On Hurricane Sandy’s One Year Anniversary, 10 Brilliant Proposals For Resilient Urban Coasts

Steven Thomson Steven Thomson

Today, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s downfall in the New York City region, represents an appropriate moment to reflect on the storm’s victims. But it also gives us an opportunity to envision a future, more resilient Atlantic megalopolis that can withstand the rising tide of climate change.

In accord with Sandy’s birthday, a collection of vastly innovative design proposals for the region have been unveiled by Rebuild by Design, an initiative of the President’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and involving a string of city-centric organizations, including NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge, the Municipal Art Society, the Regional Plan Association, and the Van Alen Institute.

At a time when the term “resiliency” is thrown around New York City as casually as “don’t touch me” or the stray F-bomb, the Rebuild by Design program proves that progressive regional planning for climate change post-Sandy can become a reality. This isn’t just the fantastic vision for protecting a privileged set of Mahattanites—we’re stepping on the testing grounds for issues urban regions worldwide must confront immediately.

The futures imagined here take into consideration the global reality that climate catastrophe means more than floods and winds. We’ve scoured the 41 Rebuild by Design proposals by international firms, and selected ten ideas that interrogate urgent urban challenges—ranging from socioeconomic segregation and outdated infrastructure, to reconciling animal habitats and creating vibrant exurban public spaces—that all came to the fore after Sandy.

The Big U by BIG

Bjarke Ingels’s team tackled the project with an “approach rooted in social infrastructure and hedonistic sustainability” that crossbreeds public infrastructure with social plans. A new U subway would loop around the tip of Manhattan from the east and west edges of midtown. On top of the new train line, BIG advocates for incremental, community-driven interventions such as using an elevated FDR highway or art installations as aesthetically-driven levees. The results would be the love child of Robert Moses’s ambitious construction plans and Jane Jacobs’s neighborhood ethos.

Infrastructure Catalyst by OMA

With a broad base of knowledge from the Netherlands’ coastal engineering and highly trafficked airport, OMA suggests reconsidering the Jamaica Bay region, anchored by JFK International, as a new aerotropolis. Adding a hard wall along the airport terminals would prevent choking flights during a crisis while providing a dry refuge to residents of this area of Queens, whose collective acreage equals that of Manhattan. Staying true to the firm’s conceptual bent, OMA’s proposal dictates areas by citing iconic geographies: rethinking the airport as a Roman forum, a swath of continuous green space as Central Park, a residential stretch as La Ville Radieuse, and a serene coastal zone as Martha’s Vineyard.

Living, Growing Breakwaters: Staten Island and the Inner Harbor by SCAPE/LANDSCAPE Architecture

Are oysters the aphrodisiac of sustainable cities? Oyster reefs once populated large expanses of the region’s coast, and SCAPE/LANDSCAPE is looking to reinstate these habitats as an organic protective breakwater that can dissipate up to 32% of wave energy, clean harbor waters, and offer a source of ecological education with the presence of floating classrooms.

A Sensible and Equitable Risk Assessment System by WXY/West8

“New Venice” is the name of a new barrier island that WXY/West8 would like built offshore, effectively turning New York Harbor into the New York/New Jersey Sound. A seawall lined with wind farms would give way to highly articulated mature estuarine, terrestrial, and maritime habitats.

Barrier Island bySasaki/Rutgers/Arup

New Jersey’s beloved pleasure piers could migrate inward without sacrificing the joy of coastal nature. This proposal advocates extended amusement areas from the beach inward to the pine forests along the shore, representing a stable direction for development.

Making Resilient Districts by MIT+ZUS+URBANISTEN

Could the Meadowlands region east of Jersey City be redeveloped as a sixth borough? Currently a brownfield, the area would balance new residential density fueled by its proximity to Manhattan, while re-instituting parts of the original landscape to absorb water and host civic programs. MIT+ZUS+URBANISTEN also propose connecting New Jersey with the first pedestrian bridge over the Hudson, which would also serve as an evacuation route for downtown Manhattan residents.

Dense Urban Edge: Red Hook, Brooklyn, by HR&A Advisors, Inc. with Cooper, Robertson & Partners

“In Red Hook, Short on Time, and Kale” read a New York Times headline last October as Sandy was mere miles from the Brooklyn shore. But this post-industrial neighborhood is more than a trend piece, as Sandy revealed the poor conditions of its public housing projects that hover above the new IKEA and blocks of wine bars and lobster roll eateries. HR&A’s team proposes more colorful street life to create a coherent community, with new public housing to assist ground floor tenants, and sidewalk-level commercial spaces that are easily converted into floodable space in the event of a storm.

Living with the Bay: Options for Southern Nassau County by Interboro Partners

For southern Long Island, it was Sandy’s backend that proved the most damaging. While images of crashing Atlantic waves clogged TV screens, the subsequent 14-feet storm surge and torrential rains raised the inner bay’s water levels, flooding houses and the Nassau County Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant from behind. To prevent billions of gallons of sewage gushing into public waterways again, Interboro proposes to build a protective berm around the plant that doubles as a recreational amenity. Their plan also sees a system of “straws” along north/south streets that could help drain the bay during tidal surges, and serve as a green community spine on less rainy days.

Securing the Point with Lifelines: Hunts Point by PennDesign/OLIN

Hunts Point, the most integral node for food distribution in New York City, operates under the radar even though this section of the Bronx provides 25,000 jobs and $3 billion in annual direct economic activity. PennDesign/OLIN reinterpret typical flood controls for community contexts—a so-called “social levee” featuring a former marine transfer station converted to a Resilient Design and Research Center. The firm also suggests inserting a green canal to connect the community to the river and intercept storm water.

Green Collar Institute: Bridgeport, CT by Unabridged Coastal Collective

Bridgeport, Connecticut, boasts a university and the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Seaside Park, yet also suffers from environmental degradation and low edges. A Green Collar Institute is being proposed to draw upon the school’s resources and train locals for green industrial processes, building retrofitting, construction disassembly and salvage, and site remediation. Satellite projects would keep the institute’s pursuits at a local scale with such initiatives as renewable energy generation and complete street connections to downtown Bridgeport.

Liked this story? Check out How to Build a More Resilient NYC, The Race To Revive The Rockaways, and How Skateboarders Can Save Your Neighborhood From Drowning.

Top image via OMA and Rebuild by Design.