February 2, 2010  |  Rising Currents
Rising Currents: Governors Island

A few days after visiting the five teams at their open studios at P.S.1, I went for a walk on Governors Island to view the zones from the island’s waterfront promenade. Governors Island sits in the heart of New York Harbor, and the promenade provides the perfect vantage point from which to take in the harbor as a singular force and view the zones as they are today. Climate change and rising sea levels no longer seem abstract when you look out from the island and contemplate the potential impact of the one-hundred-year flood on different locations, including the island itself. I walked around the island clockwise from Soissons Dock:

View of Zone 0 (lower Manhattan) from Governors Island

We have a direct view of Zone 0, where a team led by Architecture Research Office is proposing to soften lower Manhattan’s edge with porous streets and an archipelago of constructed islands to blunt the force of storm surges. Our ferry terminal would be surrounded by green islands in the future envisioned by ARO.

View of Zone 4 from Governors Island

Walking eastward along the promenade, it’s not hard to imagine the SCAPE team’s oyster reef in Buttermilk Channel. On the way here, I passed the island’s own FLUPSY (Floating Upweller System), which is like a nursery for baby oysters. It is a project of NY/NJ Baykeeper and the New York Harbor School.

View of Zone 3 with the Verrazano Narrows Bridge from Governors Island

From the south end of the island, you can see Sunset Park, Staten Island, and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. The bridge crosses the waters between the harbor and the ocean. Out here is where nARCHITECTS imagines a buffer zone and a new community over water that would form the first line of defense against storm surge.

View of Zone 2 from Governors Island

The team lead by Mathew Baird Architects focuses on the southwest corner of the bay, which includes the waters around western Staten Island and the port of Bayonne, NJ. Viewed from Picnic Point on Governors Island, the massive cranes, container ships, and the bridge across the Kill Van Kull highlight the Harbor’s regional economic uses and the working waterfront further developed in the Zone 2 project.

View of Zone 1 with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island from Governors Island

From the western edge of the island I have a view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, which is connected to the vast expanse of Liberty State Park. From this vantage point, I can really visualize LTL Architects’ response to the extreme climate change risk for this site, and their strategy of creating a more active park and changing the currently flat landfill of the state park.

At GIPEC, we’ve been working with West 8 on the Governors Island Park and Public Space Master Plan. This plan, which encompasses eighty-seven acres of open space on Governors Island, specifically responds to issues of rising sea level and climate change. With new topography changing the elevation of the island’s southern landfill, the park will address the threat of more severe and frequent floods and raise the root levels of new trees, preserving their longevity. The most dramatic of those shifts in topography will give visitors a new 360-degree perspective on the harbor from the top of a new hill.

West 8 Design Competition rendering

When the island reopens to the public on June 5, visitors can walk or bike the promenade not only to enjoy the views but also to contemplate the harbor’s history, its future threats, and the imaginative responses envisioned by the five teams whose work will be on display at MoMA.

For more information about Governors Island, visit