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article imageOp-Ed: Protecting New York in future — Sandy created some ideas, too

By Paul Wallis     Nov 3, 2012 in Environment
New York - The giant storm Sandy was perhaps the single biggest hit New York has ever taken. It exposed a lot of weak points, and some very serious risks for rising water levels. The question is how to protect the city, and some interesting ideas have emerged.
Rising sea levels, weak points in the underground bedrock, power grid failures, you name it, Sandy found just about all the problems. The problem for New York, as for so many cities on the shores, is that its geography is working against it. It needs options, and it needs them ASAP.
The New York Times:
If, as climate experts say, sea levels in the region have not only gradually increased, but are also likely to get higher as time goes by, then the question is: What is the way forward? Does the city continue to build ever-sturdier and ever-higher sea walls? Or does it accept the uncomfortable idea that parts of New York will occasionally flood and that the smarter method is to make the local infrastructure more elastic and better able to recover?
Sea walls are the traditional option. They work, too, although the size and cost of sea walls for NY’s complex coastline and the islands are a big problem. Having a large river on the other side of them could be an issue, too. City drainage is an extremely complex subject, and geographic realities often get in the way of the simplest options.
The new ideas, however, have a few benefits to go with them.
To prevent incursions by water, Mr. Cassell (architect for Architectural Research Office) and his planners imagined ringing Lower Manhattan with a grassy network of land-based parks accompanied by watery patches of wetlands and tidal salt marshes. At Battery Park, for instance, the marshes would weave through a series of breakwater islands made of geo-textile tubes and covered with marine plantings. On the Lower East Side of the island, Mr. Cassell and his team envisioned extending Manhattan by a block or two — with additional landfill — to create space for another new park and a salt marsh.
Beyond serving as recreation areas, these engineered green spaces would sop up and reduce the force of incoming water.
“When there’s a storm surge, it creates an enormous amount of energy,” Mr. Cassell said. “Wetlands absorb that energy and protect the coastline.”
This is a pillow instead of a brick, in terms of dealing with the realities of incoming water. The theory, and it’s a good one, well proven, is that the marshland will act as a soft barrier regulating water movement, sort of like a filter. (Underwater features affect currents at their base) The other advantage is creating a living system which can manage itself to a large degree instead of an eternal maintenance job.
Cassell also includes “porous concrete” to absorb water and better drainage options to take water away from the city. (For the record, integrated drainage systems like this do work very efficiently. Most of the flood damage you see around the world is caused simply because water isn’t drained off properly or quickly enough.)
Then there’s oysters-
Ms. Orff’s (Kate Orff, landscaper) proposal., created by a team at her design firm Scape/Landscape Architecture P.L.L.C., envisions a system of artificial reefs in the channel and the bay built out of rocks, shells and fuzzy rope that is intended to nurture the growth of oysters (she calls them “nature’s wave attenuators”).The idea here is to re-establish the equivalent of a small archipelago of offshore islands that used to exist around New York which were dredged out of existence. The oysters also filter water in huge quantities. They could improve offshore water quality enormously. This is also a comparatively cheap, doable now, option.
The exposed coast of New York now effectively sticks out into the unrestrained Atlantic. Reefs would make a very big difference, and again, they’re self-maintaining to a very large extent.
Storm surge barriers
Much battered Staten Island is another issue-
Lawrence J. Murphy, an engineer in the New York office of the global engineering firm CDM Smith, has come up with a storm surge barrier designed to cope with bigger storms than Sandy which could also be used as a public amenity, a useful touch to major structures to turn them into multi-faceted assets instead of eyesores.
He came up with a plan to build a classic storm-surge barrier across the Arthur Kill, the tidal strait that separates Staten Island from the mainland of New Jersey, designed to act in concert with similar barriers in the East River, the Narrows and the waters near the Rockaway Peninsula.
This idea also manages the “bath tub” effect of storm surges in confined spaces.
Large scale land reclamation- Another option with some permanent fixes
I'm a qualified landscaper myself. The bottom line here is that the city is just too close to sea level. There’s another option that hasn’t been mentioned: Land reclamation on a very large scale. This means “terraforming” New York, but it would also create space and create manageable landforms in the many low-lying vulnerable areas. New Jersey’s shoreline is almost dead level with sea level. It never had a hope in hell of avoiding a big surge.
The way to deal with that could be to do some massive land reclamation off the NY shore. In theory, you could build a barrier the size of the Ozarks and pay for it with all the new space you create. This sort of reclamation is just a bit more advanced than the basic Dutch system of reclamation and on a much bigger scale. You could create a land mass 100 feet above sea level, several miles of it, and create a living barrier, incorporating a natural environment and public assets as envisaged by the other suggestions.
I'd also strongly suggest integrating the three ideas above, complete with water access management for the harbor and some deep thought about handling freight. The economics of any protective move will have to also protect the city's lifelines. In effect, you'd get a layer cake of defences, combined with amenities and new assets for the city.
The cost of something like this would be huge, but compared to the likely costs of a Sandy every year or so, it’d be peanuts, and at least create major new space and value for the city. You could even include artificial islands like those luxury resorts around the Gulf and Maldives.
One way or another, a positive, building response to the threats of the future has to be better than just taking the hits. “Surrendering to the sea” would mean massive dislocations, huge losses for property owners, and chaotic redevelopment on any level from ad hoc to “gold rush” gouging.
New York needs to find a winning hand in this very expensive situation. It has the money card and the expertise. It needs clear values and long term options. The winning card will be vision.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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