New York's Newest Park Sits on Recycled Demolition Debris

New York's Newest Park Sits on Recycled Demolition Debris

By Heather Corcoran
A newly completed landscape design by West 8 continues the transformation of a once abandoned military base in the New York City Harbor.

Nearly a decade ago, landscape architect Adriaan Geuze and the team at West 8 won the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation’s competition to "transform the Island and integrate its two halves." This week, nearly a year ahead of schedule, they debuted the results: The Hills, a series of four mounds rising 25 to 70 feet above the 172-acre island in the heart of New York Harbor.

The top of Slide Hill can be reached by a universally accessible path. It features four slides, including the longest in the city.

The four main elements of the design program are the hills that give the project its name: Outlook, Grassy, Slide, and Discovery. Each element is designed to give visitors a different experience, ranging from the 70-foot-high, universally accessible Outlook, with a feature called the Scramble, constructed from reclaimed granite blocks from the seawall, to the gently sloping Grassy Hill, which reaches 26 feet tall.  

The planting plan was designed to provide viewing corridors toward the city, with visitors enjoying 360-degree vistas from the top of Outlook, the tallest hill, and scenes of the Financial District skyline from Grassy Hill, seen here. Some 830 trees from 32 species selected for their size, color, and heartiness—including a variety of oaks and sassafras—were planted on The Hills, with a mix of balled-and-burlapped and container techniques.

"Sculpted topography works in concert with winding pathways and trees to create ‘conceal and reveal’ vistas, choreographing the park experience," says West 8 design director Adriaan Geuze. "It maximizes the sense of anticipation, pulling a visitor through the park or signaling a place to sit and stay just a bit longer."

The landscape will serve as a platform for public art, featuring British artist Rachel Whiteread's site-specific work Cabin, an otherworldly architectural installation on the tip of Discovery Hill. Made of concrete, the piece was cast from the wood interior of a New England–style shed.

The island site presented the firm with a number of challenges. Trees were specifically selected for their ability to stand up to the salt air and the slope, which itself provided some engineering problems. To create a secure surface that would not place too much weight on the island—the southern tip of which is made from material excavated during construction of the Lexington Avenue subway a century ago—West 8 used a mix of recycled material from buildings and parking lots demolished on the site, with lightweight pumice added to the largest hill, Outlook, to further limit the load that would be placed on the island's seawall. Geotechnical reinforcements provide added support.

There's more to the park than dirt and trees, however. It's an important element in protecting the island's resiliency, which is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, especially during storms. It also features a few high-tech touches, including Red Dot Award–winning Urban Star street lamps designed by West 8 in collaboration with Phillips. Now that's one smart park. 

A diagram reveals how the hills were constructed, with layers of fill (including recycled demolition debris and lightweight pumice) and horticultural soil creating the slope, plus a series of mats, biodegradable logs, and fences to prevent erosion. 

"The Hills are a triumph of imagination, state-of-the-art engineering, and smart design that will ensure access to beautiful green space, the waterfront, and incomparable views of the Harbor for years to come." —Leslie Koch, President of the Trust for Governors Island

A rendering shows the 30 acres of developed areas on the island including the paths and picnic areas of Phase 1 and the 10-acre site of The Hills.

Governors Island will be open for the season through September 25, 2016.


Get the Dwell Newsletter

Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.