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How Governors Island Could Become a Beacon for Climate Solutions

A view of the New York City skyline from Governors Island
A view of the New York City skyline from Governors Island in New York Harbor. Photo: simplethrill

As New Yorkers prepared to celebrate the holiday season amid a mostly unseasonably warm winter, many flocked to the ever popular ice skating rink and fire pits on Governors Island. Around the corner from these festive activities is a new site where a state-of-the-art climate center is in development.

First announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2020, the forthcoming Center for Climate Solutions will spearhead the research, development, and demonstration of equitable climate solutions for New York City — and for cities around the world.

What is the significance of Governors Island?

Governors Island, once called Paggank or Nut Island by the Lenape people because of its hickory and chestnut trees, has a long history as a former military base. The island, located between Manhattan and Brooklyn, played numerous roles in American wars between 1776 and 1996.

Since 2005, it has been a popular destination for recreation, public art, and science programming. The island welcomed 600,000 visitors in 2021, from every zip code in the city. It is poetic that a facility once belonging to the U.S. military — arguably the world’s largest polluter — will be converted into a climate center.

Governors Island has many organizations in residence that are focused on educating the public about environmental issues. One example is Swale — a floating food forest atop a barge, navigating New York’s waterways — where I taught permaculture to school groups many summers ago. Swale has a food forest on Governors Island that engages visitors about food, water, and land. It’s just one of the many ways that the island is already pursuing environmental action.

So why does Governors Island need a climate center?

The 172-acre island is situated in the heart of New York Harbor, where sea level rise and extreme weather events continue to threaten coastal communities along New York and New Jersey. A research center on Governors Island is best suited to study the climate crisis and its effects on the harbor.

It will also create thousands of green jobs for New Yorkers.

The Center for Climate Solutions is expected to create 7,000 jobs on Governors Island and generate $1 billion in economic impact for the city. The innovative center will support interdisciplinary education, professional training, and opportunities for public engagement.

The island also has lots of space.

Governors Island has one million square feet of historic buildings, including vacant military barracks, that could be repurposed for the climate center.

The center envisions dormitories and residences for researchers, a commercial space for small sustainable businesses, a community space to engage with the public, and an office space for environmental justice organizations.

Most importantly, the Center for Climate Solutions will have a “living laboratory” dedicated to designing, experimenting, and showcasing climate solutions for the urban environment.

The living laboratory is part of a new 43-acre park on the island, creating resilient coastal landscapes while testing out innovative solutions to sea level rise. The living laboratory will engage dozens of partners on the island, including the Climate Museum and the Billion Oyster Project, which aims to restore oyster reefs across New York Harbor.

Oyster reefs prevent stormwater from wreaking severe damage to the waterfront communities around New York City. The city was once home to 220,000 acres of oyster reefs, each of which can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day.

Oyster reefs increase biodiversity while serving as a natural storm barrier, reducing flooding and preventing erosion. The restoration of oyster reefs across New York Harbor is necessary for healthy shorelines and is one example of what a living laboratory will pursue.

The Center for Climate Solutions will be critical in designing a more resilient city. And the Columbia Climate School could be at the helm.

Universities from around the world were invited to team up in a competition to design an educational and research institution to form part of the center. In October, three teams were selected as finalists.

The Coastal Cities Impact Team, one of the finalists, is led by Northeastern University. The New York Climate Exchange, another finalist, is led by Stony Brook University.

The third finalist is the New York Coastal Climate Center, which is led by the City University of New York and the New School, in partnership with Columbia Climate School and Barnard College.

The winning team will be announced in early 2023. Should the latter team be selected, the Columbia Climate School will have an unprecedented opportunity to continue shaping the future of climate solutions in New York City and beyond.

As a student of Columbia’s premier climate school, I am eager to see how the university could pursue hands-on experiential learning on Governors Island. The Columbia Climate School can provide students with valuable opportunities for groundbreaking research outside the classroom walls, developing real-world solutions to the most pressing crisis of our time.

Notably, the Columbia Climate School must engage with grassroots environmental organizations — many of which have encountered significant barriers to funding — to ensure that frontline communities have access to state-of-the-art research facilities that they have been historically excluded from.

Whether or not Columbia University is selected as an anchor for the climate center, the living laboratory on Governors Island promises to transform New York City into a global leader in the movement to respond to the climate crisis with justice, equity, and innovation.

Joshua Nodiff is a climate justice writer and graduate student in the Climate and Society program at the Columbia Climate School.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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