Urban Parks For All: NYC's Governor's Island

Written by Scott Kratz

On a warm Friday morning, we climbed aboard a NYC ferry along with several city dwellers excited for a summer escape. We were on our way to Governor’s Island located only 800 yards from Manhattan, but a million miles away from the crowded bustle of New York City. Once a historic fort, this 172 acre island is quickly transforming into a new park for city residents and tourists alike.

As the dock and green fields came into focus, Leslie Koch, President of the Trust for Governor’s Island, shared her philosophy about making a park feel welcome and most importantly owned by the public. Here are three lessons learned during our visit.

Food is a signal: Some of the earliest visitors to the park were members of the local Hassidic community. They would spend hours exploring the park’s many activities, but there were no kosher food options for lunch. Leslie searched the five Burroughs for kosher food trucks to no avail. Not to be deterred, she worked with a city councilmember to launch a call for kosher vendors. Leslie recognized that food can send a powerful signal to visitors if this space is really for them. Governor’s Island now features a cornucopia of culinary delights with a range of price points from Dirty Water Dogs to mahi mahi tacos and yes, even kosher schnitzel.

Put the Visitors in Charge: Park staff are wired to say YES! to programming ideas. Mini-golf course created by artists? Sure. Poetry festival?  You bet. Giant tree house with views of Freedom Tower? Absolutely! Staff let the public create the programming with two requirements – it needs to be free and it needs to be open to the public.

Make it Simple: The poet Henry David Thoreau gave the wonderful recommendation to ”simplify, simplify.” Realizing that most folks in the city don’t have many places to string up a hammock outdoors, park staff went on line and purchased a number of hammocks to test their idea. The hammocks were a hit. If you visit the park today you’ll find an entire Hammock Grove that is one of the more popular spaces in the park to kick back and relax.

We learned many lessons from our trip to Governor’s Island about so many things – public private partnerships, zoning issues, importance of signage and more. But our most important take aways were that the most successful parks are welcoming, democratic and delightful. Here’s to creating a welcoming, democratic and delightful 11th Street Bridge Park.

We would like to thank Leslie Koch and Stephanie Shaw for taking time out of their very busy schedules to tour the park with us and share their wisdom. We plan to return the favor when the 11th Street Bridge Park opens in a few short years! To learn more about Governor’s Island, I encourage you to watch this wonderful short Tedx talk “Find Your Knish: The Transformation of Governor’s Island.”