Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

The Lesson of Little Island: Less Is More

An aerial nighttime view of Little Island park on June 14, 2021. Noam Galai/Getty.

The architecture critics have already called Little Island “a charmer” and “a handmade Eden.” The new $260 million park just off Manhattan’s west side has been praised for its concrete “tulips,” its amphitheater, and its lush and colorful plantings.

But however beautiful the park is at this point, a moment when the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming and New York City is reopening, there’s a price to be paid for building what a billionaire wants.

As part of the arrangement between media mogul Barry Diller — the prime mover behind the park’s design and development — and the Hudson River Park Trust, the Diller–von Furstenberg Family Foundation has to pay for maintenance and programming costs for the next 20 years, a figure that Diller estimated could add another $120 million. Even if 20 years seems far away now, that’s still a big question mark for the future in a city which invests less in parks than many of its peers.

When New York City parks have long received 0.5% of the city’s budget, and lost $84 million to austerity measures in 2020, Little Island sets a terrible example. It is not gated, but it might as well be, given how complicated, how high-maintenance and how bossy it can be. While it may be Barry Diller’s ideal park, it doesn’t line up with the needs or expectations (or budget) of most of the 8 million plus New Yorkers, many of whom don’t have access to private outdoor space and need room to walk, play, party and sprawl. Sometimes spending less can do more when funders ask their designers to lay out the welcome mat … and then walk away.