There is a new waterfront reclamation project in New York City that will take some heat off the 12-year-old High Line as the punching bag for unintended urban renewal consequences. The old elevated railway reimagined by James Corner for plants, people, and wildlife instead of rail cars, and planted by New Perennialist Piet Oudolf, has become a vilified victim of its huge success. Adored by tourists for its sky-high meadowy strolls and unparalleled views, the High Line has been accused of instigating expensive high-rise development along its length, rampant selfie tourism and a host of other neighborhood-changing ills. And the High Line and Little Island have something else in common — their funding source. Media mogul Barry Diller was the largest single contributor to the High Line. With funding for repairs to storm-damaged Pier 54 hitting a dry well, the Hudson River Trust decided to also approach Diller, and he agreed, stipulating that he wasn′t interested in mere renovation of the pier but something ambitiously iconic, like the Sydney Opera House.
After several years of negotiations and the occasional legal battle, the finished Little Island is assuredly iconic, comprised of 132 tulip-shaped “pots,” each configured for differing load capacities and offering an array of microclimates to plant.
Throughout its development and opening in May 2021, Little Island has also aroused heated discussion about high-dollar vanity projects, local control, destinations that attract tourism vs. green space for locals, gentrification spillover effects, and lord knows what else. Loved or loathed, without the Medici-money patronage of the Diller von Furstenburg Foundation ($260 million), such projects as Little Island would be dead in the water.
I confess that I look at such projects through a very narrow lens, which pretty much begins and ends with if and how they support plant life. And like the High Line, Little Island very much made supporting the growth and health of plants a priority on its 2 and a half acre site. Like the space program, such projects are an investment in necessary future technologies — the work to make Little Island can only push engineering and technological innovation in an important direction for greening up land-starved, flood-prone cities in the 21st century.
I was able to get a closer look at Little Island when Mitch visited NYC a couple weeks ago.
From the audio tour by landscape architect Signe Nielsen (highly recommended!), I learned that of the 114 trees planted in 2020, 19 are considered “hero” trees, any tree with a 10 or 12 inch caliper with ultimate heights of 60 to 80 feet. The trees need at least 6 feet of planting depth. Seventy percent of the deciduous trees are native. Salt-spray pollution required highly resilient evergreens — accordingly, just 30 percent of the evergreen trees are native. To keep the trees from blowing over in the maritime climate, the trees are anchored to the underlying deck itself via a system of 4 to 10 steel straps resting on the root balls. It′s an invisible, subterranean system of support that has already weathered a 2020 hurricane.
(Checking to see if the park is open after Hurricane Ida, they are still accepting timed entry reservations after 12 p.m. No reservations are necessary for visits between 6 a.m. and 12 p.m.)
Planting runs the gamut from 66,000 spring bulbs, 270 varieties of grasses, vines and perennials, shrubs and lawn, all the way up to heroic trees like the Cedar of Lebanon, weighing 16-20,000 pounds. Apart from aesthetics, concealing and revealing views, plants are also chosen for their ability to hold soil, block wind and noise, and wet tolerance.
Landscape architect Signe Nielsen says the chief challenge will be maintaining the integrity of the three hills, which are made from Geofoam — large blocks of lightweight, nonabsorbent, styrofoam-like material.
In planning the project, the most crucial aspect of the tight collaboration between landscape architecture and engineering was of course weight load. A year of 3D modeling among the teams involved reconfiguring the tulip pots, including redesign of 30 to 40 percent of the pots due to the weight load challenges.
Ms. Nielsen surprisingly cites Gertrude Jekyll as an influence in designing the planting of the three hills with six distinct seasons, including early and late spring, early and late summer. As well as seasons, time of day was also considered for views at early morning, dusk, shade at mid-day — she sincerely hopes everyone can find their favorite tree and their special spot to catch the sun or evening cityscape. After the strain of ciphering weight loads and root zone depth, she found her quiet moment of joy when finishing a small planting of creeping thyme and orange coneflowers.
The intent of the design was to offer a varied set of experiences calibrated by pace of movement, changes in elevation, opportunities for different routes. (The park is ADA accessible.)
There is vastly more to this complex project than what little I′ve touched on here. Some of my reading can be found here, here, here, and here. As always, where included, the readers′ comments are a helpful complement to the articles.