Arup is celebrating the opening of Little Island, a 2.4-acre urban park and performance venue, situated above the Hudson River in New York City.

Heatherwick Studio’s role

Heatherwick Studio were lead designers for the project, developing the idea from initial concept through to the pier's public opening. We were responsible for the overall design, from the form, topography and landscape through to the interior spaces, materiality, furniture and details.

“The project began when we were asked to conceive of a sculptural structure to go on a design for a newly enlarged piece of the Hudson River Park promenade The project was interesting, but we saw the opportunity to create a more engaging experience for New Yorkers and to build on the city’s heritage of inventing exciting new public spaces”, explained Thomas Heatherwick, Founder of Heatherwick Studio. “Instead, we had the idea to make an entirely new type of pier as a lush rectangular garden island, connected to the land with generous gang-planks as bridges, aligned to the street grid of New York.

As well as making multiple spaces for different activities and performances, this new public space could also take advantage of the water to create a more meaningful threshold that allows visitors to feel they’re having a break from the hecticness of the city.

Typically pier structures are always flat, but we saw this as an unmissable opportunity to lift the surface to create a topography that would make a more dynamic social experience for visitors and give great sightlines for performing spaces and lookout points over the river and back towards the city. Also, typically, piers are composed of structural piles that go down into the river bed with slabs that cover them to make a surface. However, we were inspired by these piles and the civil engineering required to build structures that are able to withstand extreme river conditions. Could we make these the heroes of our project, rather than hiding them?

The vision that’s been built is based on taking these piles and turning their tops into dramatic planters that fuse together to make a richly-planted undulating landscape.
Our intention has been to make an exciting space that is free for everybody to come to, that treats the river as part of nature as well as plants and even each other.”

MNLA’s Role

MNLA collaborated with Heatherwick Studio to realize the park, its circulation system, and to design performance spaces including an open plaza for recreational and educational programs, as well as leading the design of the comprehensive landscape. Using the team’s 3D model, we were able to effectively determine the layers of gravel, geofoam and soils that make up the surficial topography.

“Little Island is a special place that affords New Yorkers the rare opportunity to experience a multi-sensory landscape,” said Signe Nielsen, MNLA Founding Principal. “As one strolls through the park many destinations beckon—overlooks with unparalleled views, cultural venues with continually changing offerings, sloping lawns for picnics, and seating nooks with contemplative sights. Each of these is engulfed by a unique landscape that transitions from a rich diversity of colors and textures to open grasslands as one ascends the three hills. My hope is that visitors are surprised and delighted each time they come. This has been an amazing journey that could not have been realized without the entire design team’s extraordinary collaboration, and I especially appreciate the dedication of our firm’s Senior Associate Dan Yannaccone.” 

Arup's role

We served as the project’s engineering consultant, providing services spanning structural, mechanical, electrical, public health, and civil engineering. The team’s engineers created a benchmark structural approach to build the park, harnessing advanced 3D design and prefabrication techniques to deliver the project’s unique design and ensure construction feasibility.

“Little Island is an urban park like no other, and its opening is a true testament to the power of pushing boundaries and partnership between leading design, engineering, architecture and construction firms,” said David Farnsworth, Arup Principal. “Arup was tasked to bring Little Island’s unique design to life and create an entire park over the Hudson River that was safe, feasible and would bring joy to millions of New Yorkers and tourists. Arup is thrilled to have contributed groundbreaking technical solutions, leveraging digital fabrication and parametric modeling that deliver the project’s ambitious architectural vision and create a truly iconic urban oasis.”

Design details

The Vision

Heatherwick Studio was initially invited to create a pavilion for a new extension to the waterfront. But the team felt this was a missed opportunity to make a significant new urban space for New York, whilst at the same time reimagining what a pier could be as an experience. Rather than creating another flat jetty, the pier could become a new piece of topography, rising and falling to shape a variety of spaces and functions – even performance spaces. The idea of raising the park on its foundations came from the existing wooden piles in the water. The piles have become an important habitat for marine life and are a protected breeding ground for fish. The height of the piles varies to create the contours of the new landscape. The corner of the pier is lifted to allow sunlight to reach the marine habitat, and the edge falls to define hills, viewpoints and to carve out a natural amphitheatre for performances. In this way, the pier and its supporting structure are one.

The Planters

The planters, or ‘pots’ are filled with soil and planted with more than a hundred different species of indigenous trees and plants, which encourage biodiversity and are able to thrive in the waterside climate of New York. To determine the pots’ form, the design team looked to nature, and the mosaic of ice that forms around the wooden piles when the river freezes. The studio reinterpreted this in a tessellated pattern that appears organic, but uses repeated elements that could be standardised for fabrication. The precast components were fabricated locally and then transported by boats and assembled on site, minimising disruption to the city

The Experience

Access to the pier is via two accessible ‘gangplanks’, covered in timber planks and oriented in a continuation of New York’s street grid. Inside, paths wind through trees and grassy seating areas to hidden, unexpected views. Restoring the entertainment venue that was lost when Pier 54 fell into disrepair, the park integrates three performance spaces: an acoustically-optimised 700-seat amphitheatre, a more intimate 200-seat spoken word stage, and a flexible venue with capacity for 3,500 at the centre.

MNLA collaborated with Heatherwick Studio on the design of Little Island and led the design of the park’s landscape with three core goals:

  • Define the island’s cultural, strolling, and contemplative garden spaces and overlooks: A network of circulation opportunities including accessible paths, stairs, and boulder scrambles provide multiple routes to and from each of the destinations. Each journey offers different views at each twist and turn--both outward to the city and river and inward toward the park features.

  • Manipulate the structural topography with landforms and retaining walls to accommodate large trees, undulating lawns, and vista points: Each area has a different microclimate based on solar exposure, natural shade, and wind. Evergreen trees buffer the winter winds and highway views, gathering and cultural venues receive ample sun to extend comfortable use in the shoulder seasons, and plant material is carefully calibrated to the ecological forces, creating suitable microenvironments to activate the spaces and serve year-round visitors.

  • Design for habitat and biodiversity: The plant palette uses multiple cultivars of the same specie, as well as hundreds of different species and ecosystem diversity to exemplify a new approach to public park design that focuses on biodiversity. The vast majority of the plants attract birds and pollinators, affording food, shelter, and nesting sites.

Arup played a critical role in construction and development, supporting through:

  • Advanced structural design: Arup engineers used precast concrete to deliver 132 precast concrete “pots,” each supported on a large precast concrete column and pile driven down to rock, as much as 200 feet below the water. Along with the full conventional structural design, Arup generated a full fabrication level 3D Rebar Modeling system and championed a digital fabrication process that enabled the accurate creation of the complex structural precast geometry through use of robotically milled foam formwork. The contractor team at Little Island proceeded smoothly through five stages of on-site work: piling, precast fabrication, on-site erection of the precast components, cast in place structural slab to tie it all together, and finally the upland park and associated finish work. 

  • Acoustics, audio visual and theatre design: Arup venue experts utilized the Arup SoundLab to aid in the development of sound-scaping, acoustics, sightline and seating strategies that optimized performance quality and user comfort without detracting from the project's primary objective as a public park.

  • Green infrastructure and stormwater management: Arup civil engineers and MNLA developed an integrated stormwater management scheme including a network of green infrastructure elements that are artfully integrated into the park’s landscaping, making virtually the entire park a sponge for stormwater.

Quick facts

Little Island’s design
  • The original brief was to design a pavilion structure on an enlarged waterfront jetty

  • Heatherwick Studio saw the opportunity to create a substantial new public space for New Yorkers

  • The idea for the pier came from the existing wooden piles and wondering how a structure could form organically from these rather than being a surface on top

  • Inspiration for the form of the pots came from looking at the ice patterns that forms around the piles when the water freezes

  • The precast components were made locally

Little Island’s landscape
  • There are roughly 400 different species of trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials throughout Little Island and at least 100 different species of trees through the park that are suited to the New York climate. Each corner of the island represents a different microclimate depending on the topography, sun exposure and wind patterns. 

  • Planting began in March 2020 and culminated in December 2020.

  • There are roughly 400 different species in the park: 35 trees, 65 shrubs, and 290 varieties of grasses, vines, and perennials.

  • Different planting typologies define three distinct overlooks—the Northeast, the Southwest, and the Northwest.

  • More than 66,000 bulbs were planted, including Camassia, Fritillaria, Chinodoxa, Muscari and Narcissus.

  • The four seasons are evident through flowering trees and shrubs in spring, evolving perennial displays in summer, foliage blended with softer hues of grasses in fall, and evergreens trees and shrubs in winter. 

  • LF (linear feet) of pathways – 1790 (a third of a mile)

  • Lawns offer places to relax and view people and performances with ample places to sunbathe and lounge.

  • Weathering steel sheet piling was selected for the retaining walls to continue the warm materials palette used throughout the pier, and their crenellated form creates opportunities to tuck in vines and make spaces for cascading shrubs and perennials. Sheet piles were fabricated by a New York company.

  • Seven sets of stairs with 420 steps were milled from New York-sourced Black Locust.

  • Three playful boulder scrambles quarried from update New York delight visitors and provide a different cadence to traverse in the landscape. 

Little Island’s engineering and construction
  • The landscape is supported by 132 precast concrete “pots,” each supported on a large precast concrete column and piles driven down to rock, as much as 200 feet below the water.

  • Each pile can support approximately 250-350 tons.

  • The pots geometry followed a repeating Cairo pentagon tiling pattern to generate seemingly irregular shapes and a layout where the columns do not lie in straight lines, but still enable repetitive use of formwork. 

  • 39 different formwork shapes were used to create the 132 unique pots. 

  • Each pot is roughly 20 feet in diameter. 

  • Each pot is hollow and were designed to be assembled from multiple pieces (‘petals’) that could be shipped by road in order to widen the bidding pool of potential precast suppliers.

  • The petals were fabricated in upstate New York, assembled into complete pots at the port of Albany, and shipped by barge down the Hudson River where they were erected on to the driven precast piles.

For images, please see here.