Hope Floats

Architects find promise in New York’s rising sea levels.

Sometime between now and 2100, a storm will dump 18 feet of seawater into lower Manhattan, flooding much of the financial district, Battery Park, and most of the subway stations south of Rector Street. Six hundred oil tanks in Bayonne, New Jersey, will be inundated. And all but a nub of Liberty State Park, the landfill opposite Ellis Island, will disappear into the harbor. That’s the grim forecast for New York. But leave it to architects to see the threat of climatic apocalypse as a good thing.

“We think of climate change as an opportunity,” Adam Yarinksy, of Architecture Research Office, says. Yarinksy led one of five local design teams commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art last November to steel the New York–New Jersey waterfront against rising sea levels and increasingly frequent (and frequently Biblical) storms. The proposals aren’t just high-design defenses. They consider everything from sewers and ferry lines to artificial islands and wave-busting oyster farms.

Featured this month at MoMA in the exhibition Rising Currents, the concepts stand as an optimistic rebuke to the government’s stopgap approach to public infrastructure. Whereas the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers erects concrete dams and levees, these architects favor broad solutions that reconfigure the social, economic, political, and natural landscape. “This is not an exercise simply in problem solving,” says the MoMA curator Barry Bergdoll, “but an unleashing of a new vision of how we live in a 21st- and 22nd-century city.”

It was a failed 20th-century vision that spawned the idea in the first place. After visiting New Orleans post-Katrina, when its levees were in tatters, the New York engineer Guy Nordenson set about studying the effects of global warming on his own fair city. The research, which forms the backbone of Rising Currents, concluded that fortification isn’t enough; natural systems like reefs and marshlands are imperative too. (Recall that eroded wetlands gave Katrina a red carpet into New Orleans.)

The architects’ proposals reflect as much. Architecture Research Office recommends engineering water-absorbing streets and marshlands around southern Manhattan to keep sewage out of New York Harbor every time the sky sheds a raindrop—a problem that will only grow with each new inch of seawater. Matthew Baird Design wants to use dredged harbor soil as a berm for Bayonne’s shoreline. That, coupled with a glass reef manufactured in repurposed warehouses along the pier, would form a bulwark against monster surf, not to mention generate jobs in a town desperate for new industry. Scape Landscape Architecture suggests turning Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal into an oyster nursery. Oyster agglomerations deep underwater naturally soften waves. What’s more, they can filter some 50 gallons of dirty water a day and, in doing so, might revive the canal’s decimated marine habitat.

Pie in the sky? Certainly. But that’s the point. The old Band-Aid defenses don’t work, as New Orleans made abundantly clear. Rising Currents floats an alternative that both confronts climate change and, in the best sense of the word, exploits it.

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