animals out.

    By J. Costello on October 30, 2011 3:24 am
  • hi happy christmas to all of you – matt-mays

    By mattymays on December 22, 2011 5:13 am
  • since it is intended as waterfronts rehab project, more water access are needed: slips, piers even beaches and fishing places are needed. we are robbed of water access everywhere in NYC. Ferries should connect island with Brooklyn and Staten Island – that’s a given

    By Alexander Y on May 24, 2012 4:54 pm

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