Roosevelt Island is a 2-mile-long island located between Manhattan and Queens on the East River, with a rich history in architecture and residential development. There are six notable landmarks on the island, including: Chapel of Good Shepherd, Blackwell House, Strecker Laboratory, The Octagon, The Lighthouse, and Smallpox Hospital. Today, some of these structures are preserved as historical monuments, while others are converted into luxury residences. For instance, The Octagon—formerly known as the New York Lunatic Asylum—is now a high-end apartment building that also includes a shopping mall.

Roosevelt Island is separated in two areas, Northtown and Southtown. Northtown consists of four housing complexes called the WIRE buildings, located on Main Street: Westview, Island House, Rivercross, and Eastwood. Southtown is more of a commercial area that includes restaurants, plazas, and shops. Currently, new apartment complexes and retail buildings are under construction. In fact, new businesses emerged due to residential development, such as Starbucks and Duane Reade.

Prisons in 1932

In 1828, City of New York purchased the island for $32,000 as a location for institutions, such as prisons and nursing homes. It offered a place to house the sick and the outsiders. In 1969, architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee designed a master plan for the island that was adopted by the New York State Urban Development Corporation. The plan called for a residential community that would house the elderly, the disabled and hospital workers. Currently, there are about 12,000 residents, an elementary school, a few restaurants, a shopping mall and two hospitals—Goldwater Memorial Hospital and Bird S. Coler Memorial Hospital.

In terms of infrastructure, a notable feature of the plan was to eliminate traffic problems by forbidding the use of automobiles. Today, much of the island remains a traffic-free environment. Residents are encouraged to park their cars in a large garage and take public transportation instead. The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) is responsible for maintaining, operating, and developing the island community, including housing, shops and community facilities.

For instance, RIOC manages infrastructure maintenance, including transportation to and from the island and on the island. Visitors can take the F train to Roosevelt Island or take the Tramway, which connects to Midtown Manhattan. Interestingly, the Tramway is often regarded as a tourist attraction and has been filmed in several movies and shows. On the island itself, a bright red shuttle bus transports passengers from apartment buildings to the subway and tramway for 25 cents, or 10 cents for elders and the disabled. The infrastructure, however, is aging and becoming less apt as the population increases.

RIOC is comprised of nine directors, including two members recommended by the Mayor and three residents. In this case, planning power is divided among citizen leaders and residents, which allows room for negotiation and sharing policy-making responsibilities. Nonetheless, according to the Roosevelt Island Accessibility Study*, “the island’s residents have been excluded from decision-making processes.” To ensure that the public’s voice is heard, Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA) was established as a community group for active citizen participation. It “represents residents from all of the housing units on the island and plays a watchdog role regarding the management of RIOC.”


During my visit to Roosevelt Island, I had the opportunity to experience the anatomy of the land firsthand. When I exited the F train station, I was pleasantly greeted with the skyline of Manhattan’s East Side. On the opposite side, however, the view of Queens was a grotesque panorama of factories and demolished buildings. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful day with sunny skies and warm breezes.

I was expecting to see a lot people walking around and enjoying the weather, but to my surprise, the waterfront pathway was mostly empty. The pathway ran along the edge of the island and led to Main Street (the center), where the Chapel of Good Shepherd and most of the residential buildings were located. There was a plaza surrounding the church, with benches bordering the edge, but for the most part, the plaza was just empty. Even on a beautiful day, I only saw one man reading a magazine on a bench.

As I made my way north, I noticed there were many grassy areas and open spaces. At the northern-most point, where the Lighthouse is located, there were open barbeque grills where people were cooking food and expansive grassy fields where people were flying kites. Residents and visitors can go to the park via bus service or by foot. To improve accessibility, AccessRI recommended “non-auto transportation options, including bus service, pedestrian and bike access, and water transport.”

Throughout my walk, one of the things I immediately noticed was the lack of street lights; there were mostly stop signs. I felt like I was in another town. I also noticed the lack of a map system, which would have been helpful to locate landmarks or navigate the island. According to Roosevelt Island Accessibility Study, maps would make it much easier to mark “the island’s many historic sites and destinations as well as its perimeter promenade.”

In addition, to maximize the function and access of the public spaces, adding seating areas or trees (for natural aesthetics and shade) might attract more people to utilize the space. Installing public art may even help foster triangulation in the area. Having efficient infrastructure, governance, and accessibility are collectively important, because it enables commuters and tourists alike to enjoy the island’s open spaces and historic landmarks.

*Roosevelt Island Accessibility Study was developed by AccessRI, a team of ten graduate students at Hunter College’s Department of Urban Affairs and Planning. The study is a “blueprint for advocacy and action” in the areas of community planning, placemaking, revitalization, infrastructure, and governance.