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Public Property: An Ideas Competition for Governors Island


How can a historic military base transition into a contemporary public space?

Competition Launch: January 1996

A precursor to the vibrant Governors Island of today, Van Alen Institute was a leader in envisioning this 172-acre decommissioned former military base as a public space to join the ranks of Central and Prospect parks.

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.

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 ecologies…to 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, attracting more than 200 participants from 14 different countries. 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, exhibited at Van Alen in the Summer of 1996, 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.

The competition helped catalyze public discussion about the future of Governor’s Island, and the importance of creating public space on the site. In 2006, The Trust for Governor’s Island launched a subsequent design competition inviting five internationally renowned teams to submit schemes. The design proposals were made public in June 2007, and in December 2007 a jury selected the team led by West 8 as the winner. Visit the Trust’s website to plan your visit to the first 30 acres of the park that opened to the public for the first time in 2014.


First Prize ($10,000)

Peter Hau

Second Prize ($2,500)

Kimberlee J. Douglas

Third Prize ($1,000)

Anuradha Mathur and Dilip Da Cunha





($250 each)

James Corner
Kimberlee K. Yao

Van Alen Institute

Partners and Collaborators
Andrea Kahn, Adjunct Associate Professor of Architecture, Columbia University (Co-author)

For more information visit:
The Trust for Governors Island 
The Park at the Center of the World
Governors Island National Monument (U.S. National Park Service)
Governors Island Alliance

1995 Paris Prize, “Engaging the Edge”

April – July 1996: Van Alen Institute Exhibition

June 13, 2007: Panel Discussion, “Designing Governors Island,” with Ray Gastil, Linda Pollak, Tracy Metz and Damon Rich, moderated by Chee Pearlman

Landscape Documents: Governors Island, University of Pennsylvania, 1996