Little Island is a 2.4-acre new public park in New York City that features an elevated structure that protects the park from future storms and sea-level rise. Undulating topography offers an interplay of external and internal views through the choreography of universally accessible paths. Upon entering the pier, the architecture and engineering prowess give way to an extraordinary maritime landscape of changing colors and textures. Envisioned as a place for mental respite, physical enjoyment, and artistic expression, the park design lies at the intersection of nature, culture, and community. The donor’s endowment ensures the park’s landscape and public programs will endure.
Value to People: Is Little Island a public park or a public garden? This blurring of boundaries between two landscape typologies creates a new paradigm for public open space. Little Island asks the visitor to discover at their own pace which results in impressions influenced by seasons, weather, and their own notion of beauty.
The landscape has also become an important stimulus for children’s programming. Children draw flowers, count bees, and record memories of their visit. Little Island also offers a free audio tour narrated by the landscape architect and a website that will host a bloom calendar of species for the benefit of public education.
Little Island is embedded in its community. Outreach to nearby public housing residents resulted in job creation and artists-in-residence. As a result, the park attracts a diverse audience who linger, play, and enjoy free or low-cost events.
Innovation: Nothing like this project has ever been done before. Three-dimensional modeling was critical to balancing soil volume and tree placement with 280 individual piles, each with a different load capacity. The model also determined accurate plant quantities on slopes that contribute ¼ acre to the surface area.
While the majority of construction details required custom detailing, the basic materials are not unusual. The crenelated form and naturally weathering steel of marine sheetpile provides stability, maximizes planting space, creates nooks for cascading plants, and is a complementary foil for the foliage.
Environmental Performance: Little Island is a “Made in New York” story. The concrete tulip pots, black locust steps and seating, bronze railings and weathering steel pickets, soils and boulders were all acquired or fabricated within New York State.
While the majority of the 31,000 trees, shrubs, perennials, and grasses are native, salinity, wind, air pollution, and disease susceptibility suggested a more inclusive plant palette be adapted to these factors. Species were chosen using ecological planting design to enhance biodiversity at the genetic, species, and ecosystem levels. This nested hierarchy of diversity in plant selection enables Little Island to be resilient to climate variability.
Since May 2021, plants have thrived through two hurricanes and two record-setting rain events, a testament to an appropriate plant list, quality nurseries and contractors, proper soils and soil stabilizers, surface and subsurface drainage systems, and a robust rootball anchoring system. Less dramatic though equally heartening are the number of bird species that are feeding on the fruit, seeds, and nectar.
Landscape Architects: MNLA
Architect: Heatherwick Studio
Marine Engineer: Mueser Rutledge
Amphitheater and Back-of-House Architect: Standard Architects
Graphic Designers: C & G Partners
Image Credits: as captioned