11/16/12

An Alternative Future for New York City's Waterfront

Back in the 1980s, the city's low-lying waterfront areas were left to shipping, manufacturing and the working class. Now, neighborhoods like Tribeca, Battery Park City, West Chelsea and Williamsburg are in the gentrification zone.

Extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy aren't likely to un-gentrify these neighborhoods, but what if, New York Magazine wonders, New York City could become an urban climate change pioneer with a re-engineered post-industrial shoreline capable of abating storm surges?

The East River will continue overflowing our streets, battering seawalls, leaping over bulkheads, overflowing storm drains, freeing human waste headed for the treatment plant, with ever-increasing frequency.  That happens in part, it said, because engineers and planners have tried to beat back rather than tame the water.

Instead of dikes and barriers that may become obsolete as sea levels rise, why not replace concrete streets in low-lying areas with permeable surfaces that allow water to seep through rather than flow into basements; rebuild marshlands that stretch out into the waterways; create artificial islands to act as "speed bumps" for storm surges; create artificial reefs out of old subway cars; and build oyster beds that slow down swift-moving currents and host other marine life.

There is precedent for the kind of massive infrastructure project it would take to create this resilient, water-friendly coastal environment. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, engineers found ways to insulate buildings, bridges and roads from earthquakes. New York could similarly re-invent and transform flood control.

The dialogue about water and the city has been going on since MoMA's 2010 show, Rising Currents, which envisioned a more water-friendly New York future -- with places like the salt marshes and the riprap edges now seen in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The devastation of Hurricane Sandy fast-forwarded a once-academic discussion about the water around us, making it practical. The resilient, marshy shoreline that could come out of that discussion would be a bargain compared to what Sandy is costing us.

The article from New York Magazine.

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