Why Governors Island Is NYC’s Sustainability HQ

Jeremy Lehrer

The peaceful settings of Governors Island offer everything you could want in a city getaway: a gorgeous location for exploring, recreation and picnicking; plenty of food options; outdoor art and events; and an extraordinary landscape with stunning views of Manhattan and the surrounding harbor.

But the island is far more than a bucolic retreat; it is a rollicking hub for sustainability, home to urban farming projects, zero waste efforts and marine restoration initiatives. These dimensions of the island’s identity are about to be further catalyzed: the City plans to establish a Climate Solutions Center on the island, to cultivate problem-solving for the challenges that a warming climate presents to metropolises around the world. Governors Island is increasingly invaluable to NYC as a lab at the forefront of innovating solutions for urban sustainability—an urgent imperative for a city especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Here are some highlights of this green accelerator in NYC’s backyard.

Low Impact Restart

Since the Trust for Governors Island and the National Park Service took control of it in 2003, Governors Island has continually ratcheted up its commitment to a green ethos. The island’s transformation into a park that offers recreational activities and supports well-being through green infrastructure exemplifies the philosophy of “adaptive reuse,” in which existing structures or landscapes are given new purpose—an approach that fueled the creation of notable NYC sites like the High Line, Domino Park and the Brooklyn Navy Yard as well as a proposal to transform Rikers Island into a hub for renewable energy.

Zero Waste Island Initiative. Courtesy, Governors Island

Waste Not, Want Not

On Governors Island, reducing waste is an operating principle. The Zero Waste Island initiative, established as a partnership between the Trust for Governors Island and Earth Matter NY, seeks to eliminate garbage entirely. In line with this, all food vendors on the island have to use compostable containers and utensils, which are ultimately discarded in dedicated organics bins that, along with food waste and landscape trimmings, become the raw material for compost operations on the island.

Circular Thinking

By reducing waste through these policies, Governors Island is proving the viability of zero waste and circular economy approaches—an essential lesson for NYC as a whole, which is targeting zero waste for all five boroughs by 2030. The beauty of the process is that the island is producing a valuable material from the organic waste—a soil complement perfect for urban gardening—while simultaneously preventing the emission of methane created by food waste in landfills. Plus, any waste produced on the island needs to be hauled away by ferry, and then further on to landfill sites, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing the amount of “garbage” is a sustainability plus, creates a valuable product, simplifies logistics and saves money.

Where Food Goes to Be Reborn

At Earth Matter NY’s composting operation, a monthly average of 1,850 pounds of food scraps, paper containers and other compostables break down and then are “cured” and harvested for new life cycles; the entire process takes 12 to 15 months from start to finish. The eight compost windows, the massive mounds of biodegradables that are initially 8 feet high by 100 feet long and reach temperatures of 151 degrees Fahrenheit as the organics decay, are a striking feature of the organization’s grounds—as are its diminutive barn, goats and food-scrap-eating chickens.

GrowNYC Teaching Garden. Courtesy, Governors Island

Urban Farming Lab

Governors Island hosts a farm, which is used for educational purposes. Partners in this include the one-acre GrowNYC Teaching Garden, where urban agrarians harvest berries, eggplants, herbs, squash, fruit and flowers. During the pandemic, the farm, which was originally set up to educate young people about urban farming, maximized its food production to provide produce donations to communities in need. Another partner, Earth Matter NY, which runs a “soil start” farm featuring herbs and produce as well as a field of lavender, did the same.

Sheep at Governors Island. Photo: Julienne Schaer

Old-Fashioned Weed Wackers

Governors Island combines climate innovation with the meme-able cute factor, due to its flock of organic, biologic weed-control systems, aka sheep. The quintet—named Sam, Flour, Evening, Chad and Philip Aries—eats invasive plant species, such as mugwort and phragmites, that threaten local flora and cause disruptions in the ecology.

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Photo: Kate Glicksberg

Fossil-Free Movement

The bucolic sustainability setting of Governors Island is enhanced—and especially quiet—because the island is car-free (with a few exceptions for official vehicles). To travel around on Governors, visitors can amass their 10,000 steps or ride the rental bikes that are distributed throughout the island.

Keeping Water at Bay

A more subtle element of Governors Island’s sustainability strategy is reflected in the landscape design. The rising seas caused by climate change—as well as storm surges generated by extreme weather—threaten to damage both infrastructure and landscape on the island, as in NYC. To ensure resiliency, engineers created the Hills, a series of elevations that rise to 70 feet as a barrier to protect the island from surges. This topography, made in part from construction material from buildings and parking lots demolished on the island, features lookout points, a granite scramble, paths and a 57-foot-long slide for kids. In addition, stonework around the paths directs water into planted areas specifically designed to absorb water. Such strategies inform the redevelopment of East River Park and other long-term plans for protecting NYC from climate change.

Courtesy, Billion Oyster Project

The Oyster of My Eye

Another anchor of the sustainability fleet that thrives at Governors Island is the Billion Oyster Project, an initiative to restore native mollusks that once thrived in NYC’s marine environments. The project has so far brought back more than 45 million oysters and offers multiple benefits: the oysters filter the water of New York Harbor while the reefs where they live, built from used oyster shells collected from NYC restaurants, provide habitat for marine life and protection from storm damage, by dissipating the energy of incoming waves and reducing shoreline erosion.

Climate Museum. Courtesy, Sari Goodfriend

Activist Art

The island’s role as a sustainability epicenter makes it a natural fit for the Climate Museum, an emerging gallery/museum located in a wood-frame home that once housed military officers. The museum, which went virtual during the pandemic, organizes talks, exhibitions and educational projects about climate change and the efforts to counter it through activism, outreach and lifestyle.


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