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The Women Behind New York’s Newest Park

The Friends of Governors Island Gala
The Friends of Governors Island Gala, Sept 26, 2017
Photo by / Courtesy of Ellen Cavanagh (third from right)

“We’ve come a long way since the days of Olmstead,” Ellen Cavanagh affirms, referring to the 19th Century Father of Landscape Architecture.

New Yorkers have Frederick Law Olmstead to thank for our iconic parks—both Central and Prospect parks were conceived by his design. But now there is an island in New York Harbor, shaped like an ice cream cone, which has been quietly reinventing itself for decades. And it has just become New York’s next great green space.

Governors Island Park & Public Space: Hills Construction
Governors Island Park & Public Space: Hills Construction
Photo by Tim Schenck / Courtesy of Ellen Cavanagh
Governors Island Park & Public Space: Hills Construction
Governors Island Park & Public Space: Hills Construction
Photo by Tim Schenck / Courtesy of Ellen Cavanagh

What makes Governors Island Park & Public Space unique, compared to the parks of the past? It’s not so much the 360-degree view of New York Harbor or that it boasts the city’s longest slide. It is the people behind the park.

Governors Island Park & Public Space was an international effort, designed by the Dutch landscape architecture firm West 8. But more importantly, the individuals that brought this park to life were not, as in times past, a group of affluent American men. This time many of them were women, and Ellen Cavanagh, former Vice President of Planning, Design and Construction for The Trust for Governors Island, was one of them.

The Women of Governors Island were recognized this year by the Friends of Governors Island at their recent gala. The morning after the gala, Cavanagh and I sat together in Liggett Terrace, where the astors are about to bloom and turn the surrounding flower beds purple for the fall season.

“We were all chosen, not because we were women, but because we were the right people for the job”

As we sat and talked, we recalled how only a few years ago this place was a construction site, filled with bright yellow construction equipment and the monochrome dusty brown of the soil they were excavating. We struggled to believe, even having witnessed the transformation with our own eyes, that this was the same place.

Now that the work is done and the park is open, is there an afterglow? I ask Cavanagh how she feels about this accomplishment and the subsequent recognition. “Humbled and grateful” for the honor, she explained, but at the same time she was unwilling to forget the team at large.

In her opinion, the intelligent and capable women that were part of making this park a reality can and should be credited, but they were not alone—they were part of a larger team, all of whom were integral to this vision and its realization.

Still, the question remains: What was it like to be a woman on this project?

Without hesitation, Cavanagh said, “One of the most remarkable things about being a woman on this project, and in the Bloomberg Administration, was that no one noticed. We were all chosen, not because we were women, but because we were the right people for the job.”

Fresh out of graduate school, Cavanagh joined a grassroots effort in 2006, shortly before the dream to create a world-class park was born. With a background in urban planning, and with the ability to see her inexperience as an advantage, Cavanagh learned the task at hand—how to build a park—on the job.

“I’ve always operated that way, to learn as I go, and take leaps of faith,” she explains.

The toughest part was “to learn to let go.” Cavanagh added: “To confront the difficult decisions, to learn what must stay and what must go.”

But, she said, this is what made the project successful.

“There were so many talented people on our team, and we confronted each difficulty together. And then we never looked back.”

After years of working with Cavanagh, I had experienced this dynamic firsthand, but I had never paid attention to its origin. It was only at this moment, months after the park opened to the public, when I recognized, that for her, these critical skills were instinctual—to simultaneously be both a leader and a team player. She valued self-confidence and partnership equally, and this set the tone for the team; each player was empowered, provided they leave their ego at the door.

After the gala was over and the speeches and toasts had been made, “the Women of Governors Island” embraced the gala in their name, but recognized that the key to this type of success was teamwork.

The team that built Governors Island Park & Public Space was a group comprising true diversity: designers and contractors, public and private sector partners, executives and interns, women and men. But above all, it was a team built of equals.

This collaboration may still be more exemplary than customary, but I am compelled to agree with Cavanagh, that in fact, we have come a long way.