Little Island is a 2.4-acre park designed to inspire personal enjoyment and collective celebration of nature, culture, and community. The park opened in May 2021 and has thus far welcomed more than 1.5 million visitors.  The design program includes two visually and acoustically buffered performance venues, as well as three primary overlooks accessed by universally accessible paths, stairs and boulder scrambles.

Design Intent The private donor of this gift to the City of New York requested a design that was dazzling upon first sight and upon use, made people happy. MNLA was inspired by the vision of a leaf floating on water. The lifted corners of the pier create distinct microclimates that reveal themselves through color, texture, light, and shadow. Sensory experiences are seamlessly woven together in a tapestry that is continuously evolving through the seasons.

Innovation Nothing like this project has ever been done before. Three-dimensional modeling was critical to balancing soil volume and tree placement. It also facilitated complex contouring, retaining wall placement, and accurate plant quantities. While the vast majority of construction details required custom detailing, basic materials such as off-the-shelf marine sheet pile were used for retaining walls.  Their crenelated form and weathering steel provide stability, maximize planting space, create nooks for cascading plants, and is a complementary foil for the foliage. Installation of most park features including piles, pots, sheet pile walls, and trees was done using multiple barge-mounted cranes. The trees range in caliper from 4 to 12 inches with rootballs weighing up to 16,000 pounds.

Performance Little Island was designed after Superstorm Sandy and thus paid particular attention to elevating the structure above the year 2100 projections for sea level rise and storm surge. The project is regulated by the Hudson River Estuary Act which prohibits use of any chemical fertilizer, pesticide, de-icing salt, and other contaminants that could harm aquatic life. Hence, the soils and plant material are maintained organically and biofiltration swales offer additional purification of runoff.

Plant species were chosen to create biodiversity at the genetic, species and ecosystem levels. Pollinator research suggests having a minimum of 6-8 species blooming consecutively throughout the seasons; 58% of the perennials provide such performance. While the majority of the 31,000 (468 species) trees, shrubs, perennials, and grasses are native, other environmental factors of air-borne salinity, high winds, air pollution, and disease susceptibility suggested a more inclusive and adaptive palette.  For example, Zelkova and Parrotia are used because of their small leaves which withstand strong wind; evergreens such as Pinus koraiensis and Pinus nigra var. austriaca augment native Juniperus species because of their proven tolerance of air pollution.

But landscape performance can only be evaluated post-installation. In the past 18 months, plants have thrived through two hurricanes and two record-setting rain events, a testament to many factors including an appropriate plant list, quality nurseries and landscape contractors, proper soils and soil stabilizers, surface and subsurface drainage systems, and a robust rootball anchoring system.

Little Island is a “Made in New York” story. Everything from barge and crane operators to the concrete tulip pots, black locust for steps and seating, bronze railings and weathering steel elements, manufactured soils and boulders were acquired, assembled, or fabricated within New York State.

Value Is Little Island a public waterfront park, performance venue, or a public maritime botanic garden?  This blurring of boundaries between three traditional landscape typologies offers a new paradigm for public open space.  Little Island asks the visitor to discover at their own pace and preference. Little Island offers a free landscape audio tour narrated by the landscape architect and this year the Little Island website will host a bloom calendar of species for the benefit of public education.

Little Island is also deeply embedded in its community. Extensive outreach to nearby public housing residents resulted in creating permanent local jobs, paid internships and selecting artists-in-residence from neighborhood cultural institutions. As a result, the park attracts a diverse audience who is welcome to enjoy free or low-cost performances, linger, play, and return time and again.

Collaborations Little Island is the result of a successful collaboration among many designers and the client group. The client team is comprised of the Hudson River Park Trust– a joint city and state agency- and Barry Diller, who was an active participant in the design, construction, and long-term stewardship.

Architecture offices involved in the design: Heatherwick Studio, Standard Architects

Project location: Pier 55 at Hudson River Park Hudson River Greenway, NY 10014

Design year:2012 – 2018

Year Built: 2018 – 2021

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