What If…We Could Save Our Coastal Cities by Treating Land Like Water?

F.R.E.D, an award-winning rethinking of a coastal community in New York City, respond to nature’s ebb and flow—not against it.

All images Ennead Lab/Ennead Architects

Whether we are vacationing at its shores, working in its harbors, or building along its many edges, we are drawn to water.

Unsurprisingly, many of our greatest cities sit on the banks of rivers, marshes, harbors, and oceans.  Because of the many trade routes that rely on water, these cities and their surrounding regions are home to some of the world’s most active economies.  A recent study by the World Bank reports that the costs of flood damage to large coastal areas could rise to $1 trillion a year if cities don’t take steps to adapt. And that figure doesn’t begin to address the potential cost of human life as well.

We have a lot to lose, yet despite the increasing risks posed by flooding, people continue to develop waterfront sites. Even a storm as devastating as Hurricane Sandy could not permanently move most coastal communities or property owners.  Given this fact, what role can designers play as development comes up against the growing threat of climate change and rising sea levels?

Most designers (and policy makers) focus on one of two diametrically-opposed options: fight the water with heavy infrastructures and fortifications or retreat to higher ground.

Granted, in densely populated locations such as Manhattan, there are few options: some form of levee system, heavy infrastructural solution, or other fortification—like those proposed in the Big U project—will be necessary. In sparsely-populated coastal communities up and down the eastern seaboard, the retreat and re-building of communities farther from the water’s edge is potentially actionable.  But, what about all the other locations, moderately populated and conveniently located within commuting distance to major urban centers, where communities are going to re-build and expand whether it’s advisable or not?  In these locations, are heavy fortifications the right approach?  A recent article in the New York Times rightly highlights the many financial and engineering challenges confronting these approaches. Is this really the right path forward?

We believe there is a third alternative.  What if we stopped fighting nature and started accepting its fluidity as the given context of our coastal community designs?  Can we find opportunities to adapt existing communities and create new ones that not only survive, but even thrive as a result of their designed response to shifting coastal conditions?

Aerial View of F.R.E.D. shown on the FARROC Competition site.

These are the questions our team grappled with while designing F.R.E.D, an Ennead Lab  project that began as a response to the FARROC Competition, a post-Hurricane Sandy call-for-ideas for an eighty-acre beachfront site in the Rockaways.  F.R.E.D., an acronym for Fostering Resilient Ecological Development, was awarded the Jury Prize for Leading Innovation in Resilient Waterfront Development and just this Spring won an Architizer A+ award for its innovative approach.  

F.R.E.D. isn’t a bespoke design for a single site, but rather a whole-systems approach for coastal communities, a potential model for resilient, sustainable, mixed-income neighborhoods that can serve its inhabitants both today and for generations to come.  F.R.E.D. embraces a conceptual shift that blurs the dichotomy of wet vs. dry; as opposed to an ideology grounded in the notion of terra firma, whose components include single-purpose expensive infrastructure and landfilling to create hard, elevated edges, F.R.E.D. embraces the natural flow and fluidity of water.

As an architectural design, F.R.E.D. is a kit of parts, composed of three primary components; dunes, piers and housing clusters. This kit proposes four principle design recommendations for coastal sites: Lift it up; get close; get connected; and finally, let the water in.

First and foremost, this design follows current federal regulations and lifts most construction above the flood elevation.  In doing so, the design creates a practically-uninterrupted protective dune-scape, similar to the site’s original barrier island landscapes.  A progression of micro-environments extends across the site, beginning at the beach, where primary and secondary dunes provide the site’s principal storm protection from direct waves.  The landscape slowly evolves as it moves inland, progressing to hardier and more stable shrub land and maritime forest on the higher ground.  Throughout the site, low-lying wet meadows serve as bio retention areas to collect and filter stormwater.  Together, this dynamic landscape protects the neighborhood from wave energy, replenishes the beach, manages surface water, and sponsors habitat opportunities.  

Diagrammatic Section through the dune-scape and one of the typical housing clusters.

In order to maximize the amount of surface area available for this working landscape, the design recommends dense clusters of housing interspersed across the site and connected by a series of elevated piers and walkways.  These connective paths create a new typology of pedestrian street, while also providing elevated and protected routes for the community’s electric, data, and other infrastructures, keeping these vital utilities out of the reach of future flood waters.

These elevated pathways converge on three pedestrian piers.  Aligned with the site’s existing street grid, they organize pedestrian and vehicular access, utility distribution, and retail activity, creating three main pedestrian connections between the elevated A train at the north edge of the site, and the beach and boardwalk to the south.  If sea-level rise eventually brings regular tidal flooding from Jamaica Bay, these piers and their network of elevated pathways will allow the neighborhood to adapt as a predominantly pedestrian community, connected to the rest of NYC by elevated subway and future ferry service. 

Together, these systems of dunes, piers, and housing clusters create a new way to live at the water’s edge. Rather than keeping the water at bay, F.R.E.D. accepts water onto the site and creates new character-defining spaces that support community uses and provide amenities for both F.R.E.D. residents and the surrounding existing communities, while also functioning as protective landscapes in times of tidal and storm-related flooding.  

As architects and urban designers, we believe the “fight” against rising sea levels is a misnomer.  It is not so much a fight as it is a dance, asking us as designers to develop a choreography of architectural and urban design strategies that respond to nature’s ebb and flow. If done right, flood protection does not need to mean a constant battle against rising tides and shifting sands.  Frankly, that’s a battle we won’t likely win in the long run.  Architecture’s survival in the wetter landscape of the future depends on our ability to embrace the idea of water as ground. Within that framework, we can use our tools as architects and engineers to imagine a future that goes beyond dry land engineering solutions toward a vision of flow and fluidity in our built environments.

Three main pedestrian piers traverse the site, connecting the elevated A Train to the beach and boardwalk to the south.

If you liked this article, then check out “What If…Infrastructure Could Engender Public Trust?”

Dalia Hamati is a designer at Ennead Architects, and a member of Ennead Lab’s F.R.E.D. design team.

Andrew Burdick is associate partner at Ennead Architects and the director of Ennead Lab. This series—titled What If…?—focuses on design opportunities and their potential impact. 

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