As people blow dry the mold from basement walls and vacuum Sandy from corners and carpets, city activists gathered in a forum sponsored by the Municipal Art Society and Columbia University’s Center for Urban Real Estate, called “Sink or Swim: Waterfront Restoration in a Post-Sandy Era.”
Two of President Obama’s cabinet members spoke at the December 13 event, Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan.
Donovan emphasized smart rebuilding, public and private partnerships and long-range thinking about the water’s edge. He seemed aware that the future would not look precisely the same, and said people should be prepared to reconsider the relationships between land and water in innovative ways in the coming age of dramatic climate change, saying that the plan should put us on the path of a more sustainable future. Applause greeted his definition of the relationship of localities and the Federal government: “We don’t leave individual communities to pick up the pieces after a disaster: we lift up individual communities as a nation.”
The panel that followed his comments included Kate Orff of the Scape Studio, whose work includes projects proposing artificial oyster reefs in the New York Harbor that could calm the impact of incoming wave surges. Her discussion was framed in response to various scenarios which could call for big infrastructure, like a barrier across the entrance to the harbor. But she was more interested in the sort of hybrid solutions that combined natural resources and habitat with “soft infrastructure.”
These types of proposals were displayed in a 2010 show at the Museum of Modern Art called “Rising Currents.” Proposals included remaking wetlands as buffers between land and sea that would act as sponges to absorb water. Several of the projects use fabricated ecology to create slower water, paying attention to dunes, wetlands, reefs and islands. The landscape architects of the Scape Studio calls the artificial oyster reefs “oyster-tecture” and touts the ability of the oysters to clean as well as
Eugenie Birch, an urban planner pointed out that New York City actually had many of the tools it needs already in hand to create effective responses. She called for integration of information in PlaNYC 2030, Environmental Impact Statements, Natural Hazards Mitigation Plans, Waterfront Revitalization Programs and Vision 2020 Report, and said the issue is information coordination, leadership and action.
Paul Farmer, head of American Planning Association and known for his work on Hurricane Katrina and Haiti, emphasized that water management to keep water in place is a day-to-day task, not an emergency response. He said that multiple defenses are more likely to succeed.
His thoughts were echoed by the Dutch Delta Commissioner for Flood Risk Management in the Netherlands, Jos Van Alphen. He outlined ways in which protection, planning, damage reduction, land use policy and disaster management provide layers of social policies that help the Dutch respond to nine million people living below flood levels. Van Alphen’s presentation showed how social planning had a daily impact, drew on a constant stream of investment and was revised and updated to respond to changes in science and environmental thinking.
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