Davidson on Governors Island’s New 30-Acre Park

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Photo: Timothy Schenck

For years, Governors Island has been in a constant state of becoming. The decommissioned Army (and, later, Coast Guard) base has gradually insinuated itself into the consciousness of nonmilitary New Yorkers, who were invited to visit even before it was transformed. Most landscape architects have to imagine how people will use their creations; Adriaan Geuze, the landscape architect who co-founded the Dutch firm West 8, only had to watch. Under the tutelage of Leslie Koch, president of the Trust for Governors Island, the island effectively became a research station for the mechanics of leisure. Koch, Geuze, and their staffs noted where weekenders gravitated to picnic; who chose to bike, where, and how fast; how children played and how long grandparents snoozed; what kind of food they would buy, how much they would spend, and whether they stopped to examine the art installations.

Out of all that experimentation and observation has emerged a 30-acre park that is one of New York’s new jewels. Liggett Hall, a long, narrow barracks building, cuts across the island’s narrow neck, dividing the gracious 19th-century military campus from the new zone. The last time I visited, that south-facing expanse was a wafer of land, charmless, wind-strafed, and flat, though enlivened by an artistic mini-golf course that tried vainly to fill up the space. Today, shin-high rounded hedges flank sinuous pathways and enclose little graveled clearings. The shrubbery breaks up the landscape without interrupting sightlines: Parents can sit in the movable chairs or at café tables and let their children roam. The adventure playgrounds have no fences, which will give kids the delicious illusion of total freedom on a car-free island where the curve of the paths pretty much forces bikers to saunter, and the only escape is by ferry. The greatest danger is that an outfielder on the gleaming new softball fields may get distracted by the full frontal close-up of the Statue of Liberty and get beaned by a fly ball.

All the plans produced the fear that one of New York’s last leftover spaces, pleasantly battered and almost forgotten, would give way to a maritime version of the High Line—a glittery tourist haven with all its attractive shabbiness ruthlessly manicured away. So far, that hasn’t happened. There are no straight lines in Geuze’s design, only round fountains, swooping paths, elliptical enclosures, fluid flower beds, and undulating lawns scattered with fire-engine-red Adirondack chairs. Some decisions have unintentionally happy results: Koch reports that the wide, round-topped white curbs that border paths turn out to be a 3-year-old’s delight. Perhaps they sense that this is a hands-on landscape, not a precious diorama. Please keep on the grass. 

This $75 million urban Eden, operated by a private nonprofit trust but paid for mostly by the city, opens just as Mayor de Blasio has stoked the debate over park equity, the principle that neighborhood parks should be tended on a par with velvet-lawned showpieces like Central Park. The beauty of Governors Island is that it’s both a destination and also everyone’s offshore neighborhood park. You can see that in the data: Visitors come from all over the city, no single Zip Code accounts for more than 5 percent, and—for now, at least—locals vastly outnumber tourists. (After Memorial Day weekend, it will finally be open on weekdays.) A five-minute ferry ride from Brooklyn and Manhattan, it feels distant yet impossibly close, and the juxtaposition of vertical city and languorous landscape is almost surreal. From certain angles, the World Trade Center seems to have photobombed a view of a bucolic college campus.

Geuze understood years ago that the island would need some hills. When Hurricane Sandy hit, it spared all the earthmovers that huddled on a 16-foot rise, and failed to drown more than a few new trees. Today, when so many other coastal areas are still struggling to revive, Governors Island is giving off an I-told-you-so glow of Low Country foresight. The gentle terraforming that Geuze insisted upon endows the island with a personality that’s still in formation. Eventually, toddlers will tumble down a 30-foot grassy slope that for now is just a mound of dirt, but already the gentle undulations feel satisfying underfoot.

The park is still in its infant stage. In the hammock grove, rows of saplings stand ready to fight each other for primacy and the right to shade nappers a few years from now. (Until then, the hammocks are strung between sturdy posts, naked to the sun.) Lawns are stubbly, and the hedges are still gasping from the winter’s onslaught. But you can sense a more verdant future, when lush, intimate corners of a landscape will offer a counterpoint to the harbor’s wide horizons.

*This article appeared in the May 19, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.