Public Property: An Ideas Competition for Governors Island

Competition Launch: January 1996
Original Brief: Download PDF

The first competition held by the newly reorganized and renamed Van Alen Institute sought ideas for the reuse of Governors Island. The competition was prompted by the Coast Guard's announcement that they would be closing their facilities on the island by 1997, after which the federal government was expected to transfer ownership of the 172-acre property to the city and state for redevelopment. Liberated from military occupation for the first time in more than 200 years, the future of Governors Island was suddenly thrown into question. Situated only a half mile from Lower Manhattan and flanked by stunning panoramic views, the island had the potential to become an exclusive enclave for the wealthy—or a magnificent public space to join the ranks of Central and Prospect parks. The opportunity to envision a new public future for this extraordinary site was the first of its kind in many decades.

The competition posed an array of theoretical concerns, asking designers "to consider the urban potential of Governors Island in terms of spatial adjacencies and experiential overlaps between a range of actions, actors, events, and acknowledge the physical reality of cities and their historic programmatic complexity as fundamental to the survival of a vital public realm." Designers also had to grapple with certain restrictions, including the existence of six designated city landmarks and the nationally landmarked historic district comprising the northern half of the island.

The competition was open to anyone who registered. Van Alen Institute received more than 200 entries from students, faculty, and landscape architects in 14 different countries. The proposals were incredibly diverse and creative in their approaches, ranging from a World's Fair site to a massive Necropolis, from a Resort Spa to a new home for the United Nations. The winning designs embodied a holistic approach that allowed for multiple possible futures on the site, and their collective focus on landscape—rather than specific buildings—signaled an imminent shift within the design professions.