Editor's Choice

Governors Island – The Hills

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Location: New York / New York City / USA / Type: Look-outs / Parks / Playgrounds / Built: 2016 /
Show on Google Maps / Published on July 18, 2016

Editor's note

The hills are to be celebrated for the experience they offer – new views on Lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. Worth mentioning that they consist of the material from the buildings that had to be demolished for the new park to take the place. Especially interesting is the sculpture by Rachel Whiteread. A concrete cabin, that ads to the notion of distance – for a moment there the park seems abandoned and found which boosts the contrast between the concrete buzzing Lower Manhattan in the background and tranquil and softly shaped park, full of trees, grasses and shrubs moving with the wind.

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The Trust for Governors Island (The Trust) announces the opening of the Hills, ten newly designed acres of park on Governors Island that include slides, art and unparalleled harbor views. The Hills are open for the season daily from July 19 – September 25, 2016, Monday-Friday 10am-6pm, Saturday/Sunday 10am-7pm.

Designed by acclaimed landscape architects West 8 urban design & landscape architecture, the Hills are the culmination of the award-winning Governors Island Park and Public Space Master Plan. Rising 25 to 70 feet above the Island the Hills offer an extraordinary 360-degree panoramic experience of the NY Harbor. The opening of the Hills marks a major milestone in the transformation of Governors Island from an abandoned military base into an iconic destination for New Yorkers and visitors alike.

As previously announced, the Hills are opening nearly a year ahead of schedule. The four Hills embody all that makes Governors Island unique: art, play, nature, relaxation, and views:
• Grassy Hill is a 26-foot high gentle, grassy slope overlooking the Island’s new and historic landscapes and the Manhattan skyline;
• Slide Hill, at 36 feet high, is the home of four slides, including the longest slide in New York City;
• Discovery Hill, also 39 feet high, features a site-specific sculpture Cabin by the internationally recognized British artist Rachel Whiteread and first major permanent public commission in the U.S.; and,
• Outlook Hill provides universally accessible paths and the Scramble, constructed out of reclaimed granite seawall blocks, to reach the Outlook. Here, 70 feet above the Island, visitors have unforgettable views of the New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty and the skylines of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Jersey City.

Landscape Architecture of the Hills

“Sculpted topography works in concert with winding pathways and trees to create ‘conceal and reveal’ vistas, choreographing the park experience,” said design director Adriaan Geuze, co-founder of West 8. “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 topography defines the very character of the area.”

The Hills are constructed of recycled demolition debris, general fill and lightweight pumice, stabilized with geotechnical reinforcement and covered with shrubs, trees and grassy lawns. While the Hills provide striking vistas and comfortable settings for relaxation and play, they also improve the island’s resilience in the face of increasingly dramatic weather patterns and rising sea levels.

The Hills are home to more than 860 new trees and 41,000 new shrubs planted in new high-quality topsoil and protected from brackish groundwater by the new topography. The planting of each of the four hills is designed according to the micro-climates: varying degrees of slopes, exposure to sun, salty-spray, and prevailing wind and to accentuate key view corridors. The new lawns, plantings and permeable paving also reduce erosion and storm run-off, while allowing for water collection and irrigation.

Art of the Hills

Discovery Hill is the setting for Cabin, a site-specific artwork by Turner-Prize winning British artist Rachel Whiteread. The work, curated by Tom Eccles of ArtCommissionsGI, is a concrete cast of a wooden New England-style shed reminiscent of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond. Over time, the surrounding vegetation on the hillside will grow along the sculpture’s surfaces, giving it a weathered look that blends into its natural surroundings.

The undulating aesthetic of the Hills is augmented by the smooth, curved edging which separates the green sections from the paved paths that wind through the park. A look down from the hilltops reveals striking patterns, distinct “petals” of green parkland outlined by the bright white concrete edging. The edging, which ranges from curb to bench height, is ornamented with subtle designs that reference the marine life surrounding the island.

About the Governors Island Park

The Hills are the latest addition to the park. The first 30 acres opened to the public in 2014 include Liggett Terrace, a six-acre plaza with seasonal plantings, seating, food concessions and a hedge maze; Hammock Grove, a sunny ten-acre space that is home to 1,500 new trees, play areas and 50 hammocks; and the Play Lawn, 14 acres for play and relaxation that includes two natural turf ball fields sized for adult softball and Little League baseball. In addition, new welcome areas have been added at the Island’s ferry landings, as have key visitor amenities, including new lighting, seating, and signage by Pentagram throughout the Historic District.

Now that the Hills are open to the public, visitors are now able to walk or bike around the island’s entire 2.2-mile promenade and enjoy the popular Picnic Point. The southern portions of the promenade and Picnic Point had been closed since 2012.

Governors Island Planting Strategy


The Hills are the climax of the Park and Public Space Master Plan. Built from a combination of salvaged fill, clean fill, designed soils and structural support, the height and slope of the Hills create complex gradations of planting conditions based on light, aspect and grade. As a result, the planting strategy for the Hills is the most complex from an aesthetic, experiential, and technical standpoint.

As visitors climb the paths the view sheds are controlled through the massing of the trees and shrubs. Trees along the pathway are placed to provide views at key moments, and trees on the slopes of the Hills are planted at elevations that will not inhibit 360-degree views from the top of the tallest hill. 830 trees are planted on the Hills in a mix of sizes, both B&B and containerized, comprising 32 tree species. Plant species selected are tolerant of a variety of site conditions; salt, exposure, slope, and experience. The Hills canopy planting strategy utilizes a mix of native and adapted deciduous hardwood trees with a focus on the Oak canopy.

• Red, Black, Scarlett and Swamp White Oaks dapple the Hills, acting as a continuation of the Park Phase 1 planting strategy.
• Special groves inserted within the oak forest provide accents in the landscape; from the Sassafras grove leading into Liberty Moment to the grove of Birch and Pine providing a shaded canopy at Slide Hill.
• Planting is used to accentuate view corridors, such as the red foliage of the sumac ravine as visitors pass through Liberty Moment in the fall.
• The planting palette provides accents of color as it draws visitors’ attention to the unparalleled views of the Statue of Liberty, while the wooded forests are thoughtfully planned to create “viewing corridors” to the sights of the Island and the Harbor.

Over 40,000 shrubs, comprising 19 species of planting cover nearly 5 acres of the Hills. Shrub selection and location corresponds to site conditions; salt, exposure, slope and experience. Shrub installation sizes, both gallon and quart, and spacing relate to specific technical needs including erosion control and slope stability. Shrub species are grouped into mixes of varying concentration, which accentuate the experience of the Hills. 37 total shrub mixes allow for ecological transitions as a response to experience and site conditions.
• Imagine the red foliage of blueberry shrubs as visitors walk down the Discovery Hill ridgeline
• Experience the monochromatic, monumental view of inkberry, huckleberry and sumac plantings on the harbor face of Outlook and Discovery from the Staten Island Ferry.
• A flush of yellow spring flowers of New Jersey Tea and Summersweet greet the visitor at the entry to Outlook.


West 8’s master plan for the island unifies the north and south island through tree plantings that are integrated with newly sculpted topography throughout the south island. By designing the two coincidental to each other, the north island experience of sunny and shady rooms will continue all the way to the south tip of the island – enhancing the feeling of intimacy in some areas and creating new views of New York Harbor in others.

“Hammock Grove,” opened in 2014 and is named for the red hammocks throughout the botanic grove of new trees. The hammocks today are strung on special posts, but they will swing from the shade trees once they are tall enough to support them. Hammock Grove provides a ten-acre area of filtered light and shade. New trees are planted to act like scrims – shifting, hiding, and revealing spectacular views of the Statue of Liberty to visitors walking along the gently winding paths. The native plant palette in Hammock Grove is based on the oak-hickory-chestnut community that was originally on the island. (Native Americans in the region referred to the island as “Paggank” which translates to ‘nut island.’)

The design of Hammock Grove entails the creation of an entirely new grove of trees, and features a mix of techniques to help support the young trees in the challenging harbor environment. The team tagged over fifty species of trees in seven states to support the diverse plant palette, which includes eight oak species and four hickory species. 5,800 seedlings, 1,482 one-inch caliper trees, and 448 balled and burlapped trees are planted in an organized grid layout to facilitate early management. The grid will be visible in early years but over time, as the forest forms and trees are culled, the grid will become less visible. Tulip poplar and alnus seedlings are used as nurse species to buffer island conditions, helping the other trees to adapt and grow tall. As the forest matures, many of these sacrificial species will die off or be removed to allow the other species to achieve full form. All of the trees are planted in new soils designed for the island and are under planted with meadow grasses. The entire grove is lifted topographically from existing grade in anticipation of sea level rise, and to prevent the tree roots from experiencing the brackish groundwater below.

Urban dwellers from New York and beyond will come to Hammock Grove to experience the seasons – spring’s first leaves, summer shade, and fall colors – and to walk, bicycle, sit under a tree, or nap in one of the colorful namesake hammocks. Hammock Grove’s filtered light will create different moods in different weather, providing a memorable park experience and endless opportunities for future programs and gatherings… a true urban forest for the twenty-first century city.

One thought on "Governors Island Phase 2 – The Hills by West 8"

  1. Lourdes Zephier says:

    I recall the first time I had the pleasure of experiencing the newly landscaped wonders of Governors Island. After recovering from a lengthy heel injury that left me home bound for more than seven months, I was finally able to visit this spectacular place. Feast for the senses awaits all visitors to this impeccable display of tress, rolling grass, gorgeous plants, and the best view of NYC and its surroundings. My grandchildren and I sat on Adirondack chairs as sailboats glided past and soothed our spirits with a breathtaking sunset over Liberty Island. Shout out to the magnificent work that delights all visitors. Bravo!!!!

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