The Making Of N.Y.C.’s First Great 21st Century Park

The Hills are an engineering marvel built for resiliency and recreation.

New York has some of the most beautiful parks in the world, but when you’re in them you’re always aware of the urban thrum. Even in the great Olmstedian masterpiece of Central Park, you can’t quite escape the feeling of towering buildings flanking the perimeter.


That’s not the case on Governors Island, a 170-acre island accessible only by ferry located south of Manhattan, where the East River meets the New York Harbor. From atop the Hills, a new phase of the Governors Island master plan opening in late July, you can get a breath of fresh air and gain a new perspective on one of the most iconic skylines in the world.

Draped in native plants and accented with public art and a slide or two, the natural beauty of the Hills belies their highly functional character. The Dutch landscape architecture firm West 8 hid resiliency infrastructure in plain sight. In addition to offering killer panoramas of New York and sight lines that put you eye-to-eye with the Statue of Liberty, the Hills will protect the island from sea level rise and storms. In fact, the Hills already protected the island during Sandy, which hit during their construction.

Adriaan Geuze, a landscape architect and founder of West 8, believes that shaping public parks carries a great civic responsibility. To create a design that engages people in unexpected ways and speaks to the character of a location, he looked at the historic, climactic, and environmental context of the project, and manipulated the Hills’ topography based on that research. “While we did think logically [about the design], we also had the pleasure to sculpt this feature, to undulate, to manipulate the horizon to create intimacy, views, and panoramas,” he says. “We played that game to the maximum.”


Water, Water, Everywhere

Hell-bent on making design his legacy, former mayor Michael Bloomberg poured millions into building new city parks during his tenure. One of his more ambitious plans was transforming the 172-acre Governors Island–a former military outpost–into a recreational idyll on the New York harbor. The city revealed its plans in 2010, but the planning process began in the mid 2000s.

The park was envisioned as an iconic space for future generations, so ensuring that the design could endure decades–if not centuries–of use was the starting point for the design. And in large part, that meant looking at how to deal with water.

“For us, resiliency wasn’t an option, it was a necessity,” says Leslie Koch, ‎president and CEO at Trust for Governors Island, speaking to the confluence of extreme weather and rising tides that are already impacting the landscape Around the same time Koch and the Trust were thinking about plans for the island’s future, MoMA was planning its Rising Currents exhibition of speculative projects to tackle the same problem. “We were using the same data [about the impact of climate change on New York] but designing in real time,” Koch says.


FEMA flood-zone maps revealed that almost the entire southern half of the island might be submerged during a 100-year flood. Moreover, the scientists predicted with 99% confidence that there would be a two-foot sea level rise by 2100. With that information in mind, the logical solution was to raise the elevation of the land to keep the root systems of plants and trees away from brackish water.

“As landscape architects, we sculpt and design ecosystems, and we also engineer public space,” Geuze says. “Our work never starts as a blank canvas; we are not artists. So I strongly believe that when a city or a mayor demands a park that is on an island, that is threatened by brackish water, that is so near to the ocean, and that is so vulnerable to flooding, it becomes about how we make this a legacy. In imagining this park for the next generation, brackish water is my enemy.”

To counteract the threat of rising water and to also protect the island from storm surges, Geuze argued that the only solution was to raise the island itself. Building hills would ensure that the trees and vegetation would be safely away from salt water, which can infiltrate low-lying soil. The land masses would also buffer the rest of the island.


“Adriaan said we can’t just build a park; he said you have to lift the island,” Koch says. “I was skeptical. Because public money was involved, I needed to know it wasn’t just an architect’s thrill, that it was necessary.” Yet the data from FEMA and scientists’ predictions were convincing enough–so the Hills concept proceeded in the master plan.

View of Governors Island looking north, 2003.Andrew Moore

How To Engineer A Mountain

With the plan to raise the island’s topography firmly in place, the challenge turned to building the land forms. Constructing a stable hill is not as easy as it seems. First there’s the logistical hurdle of finding the materials. Then, adding more mass puts pressure on the existing land and can cause sinkage. The new hills themselves also had to be sturdy to handle people walking on top of and around them.

In the low-lying Netherlands, “lifting” a landscape is a fairly common strategy to mitigate flooding, and one that Geuze had used in the past frequently. His strategy in Europe is to typically find the least expensive fill material and pile that on to make a hill. In his experience, you only start to see deformation when a mass hits a height of 90 feet. Recognizing that constraint, he opted to build no taller than 70 feet–a height that would offer optimum views, fulfill the resiliency requirements, and leave as little negative impact as possible.


Because he was building in the United States, with its own regulations and where this type of intervention isn’t as common, Geuze recruited a local engineering firm to work on the hill. The first firm said that he’d need to build a system of pilings, then a table, then another layer of pilings. “They engineered it like they would an airport or a complex infrastructural landform or a skyscraper,” Geuze says. “Maybe that’s good in those cases, but for a park suddenly 75% of your budget becomes invisible. So where is the money? We made the best piling in a hill. I was provoked and scared about the direction this took.”

So West 8 looked for alternative engineering strategies, eventually enlisting the Seattle offices of Hart Crowser Geotechnical Engineers and Magnusson Klemencic Associates. Rather than using concrete and steel, West 8 and the engineers opted to use demolition materials from what was on the site prior: a parking lot and an 11-story building, supplemented with fill material from a quarry in the Hudson Valley. At the very top, they used a lightweight pumice imported from Greece that is just a quarter of the weight of sand by volume. Meanwhile, instead of using a “hard” structural system to reinforce the hill, the geotechnical engineer David Winter of Hart Crowser layered “geotextiles” made from a thermoplastic polymer resin, which is similar to polypropylene, throughout. Think of them as very strong support hosiery for the soil.

“My assumption was build a dumb hill, meaning just put the material there, sculpt it, and there you have it,” Geuze says. “An American engineer’s first assumption was to use half your budget for a structure. Then it became super technical mechanical engineering through fill material, then it became about the contractor finding new products on the market. The outcome is four concepts delivering one set of hills.”


West 8 turned to the landscape architecture firm Mathews Nielsen (which was named to Fast Company‘s Most Innovative Companies list in 2015) to specify plants, shrubs, and trees whose roots would act as an organic and ever-growing structural system and help with erosion control. (Mathews Nielsen planted more than 40,000 shrubs alone.) The firm used a lot of maritime species that could withstand the salt spray and winds (dehydration through evapotranspiration is more harmful for plants than damage from the force of the wind itself) that hit this portion of the island. Then, they started picking varieties that would just look good.

“They’re not all workhorses,” Kim Mathews, a principal at the firm, says. She planted flowering blueberries and ginkgo trees, which have vivid yellow leaves in autumn. (“You have to feel bad for the female ginkgos since we only plant males,” she jokes about avoiding the trees that bear smelly fruit.) Mathews also used plants as a wayfinding mechanism, placing trees near entry paths to let visitors know that there was something there. Inspired by a trip through Massachusetts, she mixed pine and birch trees together on one hill; on another, she opted for sumac, a tree that has red foliage in fall. “We wanted these moments of awe and excitement though the seasons,” she says.

N.Y.C. Is Rediscovering Its Coastline

In terms of experiencing the final design, West 8 and the Governors Island Trust agreed that the Hills should entice and tease visitors with views of the harbor, horizon, and surrounding cityscape.


“The irony of New York is we are known to the world as the city of skyscrapers and for the Statue of Liberty,” Koch says. “But if you live in the city, you don’t have access to those skyscrapers unless you have an expensive apartment or work in one or pay $30 [to go to a viewing area], and the statue is something that New Yorkers never visit.”

A winding path lined with white stone cuts between the hills. (“It’s like eyeliner,” Geuze remarks. “It makes the grass look greener.”) At first the Statue of Liberty is visible, but as visitors journey deeper into the canyon. it plays a game of hide-and-seek, coming in and out of view.

Each of the four hills was assigned a character: The 26-foot-tall Grassy Hill is pretty self explanatory and is more of a transition piece between the gently sloped area preceding the Hills; the 36-foot-tall Slide Hill is fitted with three slides for recreation; visitors traverse Discovery Hill, at 39 feet tall, on a mulch-lined path that leads to a sweeping view of Governors Island, the harbor, and an installation by British artist Rachel Whiteread.


The real showstopper is the 70-foot-tall Outlook Hill, which features an accessible paved path to the top. More adventurous climbers can ascend on a staircase called “the Scramble,” made from old granite blocks that once reinforced the island’s edges. (West 8 removed them from the perimeter to make way for a public promenade.) From the top, you can see as far as the Verrazano Bridge to Staten Island, the Brooklyn neighborhoods adjacent to the island, the Financial District, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and clear across to New Jersey. There’s also a viewing area positioned at about 60 feet–a height Koch and Geuze tested by standing in a cherry picker to pick the best vantage point.

“You have to go to the top of the hill to feel how life-changing it is,” Koch says. “Everyone remarks that it’s like you’re Julie Andrews twirling on a hill in the Sound of Music.”

Within the past few decades, New York reevaluated its relationship to the harbor. The waterfront was once reserved for industry, but new public spaces–like Hudson River Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the East River Blue Way Plan, and Hunters Point South Park–are showing how the areas can be transformed into green space for public enjoyment and often also for resiliency.


“The Hills make Governors Island a magnet in a huge city that’s no longer turning it’s back to the harbor,” Koch says.

Negotiating Public Space With Private Partners

Like many of the public spaces planned in the Bloomberg era, Governors Island is a public-private partnership, a controversial funding mechanism that sells the right to develop on public land to commercial businesses to help pay for maintenance. (Brooklyn Bridge Park sold off a portion to a real estate developer and the High Line was built on the backs of private donors, for example.)

“The goal is economic development,” Koch says of the overall plan to remake the island into a recreational destination. “A mix of uses should bring financial support as well as more access to the island.”


While the Hills is now complete, the next major construction project on the island is a pool-equipped day spa set to open next summer. Governors Island plans to ramp up ferry service and open up the island year round. Right now, the island is accessible to the public only 120 days per year, and ferry service is scant, with the last ferry leaving at 7 p.m. Once the spa opens–the first official commercial tenant, though there is a bike rental company and food vendors there now–visitors can come to the island 365 days a year, and ferry service is expected to run to and from the island once every 20 minutes until 10 p.m. The island is also home to an outpost of the public New York Harbor School, which opened in 2010.

When the Governors Island Trust staged a competition for its landscape design nearly 10 years ago, it aspired to be “the park at the center of the world,” a destination for city residents and tourists alike. “It’s like 150 acres the city didn’t have before,” Koch says. “It wasn’t a place people could go to. We deliberately started with design, public use, arts and culture, which wasn’t conventional wisdom 10 years ago. That spectacular landscape will be the anchor, but the spa will extend access.”

Just as a park that balances resiliency with recreation is the future of public space in New York, so is having pay-to-play elements, it seems. Now is a good time to visit the island, before the posh businesses take over and more people catch on to the magic that’s just a ferry ride away. The Hills opens to the public July 28.


[Photos (unless otherwise noted): Timothy Schenck]


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.