In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, as communities band together to clean up the devastation and utility companies work tirelessly to restore the infrastructure that keeps New York City running, planners and policy makers are debating the next steps to making the city as resilient to natural disaster as we once thought it was. We have at our hands a range of options to debate and design and the political leverage to make some of these solutions a reality. The question now is, which option or combination of options is most suitable for protecting New York City and its boroughs? Follow us after the break for more.
The event of Hurricane Sandy reminds us that we are not immune to disaster. Lower Manhattan is built precariously on dirt and rock, its most precious assets jutting out into the tides of New York Bay. Hurricane Sandy proved that our infrastructure is not resilient, natural disasters are not biased and that, with our current measures, we are wholly unprepared for a similar occurrence. It’s true that scientists have called Sandy the “Frankenstorm” – a combination of worst case scenarios that turned the Category 1 hurricane into a thousand-diameter monster storm that reaped devastation all along the Atlantic Coast of the Americas. High Tide and a cold front fueled Sandy’s already powerful winds and caused unprecedented storm surges, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 19th century, along Jamaica Bay across Brooklyn and Queens and Manhattan’s exposed coast.
Here are some suggestions that have been addressed by New York Governor Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bloomberg, and various environmentalists, architects and engineers:
The solution that has gotten the most attention in the past few weeks is the introduction of sea gates into New York Bay. Following in Amsterdam’s footsteps, the sea gates would protect the low lying areas of NYC from flooding by creating a barrier that would stop water from flowing into the rivers during a surge. There are several missteps in this strategy: the sea gates will only protect New York Harbor leaving Jamaica Bay, the Rockaways, and Brighton Beach as exposed as they were during the storm. Many experts agree that this expensive and intrusive solution is not practical for the geography of New York City. Other ideas that have made headlines is a five-mile gateway that would protect parts of Long Island and New Jersey, operating as a series of gates and dikes, similar to a strategy employed in Amsterdam.
But environmental concerns about sea gates and barrier strategies in general have also surfaced. Philip Orton writes in the New York Times that such a move could compromise the ecosystems in the area: “[the] plan that has been presented would reduce exchanges of our city’s estuarine waters with the ocean, degrading water quality and changing temperature and salinity. This would have complex effects on our rebounding ecosystems and coastal fisheries”. If we are to choose, a solution that must be balanced between resilience and sustainability, there must be other options out there. Our modern infrastructure follows a methodology of resistance; our policies and strategies try to control and combat nature. But what we are seeing is that we cannot prepare for every natural disaster without compromising elements of our environment. Many environmentalists agree that a better strategy is to adapt and prepare, working within the realm of nature to protect our cities.”
So what solutions are out there? Some architects are devising plans to make the city more adaptable and resilient to such events. Architect Stephen Cassell of Architecture Research Office suggests using nature itself to respond to rising sea levels by extending Manhattan with wetlands that absorb the water and reduce its force as it approaches the city’s streets. Architect and Landscape designer Kate Oroff suggests a similar strategy using reefs and creating habitat for oysters within New York Harbor and off the Brooklyn/Queens coast. Such natural habitats can filter water and mitigate the force of a storm surge in a way that is similar to wetlands.
Small measures such as these have become more viable among planners and designers that can visualize a solution that is within reach and is within a framework of small steps that help protect against disasters and allow a city to rebound much more quickly. Waterproofing utility systems, watertight adaptations to subway entrances, and building codes that ban placing water heaters and electrical systems in cellars, are just a few small scale measures that could have greatly reduced the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy. Some more extreme suggestions is “managed retreat” which calls for moving people away from coastal areas altogether.
So as engineers, designers and planners, how do we defend ourselves for the next onslaught of unprecedented weather events? For every proposal, there is an argument that warns of its negative impacts and inefficiencies. The solution will likely be a combination of measures, preparedness being a top priority, and will entail collaboration on the part of politicians and scientists, engineers and designers, infrastructure and nature.