The New Public Landscapes of Governors Island

As part of our occasional series of conversations, Adriaan Geuze talked with Brian Davis about his vision for the transformation of an old military outpost in New York Harbor into a new public park.

New York Harbor, Upper Bay, 1999, with Governors Island near the center, Manhattan to the left, Brooklyn at top, and Jersey City at the bottom; Ellis Island is at the left, Liberty Island at right, just off New Jersey. [photo by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]

The Island Near the Island at the Center of the World

New York Harbor has been inspiring extravagant praise for centuries, ever since the three-masted Half Moon, sponsored by the Dutch East India Company and captained by Henry Hudson, sailed into the waters surrounding what would become first Nieuw Amsterdam, later New York City. “The greatest natural harbor on the coast of a vast new wilderness” is how Russell Shorto describes it in The Island at the Center of the World. 1 With its islands and wetlands and rivers, its maritime and industrial infrastructures, its fortifications and bridges and monuments to immigration, liberty and enterprise, New York Harbor has long occupied a central place in the history and mythology of one of the continent’s greatest cities.

Today the Harbor is undergoing a vital transformation. In recent decades the decline of shipping and manufacturing, along with growing environmental consciousness, has given rise to new concerns and opportunities, spurring ideas for ecological remediation and speculative real estate, and opening up possibilities for public space where the land and the sea meet. 2 In the last three decades the most important new parks in New York City have been at the water’s edge: Battery Park, Gantry Plaza State Park, Hudson River Park, Riverside Park South and Brooklyn Bridge Park are among the most prominent.

One of the next major public landscapes at the water’s edge is likely to be Governors Island. Situated at the mouth of the East River, with spectacular views of the harbor, Governors Is. has been in limbo for years, ever since the Coast Guard ceased operations there in 1996. But the Island has always been something of a mystery; for most of its colonial and post-colonial history, it was a military outpost little known by the citizens of the growing metropolis across the bay. Sparsely populated since early settlement by the Dutch and then the British, it first became known as Governors Island in 1698, when the British colonial assembly set it aside for the “benefit and accommodation of his majestie’s governors.” 3 During the Revolutionary War the Continental Army constructed earthworks to protect the harbor from the British 4, and with the establishment of the new republic, the strategically located island continued to be fortified as a defensive bulwark. In the years before the War of 1812, the U.S. Army built a castle and a battery; early in the 20th century it expanded the island with fill from the excavation of the Lexington Avenue Subway 5; later it constructed a bulkhead for protection from storm surges, as well as other facilities such as piers, helicopter pads and a rail line.

Top: Governors Island, 1816. [via New York Daily News] Middle: Governors Island, 1865. [via National Association for Civil War Brass Music] Bottom: Governors Island, with the Brooklyn waterfront in the distance. [Photo by Andrew Moore, courtesy of The Trust for Governors Island]

Today Governors Island is dominated by the vestiges of its military legacy and by panoramic views of the surrounding harbor. Fort Jay (ca. 1797) occupies the northern edge; crumbling barracks and tarmacs are found throughout the interior; the Coast Guard’s old Lima Pier juts into the Buttermilk Channel toward Red Hook; the encircling bulkhead varies from seven to twelve feet above sea level. Looking north toward the mouth of the East River, you can take in the sweep of the Brooklyn Bridge, and, on the waterfront below, the new Brooklyn Bridge Park; across the river are the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan, fringed by the green of Battery Park. Looking south you find Staten Island and the old naval base, now a cruise ship harbor, of Bayonne, NJ, and the gentrifying waterfront of Jersey City. And in the distance, at the mouth of the harbor, the Verrazano Bridge leaps across the Narrows, marking the entry to the port that was the gateway to America for so many millions of immigrants.

With the end of military operations, the federal government arranged the return of Governors Island to New York State for the nominal cost of $1, on condition that future development would benefit the public (with 22 acres being set aside to create the Governors Island National Monument). And even as its official status was being negotiated, the urban design community was debating new uses for the 172-acre island located just one-half mile from the southern edge of Manhattan. In 1996 the Van Alen Institute sponsored an ideas competition, Public Property, which drew more than 200 entries in response to the challenge “to consider the urban potential of Governors Island” and how it could contribute “to the survival of a vital public realm.” A few years later the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, the public entity charged with redevelopment, along with the non-profit Governors Island Alliance, began sponsoring programs and facilities, including art exhibitions and sports venues, as part of the effort to encourage public activity and build a constituency for the island. And in 2007 the City organized a major competition, inviting five teams of internationally prominent designers to propose ideas for the island’s “future public open space,” including a new 87-acre park at the southern end, a “great promenade” around the perimeter, and park spaces within the designated Historic District at the northern end. The winning proposal was the work of a team led by West 8, in collaboration with Rogers Marvel Architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, and Urban Design +. 6

Governors Island promenade near Castle Williams with views of Manhattan. [via The Trust for Governors Island]

In 1987 Adriaan Geuze founded the Rotterdam-based West 8, and he has remained its leading principal and animating force, even as the landscape architecture and urban design firm has grown to 70 people with satellite offices in Brussels, New York and Toronto. At first working primarily in Western Europe, West 8 quickly earned international recognition with projects that were by turns whimsical, poetic, ecologically responsive and urbanistically sophisticated, including the Schouwburgplein (1991-1996), a raised public square in the heart of Rotterdam; the master plan of the Borneo-Sporenburg district in Amsterdam (1993-1996); and the landscape of Schipol Airport in Amsterdam (1992), a scheme for planting 25,000 birch trees in under-used spaces and marking the entries with fields of potted flowers.

Exhibiting an ability to create challenging landscapes and encourage new patterns of use, and with a solid grounding in the rich tradition of Dutch landscape making, West 8 has worked across a range of temporal and spatial scales. The firm’s landscape design for the Eastern Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier (1991-1992), in Zeeland, consists of large alternating bands of black and white mussel shells which provide not only safe resting places for shore birds during high tide but also a visually striking landscape for motorists driving along the adjacent causeway; its design for the Inner Garden at the University of Utrecht (2004-2005) features eye-catching red metal “props,” or struts, for new pine trees, which work as a playful counterpoint to the leafy green of the canopies and the restraint of the institutional architecture; the firm’s Cow-Horizon Project (2005), one of its most playful works, created for the Rotterdam Biennale, involved the installation of super-sized inflatable cows in the pasturelands along highways throughout Holland. More recently the firm has received prominent commissions in North America, including projects like the revitalization of the Toronto Central Waterfront, now underway, and a projected plan for the redesign of the open space of Lincoln Mall in Miami Beach.

Adriaan Geuze and the Narrative of New York City

West 8’s proposal for Governors Island, created before the economic crash of 2008, is today viewed by The Trust for Governors Island — the public agency created to oversee the ongoing project — as part of the long-range transformation of the island from military fortification to economically viable and socially vital public amenity. 7 Last fall I talked with Adriaan Gueze about his team’s design for the new park, and about their strategies for realizing an ambitious public project in a challenging time.

Brian Davis: The idea of a new public park on Governors Island has generated a lot of excitement in New York City. Every year more and more people visit, and recently Mayor Bloomberg said that the Island “can become one of the world’s greatest public places, and we’re committed to making it happen.” How do you see the Island’s potential right now?

Adriaan Geuze: I like to think of Governors Island in terms of the narrative of New York. Public life in New York City has traditionally been focused not out to the sea but in on the land — the view has been more inward than outward regarding public space. For centuries the water’s edge was given over to infrastructure, like highways, and to shipping and industry. But now the city’s political leadership is looking to the waterfront as the location for the next generation of public spaces, of public parks. So this is new, and it’s a great moment in the city’s history. It promises to define our time, to make it distinct from earlier eras.

BD: That’s true. But there’s a big difference here at Governors Island. Unlike other waterfront parks, such as Battery Park or Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Island isn’t adjacent to well established neighborhoods. The new park will be on an island where nobody actually lives, and all visitors will need to take a boat. This might discourage some, those not interested in the experience or the effort required; at the same time it will attract others who’ll welcome the chance to be on the water. Do you think this will make the park a more exclusive, or at least self-selecting, experience?

AG: Of course. But the need to take a boat can also be seen as a democratizing element. To get to the island, you’ve got to take a ferry, which now is free, and so you share the boat with fellow citizens, no matter your income or where you live or what borough you’re from. That’s fantastic. Once you embrace that idea, you realize it’s an unusual starting point for a park design. But in any case we couldn’t make a park that’s better than the extraordinary landscape that surrounds this island — a 360-degree panorama of the harbor and the horizon, including the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Verrazano Bridge, the skylines of Manhattan and Brooklyn. What more can you dream about? It’s the magic of the harbor that will create the destination that will draw people.

Governors Island, future park, view of South Battery. Project by West 8. For the full West 8 Team, see Governors Island — Park & Public Space Master Plan. [via the Trust for Governors Island]

BD: So is your design largely about emphasizing the context, about allowing visitors to engage the harbor by taking the ferry and enjoying the island?

AG: That is an understatement! Our park is trying to dramatize those qualities that are there already. We are using the existing landscape — the borrowed view — as a starting point. But then we dramatize it. We build up tension and create thresholds. These are the design tools used in 18th-century English landscape architecture — in gardens that sought to instill a sense of the sublime. So we are working in that tradition. Here you have the industrial waterscapes, the gantry cranes of New Jersey, and you have the long views of Staten Island and Brooklyn, with the great bridge jumping athletically over the river, and then you have the view of the most famous skyline in the world, the tip of Manhattan. It’s as if Manhattan were designed to create this view! Plus you have the atmosphere, the wind and the sky, which is different every ten minutes, and the waves. The landscape of the harbor is unbelievably rich. It’s all there.

BD: Another issue that’s important to New York City, and any coastal city, is climate change and the possibility of sea level rise. How does the design for Governors Island address these issues?

AG: The logic of Governors Island to date is the result of its military uses. The land is flat as a pancake, which is a problem for, say, planting trees: if you plant trees near sea level they will be stunted or killed by the brackish water seeping up from below. There is also the fact that a lot of the island was created by fill. For this park, then, we will need to import soil — which in fact creates real opportunities. With flat topography a landscape has very little drama — from every vantage you see the same thing. But here we can use the new soil and sculpt it to create a more interesting, undulating landscape, and of course creating higher ground is also a way to anticipate sea level. So we conceptualized the topography as not only functional in an ecological sense — and dealing with rising sea levels is fundamental — but also as dramatic. By sculpting the land we can create view lines and thresholds; we can heighten the experience of the harbor. But at the southern end we will do the opposite with the topography; here we will cut into the island and take advantage of being at sea level in order to create a wetland with plants, sights and smells that are uncommon in New York City today. The bulkhead will remain in place, but the seawater will infiltrate the island here to create the brackish zone. These two aspects — the pragmatic need to deal with the likelihood of sea level rise and the aesthetic desire to dramatize the landscape through topography — are the backbone of the design.

Governors Island, future park, Hammock Grove. [via the Trust for Governors Island]

BD: It seems that the design uses changing conditions as an opportunity to create spectacle and experiences that excite the senses and emotions.

AG: These sentiments and ideas were very much on our minds. The commission began with a competition. Can you imagine the chance to design Governors Island? We were excited! This harbor is like the Bosporus Strait or the bay of Rio de Janeiro; these are places in the world which have a logic, an aura, beyond culture and beyond time. We immediately felt the power of that. The challenge was how to create a destination in the middle of the harbor, in a place that had been off limits for centuries. The harbor captivates people, but the island was a mystery and not a part of public experience.

BD: In your essay, “Flatness,” you emphasize the landscape as a major protagonist in Dutch culture. 8 You include some wonderful, iconic characters and elements: the farmer, the painter, the engineer, the cow, the windmill, the dike. It seems that the proposed design for Governors Island, though in a different setting and culture, is also about the mythology of place. The way you talk about the Harbor — about a logic beyond culture and time — implies this. Is that a fair way to characterize how you interpret this landscape?

AG: That is a bit too academic, I think. First of all we want to create a park which will fulfill people’s dreams and desires. As part of the brief, we had a chance to communicate with local communities. We organized events on a ferry and on the island, evening events with special user groups who were involved, interested or living nearby. With the help of an outreach specialist and the client, we gathered information about what people thought. Then we organized the statistics and mapped the comments. We made maps to figure out what people think about the island, what people expect; we took the data and made it spatial, in an effort to see if we could accommodate people’s expectations. But we won’t be content with just this simple programmatic pragmatism. As I said earlier, one of our goals is to create a design that emphasizes the experience of the great harbor, which is what makes Governors Island special. And to do this you need more than data. You need to work from your own experience, your inner resources — the ideas and values that you build up over a lifetime. But it is not so easy to talk about these things.

BD: But that’s what I want to know! It’s one thing to resolve a series of specific situations according to certain technical guidelines and programmatic objectives. But West 8 consistently creates landscapes that do more than solve problems. Are there particular methods or processes that enable you to capture the magic of a particular landscape

AG: At Governors Island we will use topography to create a coherent, meaningful experience. By sculpting topography — which on one level is a purely pragmatic device — we will create hilltop panoramas and we will encourage scenic island tours where one view after another unfolds. We will design view corridors that allow you to enter the park and suddenly come upon the spectacle of the Brooklyn Bridge, or the Statue of Liberty. All of which will create a kind of hide-and-reveal. So you are here, say, and the view is hidden, though you have an almost subconscious sense of where it might be; and then you move through the park and discover the view

BD: Another theme of yours, in “Flatness,” is the idea of the working landscape, and the absurdity of making every place into a hedonistic recreational zone. For centuries New York Harbor was primarily a place for work. Now it’s being remade into a park for play and entertainment. Did you think about such distinctions here?

AG: It’s important to understand that “Flatness” was a critical essay about contemporary Dutch culture; it was 100 percent political. My purpose was to explain that the political leadership of The Netherlands has not been taking care of the country’s landscape, and in fact is ruining it for the next generation. The essay was published in every Dutch newspaper, so it had a lot of visibility; yet it is not necessarily the basis for my whole way of thinking, and I don’t think it’s applicable here

BD: On Governors Island there are some interesting ongoing initiatives. The New York Harbor School and the Red Hook Farm 9 have recently begun operating, and there are artist residencies and installations. How do these initiatives and the idea of the working landscape fit with the park design?

AG: At the moment artistic endeavors on the island are very much about experimentation. It’s an interesting time because there isn’t yet anything as formal as a sculpture garden, a display of finished work. It is much more open and free. This seems to be fundamental to the spirit of the Island, a quality that it can continue to encourage. For instance, did you see the “archeological” project that a group of Flemish artists exhibited in the fall of 2009? You had to queue, you were given a safety helmet and jacket, and you were allowed onto what seemed like an archeological site, with digging zones marked off and inspection tools scattered around. The artists created an installation, complete with a story line that an old village that had been wiped out in a storm had been unearthed. There was a church tower, ruins and foundations. It was amazing. Visitors felt lost or intrigued or provoked; the project really played with the ironies of the site, with an essential quality of the island. You couldn’t do the same kind of project in Central Park; it is too vulnerable.

BD: This essential quality of the island that you refer to — is it mystery and exploration

AG: Yes. And if you organize three or four of these kind of experiments each year, maybe one is totally useless and nobody talks about it, the other is okay, and one is fantastic. It’s intriguing to think about Governors Island continuing to be this sort of experimental zone.

Top: Governors Island, future park, lower level promenade. [via the Trust for Governors Island] Bottom: Governors Island, future park, the Hills. [via the Trust for Governors Island]

BD: Where would you place Governors Island in relation to West 8’s other work? Is it a culmination? Or an evolution, or a new direction for West 8?

AG: I have to be very personal here: I’ve come to believe that you need a lifetime to design a park. When I was 26, I had my diploma and was officially registered as a landscape architect and was allowed to make parks and gardens. Now I’m 50. And for the first time in my life I feel that I can deliver a park and know what it is about, what it could be about. So you need a lifetime. Park design is pragmatic, but it is also more than functional. And to make parks that are functional and something more, you need all kinds of tools; you need life experience, and of course you have to make mistakes. But now I’ve been to many beautiful places and have had many life experiences. This is my profession and I love it. I’m a greenfinger — I just want to plant trees! At Governors Island, we are prepared to deliver a park because we know how to deal with complex bureaucracies and long timetables. To meet with all these communities and to survive maybe three or four mayors, to adapt constantly to the changing social, political and economic climate — all that is part of park design as well. A park needs to have a strong identity and an exciting narrative to survive as a design — not as a reality, as a design — because you have to explain it again and again and again, before it finally gets built. We need our two decades of experience to create a park at this level.

BD: Are there parks you’ve designed that you now consider complete?

AG: Yes, the first parks, the early ones I did 22 years ago. In recent years, for the first time, I really feel I can experience some sense of our oeuvre. Before I always thought we did more on paper than out in the world. But now when I go to those first projects, I sense that we have made a park.

Governors Island, looking toward Liberty Island. [via the Trust for Governors Island]

Future Prospects

In the three years since Governors Island was opened to the public and West 8 began working on the park design, the number of visitors per season (the Island is open from June through September) has grown steadily; in 2010 the number was 443,000 (60 percent more than the previous year). Programmatic activities include artist residencies, exhibitions and food festivals; and as noted above, the Brooklyn-based Added Value has opened a community farm, and the Island is home to the New York Harbor School. It’s also got the city’s first bike share program. Despite the recent withering of public funds, political support has remained strong.

But questions persist. Foremost is the eventual development of the large zones on the eastern and western edges of the island. Many observers have noted that the program and design of these areas will be critical to the function and experience of the island as a unique environment — as a public place with an important national heritage. New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff has rightly noted that waterfront park projects have often been conceived as a “savvy way to raise property values.”  In fact, the great New York City parks have historically been speculative ventures, no matter their democratic or public health goals. What’s interesting at Governors Island is that the very terms of its transfer from the federal to state and city government require that the Island be developed “for substantial public use.” The redevelopment has the potential to be a new, more truly democratic experiment, more like Ellis Island than Central Park. 10.

Perhaps the essential challenge to the future of Governors Island will be establishing and maintaining convenient, economical connections to and from the Island and other destinations around the harbor and throughout the boroughs. Currently ferry service is free, but it is seasonal and leaves only from Brooklyn Bridge Park and the South Ferry Terminal in Manhattan. One of the early criticisms of Central Park was that it was too far uptown to be convenient to the poorer neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan. 11 It wasn’t until efficient public transit — buses, elevated trains and subways — made the park broadly accessible that it truly flourished as a democratic public space. As Adriaan Gueze notes, Governors Island will not be a part of people’s daily routes; they will have to choose to engage with the Harbor and go to the Island. Being able to get there cheaply and quickly will be paramount to creating new public spaces at Governors Island.

  1. Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America (New York: Random House, 2005), 8.
  2. Many of the new waterfront parks have been undertaken in conjunction with private development schemes; examples include Riverside Park South, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Gantry State Park and Battery Park City.
  3. Edmund Banks Smith, Governor’s Island: Its Military History Under Three Flags, 1637-1913 (Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2010), 11.
  4. These defenses were elaborated in 1794 as part of the First American System of coastal fortifications, which consisted of 20 outposts along the Atlantic coast meant to protect the new republic’s ports from attack, especially by the English navy. See Fort Jay: Governors Island National Monument Historic Structures Report (Lowell, MA: National Park Service, 2005).
  5. At this time The Brooklyn Daily Eagle argued that Governors Island would be put to better use as a park rather than a military installation. All that was lacking, the paper pointed out, were ferries to transport people from Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan: “There is a proposition to spend a million and a half of dollars on Governor’s Island, for the purpose of improving it as an Army station. … At present the island is a depot and a prison … but as a station is has no consequence. Governors Island, on the contrary, has many advantages as a public park. It is worthless as a defense, and by means of ferries it could be put in reach of thousands who at present occupy rookeries in lower Manhattan and tenements in crowded parts of Brooklyn.” “Governors Island,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 11, 1901.
  6. For the full West 8 Team, see Governors Island — Park & Public Space Master Plan.
  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. See Governors Island: What Happens Next.
  8. See West 8, Mosaics (Basel: Birkhauser, 2008), 6-20.
  9. See New York Harbor School and Red Hook Community Farm for more information.
  10. It is worth noting that while Ellis Island and the Gateway National Recreation Area in New York and New Jersey are popular, they have never become truly integrated into the daily lives of citizens living nearby. Located in New York Harbor, Gateway is more national and international landmark.
  11. See Roy Rosenzseig and Elizabeth Blackmar, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998).
Adriaan Geuze in conversation with Brian Davis, “The New Public Landscapes of Governors Island,” Places Journal, February 2011. Accessed 01 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • William I. Orchard

    02.08.2011 at 22:20

    In planting trees please consider the 'Ginko' and the 'Dawn Redwood' or Stephane Gliptrostobies.

    Bill Orchard, Master Gardener '87 (Nassau County)

    Spelling is not a 'forte of mine'

  • Ann L. Buttenwieser

    03.14.2011 at 12:31

    I sincerely wish the writer would include Governors Island: The Jewel of New York Harbor, an illustrated, definitive history of GI, in his footnotes.