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How the giant trees got to New York’s new island park

Little Island, the city’s newest park, is perched over the Hudson River. When it opened, it was full of large, mature trees. What does it take to fill a park out with foliage?

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Off the west side of Manhattan, sitting in the Hudson River, is a new New York City public park called Little Island. The $260 million pet project of businessman Barry Diller features 2.4 acres of tree-lined pathways, an amphitheater, and a food court. The idea for Little Island began nearly a decade ago, though it just opened to the public at the end of May. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s been around longer. The park juts out of the river on concrete tulip-esque columns, and jutting out of the park itself is an array of trees—and not skinny saplings secured with stakes into the ground. These trees look as if they’ve already lived here for some time, and that was by design. 

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[Photo: Signe Nielsen/courtesy Little Island]
Dotted along the hills and valleys of Little Island are 114 trees that vary in shape and height, from narrow and tall to squat and stretched out. The result, notes landscape architect Signe Nielsen of MNLA, is that “the park doesn’t look like it was just planted yesterday.” Rather than the 2- to 4-year-old saplings often used to line New York City sidewalks, the trees throughout Little Island are roughly 30 to 50 years old.

[Photo: Michael Grimm/courtesy Little Island]
Early on in the planning of the park, construction for which first began in 2015, Nielsen knew she had to carefully consider the trees that would be crucial to its design. She had already designed a number of parks on waterfronts, so she knew to pick trees with small leaves (they are less likely to get shredded by the wind that comes off the water). She also did an inventory of all the trees in Hudson River Park, the 4-mile-long stretch of park on Manhattan’s west side, of which Little Island is one feature, to see which species were thriving.

[Photo: Michael Grimm/courtesy Little Island]
Because the park is built on concrete structures that rise out of the water, Little Island’s trees would be more susceptible to lower temperatures. Some trees on hills have styrofoam underneath their roots (filling those areas with soil could have been too heavy for the concrete piles, so styrofoam pads the hills); others are in soil right within concrete slabs, which means they’d be exposed to cold from above and below. Rather than getting trees suitable to New York’s climate zone—Zone 6 on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s map of plant hardiness—Nielsen downgraded, selecting species tolerant of temperatures in Zone 5, which is the climate zone for Albany, New York.

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Little Island’s 114 trees were sourced from three suppliers, all specialists in high-caliper trees (tree size is denoted by caliper, a measurement of the diameter of the tree trunk): Halka Nurseries, which has two 1,300-acre farms in southern New Jersey; Ruppert Nurseries, a 600-acre wholesale tree grower in northern Maryland; and Hammell Nurseries, which spans more than 1,000 acres in eastern Pennsylvania.  There are 35 species of trees throughout the park, including red oaks, Japanese cedars, October Glory red maples, and zelkova “Green Vase” trees. 

Because the trees had to be transported, and because they were already so mature with massive root systems, timing for their planting was crucial. Nielsen describes the multitude of considerations for every tree: “Was the tree dug at the right season? Did it get enough root mass? During the time it was put into its burlap bag and the time it got put on the truck, was it well watered? How much time was it out of the ground? How long will it spend on the truck? How long was it between the time the tree was delivered to the site and we got it in the ground? There are so many steps along the way that can lead to a problem.” She credits her landscape contractor, Brightview, with coordinating all of these points.

[Photo: Michael Grimm/courtesy Little Island]
Little Island in general is unusual for a public park, since it was privately funded. That funding helped pay for the extravagance of these extra-large tree plantings. “I wouldn’t normally recommend to a public client that they put in 10-inch-caliper trees because you could get 10 other trees for the cost of 1 tree, and smaller trees are a bit more foolproof in terms of digging and transporting and planting,” Nielsen says. But even with the splurge on larger trees, they were still a small extravagance compared to the rest of the multimillion-dollar project. Of the $260 million Diller spent, Nielsen estimates that the plant material—which includes roughly 400 species of foliage, along with shrubs, grasses, vines, and perennials—cost about $6 million.

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[Photo: Michael Grimm/courtesy Little Island]
The park has helped revitalize what some have called the “once-derelict” west side of Manhattan, where the waterfront was full of industrial ports. Little Island is built on top of the pillars of the former Pier 54, a historic ship port (the Lusitania departed from that pier in 1915). But the the pier fell into disuse, and was further destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Plans for Little Island began in 2013, though the building of the park was fraught with yearslong legal challenges.

Once those roadblocks were passed, there was the actual challenge of building the park, and getting the trees into the ground was its own feat. When out of the ground, trees are losing water, which could hurt their chances of survival. Nielsen remembers a 12-inch-caliper maple or oak that weighed roughly 20,000 pounds when it arrived on the site. The next day when it was picked up by crane to be planted, it had lost 6,000 pounds of water weight.

“If that tree had not been planted immediately, its roots would dry out and it would suffer,” Nielsen explains. There’s still a chance something could happen to the trees in the park—an infestation, disease, a lightning strike—but luckily they are under a two-year warranty. “The trees are the single-largest investment of the entire landscape, and I think they’re also hugely visually important to the site, so their care and feeding, so to speak, is an extremely high priority,” Nielsen says. 

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There’s no doubt getting all those trees onto Little Island was a feat, but there’s also no doubt to Nielsen that it was worth it: “Landscape [is] what people experience and smell and walk through and touch and love [about] a place, especially a park.”