Little Island is a new public park on the Hudson River, offering New Yorkers an escape from the hustle-bustle of the city. Conceived as a botanic garden and adding three new performance venues to the city, this green oasis is held together by 132 sculptural planters, designed to promote community participation and biodiversity.
The 2.4-acre park is conceived as an experience for the people, to heighten the feeling of being on water and leaving the city behind. It is designed to create vistas and cultivate intrigue as visitors move about this labyrinth full of greenery celebrating the panoramas of New York City.
Initiated by philanthropist, Barry Diller and the Hudson River Park Trust, the project has been in development for last 8 years. Heatherwick Studio led the design, developing the idea from initial concept, and worked along with New York-based landscape studios, MNLA and Arup. The designers describe the project as being inspired by Central Park, where it is possible to forget that you are in New York and the idea of challenging the traditional flat-pier structure by creating a new topography for the city.
“The project began when we were asked to conceive of a sculptural structure to go on a design for a newly enlarged piece of the Hudson River Park promenade. The project was interesting, but we saw the opportunity to create a more engaging experience for New Yorkers and to build on the city’s heritage of inventing exciting new public spaces,” explained Thomas Heatherwick, founder of Heatherwick Studio.
“Instead, we had the idea to make an entirely new type of pier as a lush rectangular garden island, connected to the land with generous gangplanks as bridges, aligned to the street grid of New York.”
The idea for raising the park on its foundation came from the existing wooden piles in the water on the shoreline of Manhattan, which has become an important habitat for marine life. The design images pier as one cohesive unit, where they extent become planters that join together to create the park’s surface. From this simple design concept, the designers created 132 precast concrete ‘pots’, each supported by precast concrete column and piles that drive down to the rock bed as much as 20 feet below the water. By varying the pots’ height, the design creates artificial contours on the surface. Resembling a floating leaf on the water, the contouring also allows light to reach the marine habitat below the water's surface. The contours also enabled the designers to create viewpoint, celebrating the city and carve out a natural amphitheatre for performance. Inside, seven sets of 420 steps are used to access the park, cast from New York-sourced black locust.
The standout feature of the design are the sculptural planters or ‘pots’ which are filled with soil and planted with more than hundred different species of indigenous trees and plants and encourage biodiversity to thrive in the waterside. The shape of the planter is inspired by the mosaic of ice that forms around the wooden piles when the river freezes. The park focuses on biodiversity, with majority of plants attracting birds and pollinators, affording food, shelter and nesting sites. The planting strategy also creates different microclimate based on solar exposure, natural shade and wind. Accommodating large trees was made possible by manipulating the structural topography. The evergreen trees buffer the winter winds and highway views. Landscape strategy carefully calibrated the ecological forces to activate the spaces and serve all year round, especially ensuring that the gatherings and social spaces receive ample sun.
“Little Island is a special place that affords New Yorkers the rare opportunity to experience a multi-sensory landscape,” said Signe Nielsen, MNLA, Founding Principal. “As one strolls through the park many destinations beckon—overlooks with unparalleled views, cultural venues with continually changing offerings, sloping lawns for picnics, and seating nooks with contemplative sights. Each of these is engulfed by a unique landscape that transitions from a rich diversity of colours and textures to open grasslands as one ascends the three hills.”
The access to the park is via two timber covered ‘gangplanks’ that extends the New York’s street grid towards the pier. From here, the planters create a natural archway as the visitors cross to access the park above. As one come out of this archway, new city vistas are waiting for him, and the stairs lead visitors up along with accessible paths and boulder providing multiple routes to stroll and contemplate garden spaces, offering different view at each twist and turn, both outwards to the city and inwards towards the park.
Little Island is developed as a sponge for stormwater, further adding to the sustainability strategy of the park. The team at Arup and MNLA developed an integrated stormwater management scheme, including a network of green infrastructure elements that are artfully integrated into the park’s landscape.
“Little Island is an urban park like no other, and its opening is a true testament to the power of pushing boundaries and partnership between leading design, engineering, architecture and construction firms,” said David Farnsworth, Arup Principal. “Arup was tasked to bring Little Island’s unique design to life and create an entire park over the Hudson River that was safe, feasible and would bring joy to millions of New Yorkers and tourists. Arup is thrilled to have contributed groundbreaking technical solutions, leveraging digital fabrication and parametric modelling that deliver the project’s ambitious architectural vision and create a truly iconic urban oasis.”
The project’s innovative design posed a considerable challenge during construction stage, with each pile weighing approx. 250-350 tons and roughly 20 feet in diameter.
The pots’ geometry followed a repeating Cairo pentagon tiling pattern to generate seemingly irregular shapes and a layout where the columns do not lie in straight lines but still enable repetitive use of formwork. The petals were fabricated in upstate New York, assembled into complete pots at the port of Albany, and shipped by barge down the Hudson River, where they were erected onto the driven precast piles.
Little Island challenges many old notions around city infrastructure, pier design, climate change and social inclusiveness. The designers and engineers created a new typology of park design, promoting community participation, interaction, and social inclusiveness while also promoting biodiversity in the city. This is not the first time New York City has experimented with public infrastructure, as previously Highline gained worldwide fame as it was hugely successful in regenerating the neighbourhood. It remains to be seen how successful Little Island would be in its mission; but one thing is certain, cities today are looking for new ways to incorporate Nature and create avenues for public spaces, to foster healthy cities.
Architect: Heatherwick Studio
Landscape architecture: MNLA
Structural, civil, mechanical: Arup
Amphitheatre, back of house, restrooms: Standard Architects
Lighting design: FMS
Wayfinding: C & G Partners
Irrigation design: ICI
Heatherwick Studio is a team of over 200 problem solvers dedicated to making the physical world around us better for everyone. Based out of our combined workshop and design studio in Central London, we create buildings, spaces, master-plans, objects and infrastructure. Focusing on large scale projects in cities all over the world, we prioritise those with the greatest positive social impact.
Working as practical inventors with no signature style, our motivation is to design soulful and interesting places which embrace and celebrate the complexities of the real world. The approach driving everything is to lead from human experience rather than any fixed design dogma.
The studio’s completed projects include a number of internationally celebrated buildings, including the award-winning Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town, Learning Hub at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, Coal Drops Yard in London, and the UK Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010.
The studio is currently working on 30 live projects in ten countries. These include Lantern House, a new residential building for Related in Manhattan, Little Island at Pier 55, a new park and performance space in New York due to complete in spring 2021, as well as major new headquarters for Google in Silicon Valley and London (in collaboration with BIG) which are currently under construction.
For over a quarter-century, MNLA has worked to reinvigorate, heal and mediate places that strengthen and empower communities. We utilize the design process to engage with governing bodies, community stakeholders, and private clients to advocate for incremental and strategic advances in policies and regulations affecting the public realm, as well as ethical design decisions that add long term ecological value and performance to the project. MNLA imagines cumulative and holistic design vision for every project. Our process always starts with the big idea and we see it as our role to maintain that conceptual thread throughout our efforts. With over 500 built works we know how to execute our big ideas while preserving the design intent and delivering on budget and on time. Our designs are as insightful and artful as they are performative.
A staff of 34 landscape architects and designers means that MNLA is large enough to command a wide range of design creativity and experience, yet small enough to ensure each project benefits from this expertise and mentorship. We marry accountability with accessibility, making it easier for clients to get attention and information. The firm principal that serves each project is the gateway to a team of MNLA collaborators who engage in questioning ideas and challenging conventional practice in favor of exceptional creativity that results in better designs. MNLA is a Women-Owned Business Enterprise (WBE) certified by New York City, New York State, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the City of Philadelphia.