A dozen years ago an American port representative was asked how his port was preparing for rising sea levels. “Well…we aren’t,” he answered, somewhat sheepishly, because he knew they should be. Back then, the public was skeptical of the controversial topic, and frankly many ports had too many other priorities. But now public officials see the situation in a new light. They are taking advantage of waterfront development projects to make property not only more resilient to climate change, but also more beautiful and beneficial to the public.
A perfect example is the 40-acre Governors Island Park and Public Space in New York. West 8, an urban design and landscape architecture firm, transformed the abandoned former military island into a green oasis with an extraordinary 360-degree experience of water and sky that has won numerous awards. Part of the makeover involved creating four tall, dramatic hills from twenty-five to seventy feet high. This meant overcoming a major challenge involving Governors Island history.
From Subway Dirt to Island
Back in 1637, when a Dutch man bought Governors Island for two ax heads, a string of beads, and some nails, the island was only about 72 acres. In 1901, somebody needed a place to discard the dirt from the excavation of New York’s Lexington Avenue subway line. What better place to put it than Governors Island? The dirt widened the island by 100 acres.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century. Now that the island had been sold back to the people of New York for one dollar, it was possible to take advantage of the island’s potential views, which meant building upwards. To create the new hills, West 8 needed to add 300,000 cubic yards of new fill—enough to fill 40 Goodyear blimps. The challenge was to keep that massive amount of dirt from pushing the island built on subway fill out into the harbor.
Hart Crowser worked with the lead civil engineer to make the hills strong yet light. Twenty-five percent of the new fill is from the demolition of structures and parking lots. This made it sustainable and strong. Pumice lightened the load. Some of the fill was wrapped in geotechnical matting, and the steepest slopes used wire baskets. This allowed hills as high as seventy to be built within twenty feet of the shoreline, and allowed for varying slopes and walkways, where the public can safety enjoy the park.
Governors Island reopened to the public on May 28.