NEW YORK -- What would New York's waterfront look like after a sea level rise of 2 feet or more?
Most officials paint a nightmare scenario -- huge swaths of expensive real estate permanently flooded, with frequent storms and the resultant storm surge routinely forcing mass evacuations every few years. But several architects are now painting a more positive picture, and their visions for a post-climate-change new New York have city planners interested.
This weekend, the public was given its first glimpse of a project a year in the making: a collaboration between the Museum of Modern Art and its affiliate P.S.1, an art exhibition house. The museums have asked five separate architectural teams to come up with plans for transforming the metropolitan area's coastlines after warmer oceans and melting Antarctic ice have raised global sea levels, something many scientists predict is inevitable.
A full exhibit opens at MoMA on March 24, but what the teams are already coming up with has people talking. They envision a city lined with marshes, permeable coastlines, and oyster farms used as wave breaks. To adapt to climate change, the teams are asking New Yorkers to look at things in a more positive light -- namely, as a chance to bring a city famous for blocking out the ocean back to dealing with it.
The idea is to "exploit the problem at hand with new opportunities," P.S.1 director Klaus Biesenbach told an audience at an opening presentation on Saturday. "It's an optimistic gesture."
The architects aren't asked to paint sea level rise as a positive thing, but instead to propose ways for the city to make the city more resilient and to make the best out of a bad situation. The teams acknowledge that if predictions of a rise of 2 feet or more over the next several decades prove correct, large chunks of the city that are now populated will have to be permanently abandoned to the ocean. But allowing the sea to once again creep into city space doesn't necessarily have to be all negative, they say.
Venice in Gotham
For instance, Team 0, charged with redesigning Lower Manhattan, takes partial inspiration from Venice, proposing that certain streets in the low-lying areas be reconfigured to purposely allow water in at high tide. The team also sees an opportunity to turn Battery Park into wetlands and bring the residential areas closer to new aquatic green space.
It's "an opportunity to create new ecological infrastructure," said Adam Yarinsky, a Team 0 member and a principal at Architecture Research Office. Looking back at history, one finds that parts of Lower Manhattan were frequently inundated at high tide and during storms before the seawalls ringing much of the island were built. Climate change affords the city an opportunity to end this "oppositional relationship," he said.
Liberty State Park in New Jersey, famous as a launching pad for trips to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, could similarly be transformed. At least 68 percent of it will be lost if the ocean rises by at least 2 feet. But most of the park is artificial, created almost entirely with reclaimed land. Jersey City may have to accept losing much of it again, but what's left can be transformed into finger-like bits of land that jut out into the ocean, maximizing the amount of coastline and making it more absorptive, according to plans laid out by the Manhattan firm LTL Architects.
"A new, amphibious landscape" can be created there, said Team 1's David Lewis. Lewis' team also proposes that the flooded park could be equipped with piers and a nature viewing platform, to maintain public access and educate visitors about wetlands. Sections could even be set aside for scientists to conduct research on urban coastal adaptation, experimenting with different varieties of plants to see how well they interact with the changed coastline.
Gena Wirth, a design team member at SCAPE/Landscape Architecture, said the city government is showing great interest in incorporating some of the teams' ideas. City officials have been briefed on the five plans -- which cover the bottom tip of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, Staten Island and New Jersey -- and seem to be taking them into serious consideration as they develop their own climate adaptation plans.
Back to the future with oyster farms
"Each team has kind of chosen their individual way of interpreting [climate projection] information and how they've addressed it," said Wirth. "There's actually been a lot of city officials coming in: The mayor's office of sustainability and long-term planning were in looking at the project ... the environmental regulatory agencies have been coming in a different points. There's been a lot of interest."
Her team even sees an opportunity in climate change to revive a historic New York City industry that was abandoned long ago as development took over the shoreline. It is conducting experiments with oyster farming near the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, to determine how efficient the water-filtering mollusks are at cleaning up the city's polluted discharge.
Oyster farms once thrived here in the late 1700s, and they could again, given enough time. Oyster farming platforms strategically situated off the mouth of the Gowanus Canal would prevent storm surges from ruining populated areas, the team says. And with planned pollution controls, entrepreneurs may once again be growing large quantities of edible, New York City-bred oysters, clams and mussels by 2050.
The new exhibit, titled "Rising Currents: Projects for New York's Waterfont," will run from March 24 to Aug. 9 at the Museum of Modern Art.
Correction: Yarinsky is a principal at Architecture Research Office. An earlier version incorrectly stated his affiliation.