Resilient Cities

New York Unveils Dramatic New Storm-Protection Proposals

A rendering of the proposed “BIG U,” which would wrap around Lower Manhattan. Photo credit: The BIG TEAM

The New York Metropolitan Area’s resiliency arsenal could soon include retractable roll-gates hanging from the FDR Drive, a long chain of manmade barrier islands ten miles offshore, buildings designed to accommodate major floods, revived marshes, fish-filled breakwaters and all sorts of other ingenious interventions.

This batch of new ideas comes from the Rebuild by Design contest, an initiative of the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development aimed at addressing storm-related structural and environmental vulnerabilities in communities throughout the region.

Announced last summer, the contest invited planners, architects, scientists and civic organizations to develop proposals for New York City and the surrounding communities. More than 140 teams submitted preliminary ideas to a task force made up of representatives from The Rockefeller Foundation, New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge and other partners. In early August, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan announced 10 teams that would move on to the next stage of the Rebuild by Design competition. Over the past months, the teams met with local stakeholders and community groups to refine their ideas and formalize plans that are innovative, feasible and responsive to real-world needs. Last week, the proposals were made available for public perusal for the first time.

For the Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point, which is home to one of the world’s largest food-distribution centers and also ranks as one of the nation’s poorest congressional districts, the PennDesign/OLIN team focused on protecting critical distribution infrastructure with interventions that would benefit the neighborhood, create living-wage jobs and ensure that vital services could continue and rebound quickly in the event of a disruptive storm. These include adaptable flood-control structures that could serve as ecological breeding grounds, waterfront improvements that would benefit neighborhood residents and commercial tenants, and greenway-styled “cleanways” that would minimize pedestrian/truck conflicts and help manage storm-water overflow.

A proposal for Hunts Point would help protect the city’s major food-distribution hub. Photo credit: PennDesign/OLIN

For Staten Island’s South Shore, the SCAPE/Landscape Architecture team wanted to reimagine the relationship between the wave-battered Atlantic coastline and a community brutalized by Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge. “Rather than create a wall between people and water,” the team writes in their proposal, “our project embraces the water, increases awareness of risk and steps down that risk with a necklace of breakwaters to buffer against wave damage, flooding and erosion.” Using what they call “living breakwaters” the team wants to protect the developed coastline while providing a habitat for finfish, shellfish and lobsters, as well as calm waters for residents to enjoy. This rethinking of the waterfront, they believe, can not only defend against storms and improve environmental conditions but also foster a new era of waterfront stewardship in the community.

For Manhattan’s flood-prone neighborhoods, the BIG TEAM proposed the BIG U, a series of separate but coordinated projects that would extend along the ten miles of coastline from West 57th Street down around the Battery and up to East 42nd Street. Along the Lower East Side, the team imagines a massive park-topped berm that could protect the low-lying community from rising sea levels. Between the Manhattan Bridge and Montgomery Street, they think “deployable walls” could roll down from the elevated FDR to protect the financial district from the East River. From the Battery north, along the Westside, another landscaped berm could help protect tunnel entrances, heavily trafficked roadways and train infrastructure crucial to the community and the city. The BIG TEAM says of their interventions, “each has a benefit-cost ratio greater than one; and each is flexible, easily phasable, and can be integrated with in-progress developments along the city’s waterfront.”

The Rebuild by Design contest generated similarly targeted plans for Hoboken, NJ, Bridgeport, CT, the Meadowlands, Red Hook, Rockaway and Asbury Park, the Jersey Shore and Nassau County’s Atlantic Coast, as well as a strategy to protect the entire region by building a second set of barrier islands ten miles off the coast in the open ocean. The Blue Dunes proposal from WXY/West 8 is supposed to answer the question, “If we had planned and designed our coasts with coastal processes in mind, would there have been a way to deflect storm-driven surges with a set of barrier islands located offshore in the coastal waters?” Their answer, unsurprisingly, is yes. And like many of the other proposals, it aims to do double duty by adding wind turbines to the wave-blocking manmade islands.

Though feasibility is one of the contest’s criteria, it’s clear that some of the proposals are far more achievable than others. That said, as of April 3, it’s up to a panel of expert jurors to pick what will move off the drawing board toward reality. Thankfully, Rebuild by Design isn’t a winner-take-all affair. Some, none, or all of these proposals may be implemented with disaster recovery grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as other sources of public and private-sector funding.

Resilient Cities is made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

Graham T. Beck has written about art, cities and the environment for the New York Times, The Believer, frieze and other august publications. He’s a contributing writer for The Morning News and editor-in-chief of Transportation Alternatives’ quarterly magazine, Reclaim. He lives in New York City and tweets @g_t_b

Tags: new yorkresilient citieshurricane sandyfloodsstorm surgedisaster responsedisaster planning