Dezeen Magazine

"New York is rapidly evolving beyond a Manhattan-centric identity"

Opinion: major landscape interventions like West 8's recently opened The Hills on Governors Island, along with planned improvements to transport links, will bolster New York's coherence as a multi-island metropolis says Alan G Brake.

Starting this week, New Yorkers and visitors to the city will have a new must-see landscape offering a whole new perspective of the metropolitan archipelago. The Hills on Governors Island, designed by the Dutch landscape architects West 8, have turned a previously pancake-flat stretch of land into a transformative platform for perceiving New York in a new way: a city that is rapidly evolving beyond a Manhattan-centric identity. In addition to working the mind, The Hills also provide a number of ways to experience the new topography by hiking, biking, walking, climbing, and sliding, all on a mere ten acres.

The Hills are not merely camera-worthy. They are a miniaturised essay in the power of landscape architecture with precedents dating back to Frederick Law Olmsted in America and even to Capability Brown in England. Though the island is ringed by a walkable and bike-able promenade, the best way to encounter The Hills — particularly for the first time — is by walking from north to south from through the centre of the island. This route provides the clearest understanding of West 8's thinking and the progression they have created that culminates in the knock-out view of the Statue of Liberty.

Arriving on the former military base by boat (the only way to get there), you pass through a rather unremarkable series of low-slung historic buildings arrayed around a small hill. The path forks left or right bringing the visitor through an array of historic buildings including an early 19th century stone fort, houses, barracks, a chapel, most of which await permanent redevelopment as a part of the island's agreement between the city, state, and federal governments. Dotted with mature trees, West 8's interventions on this side of the island are relatively modest, including new entry point gates, contemporary street lighting, and some small planting beds.

Passing through centre archway of Leggitt Hall, a vast U-shaped beaux-arts edifice designed by the American masters McKim, Mead, & White, one encounters the first major move of West 8's redesign of the island's public space, a pair of gardens that flank the central path.  The gardens, which quote classical European gardens, are designed to be child-friendly, with low, labyrinthine hedges and a splash fountain.

Beyond a series of curving paths and low hills unfold, creating a sense of journey and discovery as one heads south down the Island. As you wind through the paths — for bikes and pedestrians only as the Island is car-free—you encounter a series of lawns and low hills scattered with trees and shrubs and fire-engine red hammocks, a signature element of the park. These paths — black asphalt edged in wide, white, curved concrete curbs — have a graphic, contemporary quality, that balances the picturesque approach to the landscape, which offers inviting glimpses of the Hills and the water in the distance.

The Hills emerge from the ground near the southern end of the island, but not at its exact terminal point. Here, you can see the subtlety of West 8 founder Adriaan Geuze's vision and the sophistication of his spatial understanding. The Hills, four of differing heights, each with defining characteristics, rise and curve toward the West, suggesting to the visitor to look West toward the Statue of Liberty, South toward the broad expanse of New York Harbor, including Staten Island, New Jersey, and the Brooklyn waterfront, and the back north toward Governors Island itself and the iconic skyline of Lower Manhattan.

Views like this are rarely available to average New Yorkers, and tourists are charged large sums for jaw-dropping views from the city's viewing platforms at One World Trade Center, the Empire State Building, and Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center.

Geuze understood that given the unique position of the island, he could offer something almost as dramatic by adding just 70 feet (21 metres) of ground. On top of pleasing the eye and the mind, West 8 has created a variety of experiences for the body, including a climbing hill made of massive cut stones recycled from the rebuilding of the island's sea wall. The sea-stained boulders give the climbing course, known as the scramble, a patina that no newly quarried stones could possess.

After the views, perhaps the most memorable elements of the Hills are a set of slides nestled into the side of one of the mounds. Designed for children (and adults) of all ages and abilities, the slides, which ruggedly built, offer a moment of unmitigated delight.

On a more cerebral note, a site-specific sculpture on the side of the outer most mound by Rachel Whiteread of a primitive shack evokes both the American idyll of Henry David Thoreau and the Unibomber's hovel of paranoia. Whichever hut the sculpture conjures in the viewer's mind, Whiteread's piece – perched on the side of a manmade hill – cleverly skewers our desire for nature even in the heart of the most densely urban agglomeration in the US.

Because you can only get there by ferry, the island retains an atmosphere at a remove from the city. Geuze first proposed a new topography for the island his competition entry from 2006. It is remarkable that such a bold vision would survive and actually get built in New York, a city where design ambitions often collide with financial realities and bottom-line thinking (One World Trade, anyone?). For that we can be thankful for the city's commitment to the site, and the unwavering leadership of the recently departed president of the Trust for Governors Island, Leslie Koch, who is rightly considered one of the country's most innovative and effective creators/instigators/visionaries of new public spaces.

Until recently, Governors Island was literally not on the map, or at least it was not the map that New Yorkers know best: the subway map. It is hard to overstate the role of the subway map in the psychogeography of millions of New Yorkers, so when the island was added to the subway map it marked a significant milestone and signalled that the formerly isolated military base was becoming a part of the life of the city. New Yorkers have embraced it as a new seasonal pleasure ground for picnics, concerts, and sporting events (cricket has taken hold there as well as an annual polo exposition match).

The Hills is the literal culmination of the development island's park system, around which private development will slowing fill in the gaps. Thanks to West 8's manmade topography, New Yorkers will be able to re-centre their mental maps of the region, in time for many new changes to come.

New York's mayor Bill de Blasio has not shown himself to be particularly interested or well-versed in planning and design, but he has slowly revealed a new understanding of the city as a regional entity connected by water. Rather than focusing on beautification projects and tourist-friendly quality of life initiatives – like the pop-up plazas, million tree planting program, and Citi-bike bike sharing system favoured by his predecessor Michael Bloomberg – de Blasio has unveiled a pair of significant transportation projects that would support the city's evolution as a multi-centred, multi-island metropolis, and diversify its currently subway/bus/taxi-centric transportation system.

The city's transit advocates and urbanist commentators have largely treated both proposals with blasé skepticism. This is somewhat unfortunate, as both proposals, while not revolutionary, have merit. The first is a Brooklyn to Queens streetcar, known as the Brooklyn Queens Connector, or BQX for short. Skeptics claim that the BQX is merely a Trojan horse for gentrification, specifically to benefit the recently up-zoned waterfronts of Brooklyn and Queens, but the project will serve transit-starved areas, including blocks with thousands of permanently affordable units of public housing.

The project also serves major employment centres, including Long Island City, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Downtown Brooklyn, DUMBO, and Red Hook. Providing easier access to jobs to low-income people is a vital effort toward a more equitable city. The trick will be to ensure that the BQX is engineered — including necessary street reconfigurations — to move quickly enough to be useful. A streetcar stranded in traffic is useful to no one.

The BQX also supports de Blasio's proposal for expanded, five-borough ferry service, both of which are envisioned as entirely city-funded (de Blasio has a famously fraught relationship with the state's governor, Andrew Cuomo, who controls most of the state's transportation funding). Ferries have gradually been gaining in popularity as new parks, restaurants, and housing fills in along the city's formerly industrial waterfronts. This process is only accelerating as projects like the Norman Foster-designed office complex break ground in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Both the BQX and the ferry expansion project give people more transportation choices, and acknowledge that the Manhattan-centric subway system is not enough to serve contemporary patterns of living and working, where many New Yorkers travel from one outer borough to another without ever coming into Manhattan. In addition, both projects will help — albeit to a small degree — alleviate overcrowding on the city's more than century-old subway system.

All the focus on the waterfronts is not surprising as the city continues to add hundreds of thousands of new residents within the set footprint of the five boroughs, but it also poses risks in a post-Hurricane Sandy world of rising sea levels. Here too, designers are reshaping the land and the harbor itself. Resilience efforts like Bjarke Ingels' BIG U would create new earth berms and mechanical floodgates along a string of parks and public spaces that edge lower Manhattan. SCAPE is working in the water, designing a series manmade reefs that would help dampen the force of waves in the event of another hurricane.

All of these projects and others point to an evolving and expanding metropolitan vision, one that will necessarily need to extend beyond the city's five boroughs and include New Jersey, Connecticut, and the lower Hudson Valley in order to meaningfully address the city's housing, transportation, and environmental challenges. For a preview of what is possible, just head to the Hills of Governors Island and exercise your mind.

Alan G Brake is a design journalist, editor, and critic. Formerly US editor for Dezeen, he has also been executive editor of The Architect's Newspaperand has written for titles including Metropolis, Architectural Record and the New York Times.