02. November 2012 / Susannah C. Drake

New York waterfronts after Sandy

After super-storm Sandy the New York based landscape architect Susannah C. Drake explored her neighbourhoods, thinking of how planners can prepare our cities for similar weather events in the future:

Two days after super-storm Sandy touched ground in New Jersey, and wrought unprecedented damage in New York City and along much of the East coast, I toured the area around the Gowanus Canal on the best mode of transport available in New York City, a bike. The Gowanus is a notoriously toxic post-industrial superfund site in Brooklyn, that because of its history as a tidal wetland, is prone to flooding. With transportation systems hobbled and many areas of the city dark, the landscape of the pedestrian and bicyclist is critical to the rebirth of the city after the storm. This space is infrastructure that is at once a critical component of a multifaceted approach to urban mobility and a potentially opportune place to design for about urban resilience.

View of the East Village after the explosion at the power plant that shut down all power, 29 October. Photo: Alexander Rea

The canal water, like all the water bodies in New York City, was pushed out of its banks by the huge storm surge of Sandy, flooding the surrounding area. Streets that end at the canal for more than a block in each direction were littered with debris and the foul odor of the polluted water filled with pathogens, petrochemical waste and other toxic substances. And while the flooding near the canal did not result in the extreme damage seen in so many areas in the region, it helped to give rise to a growing chorus of concern and questions by political leaders, scientists and designers about how we can plan for similar weather events in the future.

Hurricane Sandy viewed in the dark of night, 28 October. Photo: NASA

What is enough infrastructure when it comes to dealing with the rising surge of ocean and river water, and the fall of rain water on the land? Engineered flood control systems are designed with reasonable levels of safety, based on anticipated storm impacts. Projections about sea level rise and effects of flooding, wind, and storm surge are based on historic data. However, climate change is not happening on a linear basis. Burning of fossil fuels since the onset of the industrial revolution has resulted in exponential increases in global temperatures that are not consistent with a geologic reading of climatic shifts.

No traffic on the FDR Drive in Lower Manhattan, 29 October. Photo: Wandering the World/flickr.com

New York is well served by public transportation. We have a power grid that is reliable and hidden below the ground. We have tremendous engineered systems that were designed in some cases over a century ago. Realities are different today. Real estate is more valuable, roads and subways are operating at their capacity, sewer systems are stretched and at the same time, storms are becoming more frequent. Our infrastructure needs radical rethinking to make urban and natural systems perform in concert with one another in denser better organized cross section of the city.

Escalator under water at South Ferry subway, 30 October. Photo: MTAphotos/flickr.com

Deploying a hybrid combination of hard engineered solutions and networks of green infrastructure, as presented in the 2010 Museum of Modern Art, "Rising Currents," exhibition is an important step forward. As the exhibition suggested, sea levels are rising, and flood waters will come, and there is an opportunity for a radical rethinking of our experience of the city through the development of new street typologies that absorb, hold and distribute these fresh and salt water flows. This in combination with new hybrid soft/hard edge strategies for the waterfront, waterproof vaults for utilities, redesign of subway venting and entrances and development of wave attenuation landscapes can help to ameliorate the impact of future storms.

Typical damages in Brooklyn after the super-storm Sandy. Photos: Susannah C. Drake

Susannah C. Drake, the author of this article, is principal of the New York based practice dlandstudio as well as professor and Senior Associate of the Institute for Sustainable Design at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.


Photo on start page: Stefan Leijon, Photo on top: Warmsleepy/flickr.com

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