Architects Propose ‘Soft Waterfront Infrastructure’ to Protect NYC From the Next Big Storm

by , 11/18/12

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Architecture Research Office initially came up with this proposal in 2011 in response to the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, but obviously the devastation wrecked by Hurricane Sandy was far worse, and should be seen as a wake-up call to city, state and national governments. While we should all be thankful that Hurricane Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm when it reached NYC, the storm still managed to leave behind a path of destruction all over the city and caused major flooding throughout upstate. Hurricane Sandy, on the other hand, wiped out the power of over 8 million people, and destroyed thousands of homes and buildings. As climate change causes sea-levels to rise and increases the intensity of deadly super-storms like Sandy, New York City is going to face the threat of rising water more and more frequently, and we need to plan accordingly.

As major institutes work to find a solution to upgrade NYC’s centuries old infrastructure and sewage system, Adam Yarinsky, principle of the Architecture Research Office (ARO), believes that a greener, more natural solution is just what we need.

“We wanted to think about how the city could live with the larger natural phenomenon instead of walling it off,” said Yarinsky in an interview with Fast Co. Design. He added, “It’s about wetlands edges, green edges, and basically allowing water to come into select areas of the city.”

Back in 2010, the architecture group – consisting of ARO,dlandstudio, LTL Architects, Matthew Baird Architects, nARCHITECTS, and SCAPE – shared their ideas at the MoMA as part of an exhibition called Rising Currents: Project’s For New York’s Waterfront, in an effort to “rethink the design of lower Manhattan.” According to ARO, sea levels will rise by 6 feet by 2100 due to melting polar ice caps, which will cause a 21 percent inundation of Lower Manhattan at high tide. Should NYC be unfortunate enough to be struck by a Category 2 hurricane, it would stir up storm surges of 24 feet above the projected 6 foot sea level, flooding the area by 61 percent.

The architects, however, came up with a solution. “In lieu of a literal wall around lower Manhattan, which would cost millions of dollars but would only perform in a flood, we proposed an ecological infrastructure that would allow water in and out of lower Manhattan,” Yarinsky says. “We’re thinking about a continuum of land and water.”

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In order to do this, islands and marshes would be constructed along the edges of the city to diminish the force of storm surges, and streets would have porous pavement which would prevent the city from shutting down in the event of a flood. Gas, electric, sewage, water infrastructure would be relocated to waterproof vaults beneath the sidewalk. Roads and buildings would be renovated in order to have more greenery for absorbing and storing rainwater.

Although this won’t prevent flooding (remember that sea levels would have risen by then), the point of the new design is to control flooding more effectively without shutting the city down. As Yarinsky explains,“It’s about mitigating the impact of flooding on the city, and living with the fact that there are times when the city would flood.”

The design is not only exciting and innovating, but aesthetically pleasing as well. It combines natural forms of green infrastructure with the urban landscape which would give the aging concrete jungle a lush makeover. But all good things come with a price. In order to undertake such a grand project, the city would need to make a serious investment in both time and money. And as most New Yorkers will tell you, even minor road projects take a lot of time to complete.

There is still some hope for the future, however. Thanks to the various green initiatives like PlaNYC and other centralized neighborhood projects, it isn’t too crazy to say that soft infrastructure could be implemented in the not too far off future. The fact that we’re already developing innovative green solutions to our climate change problem is certainly reassuring.

+ Architecture Research Office (ARO)

* this article was originally published in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in 2011. It has been edited and updated to reflect New York City’s new reality and attention to flood-prevent issues, post Hurricane Sandy in 2012.


1 Comment

  1. feline74 March 15, 2012 at 5:16 pm
    Another idea: restore the old streams that were roofed over to make storm sewers. Their potential capacity is increased and the city gets more parkland in the process.