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She Built an Island of Green in a Concrete Desert

For landscape architect Celine Armstrong, it represents more than a decade of work and a lifetime of passion.

About halfway between Chelsea and the West Village sits New York City’s newest park.

On May 21, 2021, in the midst of the dark days of the coronavirus pandemic, a new park opened in New York City. Little Island is unlike any other green space in the city: It’s suspended over the Hudson River like, well, a little island.

Visitors hugged each other as they entered the park, recognizing the momentous occasion of an addition to the Manhattan coastline. And it also provided a relatively safe, open space for people to reconnect, something desperately wanted and needed at the time. It was as if traveling to the park not only instantly transported one out of the city, but away from the trauma of the pandemic.

Visitors at Little Island in June 2022 (Sawyer Roque)

More than 100 68-ton concrete pilings, referred to as “pots” or “tulips” hold up a 2.4 acre park hovering 15 feet over the Hudson. The tulips are anchored by piling “stems” that are submerged up to 200 feet below on the Hudson floor. Visitors can choose one of two walkways connecting to Manhattan to enter or exit the park. Walking around the island, the flora and fauna on the island itself change not just with each season, but even within each month. A green field might become lavender one month, and then change to white the next. Thus, one can visit multiple times and never see the same area in the same way in every visit.

Celine Armstrong describes it like this: “In every turn, your experience changes.”

Armstrong would play a creative and critical role in the creation of this addition to the city. However, in 2012, when the design of Little Island was being worked out, she was finishing up a master’s degree at Columbia University, and she was completely unaware of the unfolding project that would be the highlight of her career and consume the next seven years of her life. What she did know at the time was that she wanted to make a difference in New York City, something she had set her sights on from her earliest memories.

Water changes things

Growing up on a 120-acre farm in Harrison, Missouri, Armstrong was one of five children of a geotechnical engineer father who owned his own company planning and designing foundations before building began. All the children were expected to help out on the farm. By the age of 12, Armstrong could operate her dad’s bulldozer, and would spend hours after school bottle feeding the lambs. Her dad impressed upon her a love for the land through their farm and through his business.

Little Island floats above the Hudson (Sawyer Roque)

“I understood how important it was to be a good steward of the land and how it impacted the environment,” she said during a conversation in February. “I knew the damage erosion could cause. I witnessed what happens to land when it’s misused. My dad helped me recognize that.”

And although she grew up in a landlocked state, tributaries from the nearby Great River ran through the farm, and Armstrong spent a lot of time playing in the streams. Water became a passion for Armstrong: “I’ve always had an interest in water and how it changed landscapes. I grew up respecting water. I mean, water always wins. I experienced that firsthand as we navigated the water that ran through our farm.”

Interested in how the combination of land, nature, and architecture affects people’s outlook and psyche, Armstrong was especially riveted in college by studies of children growing up in urban housing projects. “Did you know that if a child can see a tree from their window in a housing project, they have a stronger chance of doing well than if they don’t see one?”

Armstrong jumped at the chance to volunteer at a home that was being built on an episode in the series Extreme Home Makeover in Wichita. And she helped with the landscaping.

“That experience really moved me,” she said. “It combined my desire to help those in need with my love of creating an aesthetically pleasing property. The end result of that endeavor was that a deserving family could thrive with a beautiful landscape they could enjoy for the rest of their lives.” The importance of environments and their impact on people helped to shape Armstrong’s purpose and desire to create surroundings that are a source of happiness and well-being.”

In 2011, Celine moved to New York City, excited to see if she could make a difference in the physical landscape that almost nine million people call home. As she explored options, she was committed to a few ideals: “I wanted to play a significant female role in the industry, as I grew up knowing very few women landscape architects,” she said. Just as important, she wanted to make her mark among the disadvantaged of her newly adopted home. “The wealthier neighborhoods habitually have far nicer parks, open spaces, and spots that connect its denizens to nature more effectively than less affluent districts. I wanted to make a difference in disadvantaged neighborhoods.”

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“I have such a passion for nature, and I knew that this opportunity not only brought that love to fruition, but even more importantly, it was a chance to connect others to nature,” she said. “That is so important.”

Celine Armstrong at Little Island (Sawyer Roque)

Armstrong found work helping to build an extension at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and a project that improved a bike and pedestrian path at Queens Plaza, becoming adept at helping to implement landscape designers’ motives and intent. Her next project, working as assistant project manager on the second phase of the wildly popular High Line, solidified her ability to make sure the plans were carried out exactly how it was intended. Working the High Line job gave Armstrong the opportunity to become familiar with the High Line’s famous funder, Barry Diller. His work and grassroots involvement would prove very important to her future in landscape architecture. Her near future.

Desert on an island

By the end of Armstrong’s time at Columbia in 2013, Diller’s IAC was embarking on a new, original public works project, slated to be the largest private donation for a public open space in New York City history. The community near the space where Little Island was to be built, 13th street and the West Side Highway, which is where the neighborhoods of Chelsea and the Meatpacking District meet, possessed the fewest parks per capita in the community district. A “park desert.” The project also featured two housing projects, which appealed to Armstrong’s original goal of creating beautiful spaces that can be accessible to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Armstrong applied for a job with IAC, and after turning down an offer she thought better suited a colleague, IAC approached her again.

“I have such a passion for nature, and I knew that this opportunity not only brought that love to fruition, but even more importantly, it was a chance to connect others to nature,” she said. “That is so important.”

All her professional aspirations and personal passions culminated in this position, and she lobbied for it. After two months of interviews, Armstrong signed up for the five-year commitment. Hired initially as a project manager, she quickly rose up to the second tier in command as project executive, reporting directly to its funder, Diller.

For a long while, Armstrong’s focus was to single-handedly bridge the gap between idea and execution. But as the project grew, so did her responsibilities, including playing a key role in the design itself. She wooed politicians, public officials, and community board members, acting as the face of the project. She engaged with the public to ensure their support. She oversaw, on average, 75 workers per day, ensuring the quality of workmanship from everyone who engaged on the project. She hired designers, consultants, and contractors. She navigated complex legal challenges and labored to bring the project vision in alignment with the client’s budget needs. This was no small feat: The scope of Little Island had jumped from $36 million to $250 million on a project that would be totally free to the public.

(Sawyer Roque)

One of the more impressive qualities Armstrong brought to the table was her ability to move the project forward at the helm of a large and opinionated team. Armstrong oversaw a world-renowned group of design architects, landscape architects, engineers, and multiple client stakeholders. Her skills were advanced enough that she was able to command a room while oftentimes being the youngest one in it — on a project type that had no real precedent.

“On any major project, there are hundreds of people who help make it possible, who should all be proud of their accomplishments,” explained Little Island board member Jason Stewart. “There are usually a small number who are absolutely pivotal to the creation and the result. Armstrong is one of those.”

There was a significant move to block the development of Little Island after it was well underway. Anything being built in NYC always has its detractors. The plans changed daily to accommodate the new demands and schedule adjustments that subsequently happened, and in September 2017, work stopped altogether when Diller backed out.

“Married to a busy pastor and pregnant with my daughter, I struggled to find a work/life balance, while at the same time I had to check my ego at the door while our project was being scrutinized, very unfairly I thought at times,” she said. “I had to take a serious step back and re-evaluate and reprioritize. And just when I had made peace with the demise of the project, it started back up again.”

The project was revived and put back on track once the mayor and governor and then the media realized the loss of the project would have been a huge loss to the city. Armstrong had to terminate everyone’s contract when the project died and then negotiate and quickly rehire everyone within eight weeks when it came back to life.

(Sawyer Roque)

Finally, in May 2021, after almost a decade in the planning and production, Little Island opened to the public. The views looking out from the park change dramatically as well. Facing south, one can see all the way to Staten Island, along with a clear view of the One World skyscraper and other notable downtown buildings, along with the Statue of Liberty standing powerfully in the New York harbor. Across the Hudson, the interesting and diverse New Jersey shore, featuring buildings in Jersey City and Hoboken, as well as ferry terminals such as Lackawanna and Paulus Hook, provides a beautiful western view.

The view of Manhattan includes notable buildings from the surrounding Meatpacking, West Village, and Chelsea neighborhoods, such as the Standard Hotel, which stands 57 feet above street level, and the Whitney Museum, relocated seven years ago in a spectacular building designed by Renzo Piano. You can even see skyscrapers from Hudson Yards and the Empire State building from Midtown poking out in the north-facing background.

Just like the experience of walking on the High Line, the sensory goes into overdrive as you are bombarded by a vast array of architectural styles as well as a study in older buildings versus the newest. The proximity to the buildings of the nearby neighborhoods is almost interactive, inviting the viewer to isolate and identify individual buildings that make up the whole. If being surrounded by cities and water wasn’t thrilling enough, it’s the expansive sky over the Hudson unobscured by skyscrapers that provides as much a reason to smile as any other.

“I’m so impacted by my environment,” said Armstrong. “The physical space of my home, our furniture, our view, and what I see from our windows. It affects my mood and productivity and quality of life. I know it does for others as well, and I want to improve their experience with the gifts and opportunities I’ve been given.

This story is from Common Good issue
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