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The Center for Climate Solutions on Governors Island

Lower Manhattan seen from The Hills on Governors Island

Over the past few years, New York City has been rocked by challenges that have demanded major policy initiatives to address them if the city is to remain a viable and vibrant urban center. Severe weather events, health emergencies, a pandemic-induced restructuring of the city’s economy, and growing social and economic disparity are merely some of the developments that have come to preoccupy politicians, planners, and administrators here.

Climate change is perhaps the primary challenge facing the city, with its effects contributing to stronger and more intense storms dropping greater amounts of rain in short periods, along with increasing heat and the potential for greater coastal flooding due to storm surge and rising sea levels. Massive projects are currently underway to address these effects of climate change, as documented in our latest report here.

However, as we’ve seen, the impact of weather events, public health emergencies, and, of course, economic and social disparity, is different across the socio-economic and racial spectrum. These challenges affect rich and poor communities alike, but the disadvantaged communities invariably suffer the most for a variety of reasons.

These challenges, however, have helped shape an opportunity.

Governors Island sits just off Brooklyn and a short ferry ride from Lower Manhattan. The 172-acre island had been used for centuries as a base for a variety of government and military activities, and most lately it was occupied by the US Army and the Coast Guard until 1996. As these facilities were phased out, the future of the island came into question. In a city where there is constant tension between private sector developers and residents demanding more green space, there was a strong movement to maintain the island as a public space and not simply hand it over for more commercial and residential development. This led to protracted debates over what to do with the newly available land.

In 2001, 22 acres containing historic Fort Jay and Castle Williams were declared a National Monument by the federal government.

In 2003, after years of discussions and failed efforts, the federal government sold Governors Island to the City of New York for $1.00 and the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation was created. The principal condition of the sale was that the island could not be used for private development (beyond a certain minimum necessary to make it economically sustainable). Subsequently, extensive public debate continued over how to best use the 150 acres of land available outside the 22 acres managed by the National Park Service.

In 2010, The Trust for Governors Island was established to handle planning and development for the island, and The Friends of Governors Island was created as an independent NPO responsible for handling fundraising and access to the island. Broadly, the Trust, with the support of the Fund, is working to turn the island into a public space for all New Yorkers, with diverse attractions and facilities, providing a venue for art and culture, education, enjoyment of the outdoors, and research into ways to address the challenges arising from climate change that also provide economic and social benefits.

In 2020, Mayor de Blasio and the Trust announced plans to develop the Center for Climate Solutions (CCS), and in 2021 this was included in Mayor Adams’ Rebuild, Renew, Reinvent: A Blueprint for New York City’s Economic Recovery. That same year, the Trust and the City of New York launched a global competition for universities, nonprofits, research institutions, and others to propose a facility as part of this to create and carry out research, development, and educational programs geared toward providing solutions to the various challenges facing New York, and the world, in ways that make use of the island’s unique resources.

In April 2023, a 15-member cross-sector consortium headed by Stony Brook University was chosen to develop the New York Climate Exchange, a 40,000 square foot facility on the east side of the island to research climate solutions and train workers for green jobs. The focus is on climate change and resilience, but to address these through policies and initiatives that are informed by and inclusive of economic development and equity needs in ways that will increase resilience and sustainability across all neighborhoods throughout the city, position New York City as a climate adaptation hub for the world, encourage entrepreneurship, and help train a workforce to service the green economy. Construction of the Exchange should begin in 2025, with the first sections becoming operational in 2028.

In June, CCS announced the Living Lab, a new research and education platform to develop climate change mitigation and adaptation measures and educational programs for NYC public school students to learn about the environment.

The Climate Solutions Piloting Program (CSPP) is one element of this. Consisting of an annual Climate Solutions Challenge every summer along with a more limited year-round general rolling call, the program seeks proposals for piloting and demonstration projects to address a range of issues relating to climate change.

The inaugural summer 2023 CSPP theme is the Water Abundance Challenge, asking how water can help to power climate solutions that grow blue and green jobs and create healthier communities. Up to five winners may be chosen, and are eligible for:

  1. Project sites on Governors Island at no cost for from three to 12 months;
  2. A $10,000 award and access to a $100,000 pool of funds;
  3. Technical support;
  4. Promotional opportunities.

The application period closed on August 15 and winners will be announced in October.

The year-round general rolling call will begin reviewing applications in December and winners will receive the same benefits as above except for financial support. All project costs will be borne by the applicants (known as Pilot Partners) in this case.

The island offers a range of assets that can be used in testing, including 2.2 miles of waterfront, a 43-acre resilient park, seven miles of largely car-free streets, buildings, sewer and water infrastructure, waste management and composting systems, and other forms of built and natural ecosystems. It also allows participants to deploy their projects in a controlled environment that is a high-visibility public space attracting nearly one million visitors a year, offering the possibility for greater than normal public exposure.

As Governors Island’s future slowly comes together, it should increasingly become a hub for New Yorkers to experience not only a type of wide-open nature not usually found so close to the heart of the city but also a range of experiences and opportunities for enrichment through art, culture, education, and even new ideas and new careers.

Matthew Gillam
Senior Researcher
August 31, 2023