So, all that speculation around the “Rising Currents” show at the Museum of Modern Art about the inundation of New York—not so speculative, right? And all those new waterfront parks designed to submerge against hopes they never would? Well, they did submerge, some more than others. The designers are starting to see the results. Whether most of the civilian world was thinking much of New York’s capacity for major flooding, there have been landscape architects, architects, planners, and public officials thinking about it for several years now. This week, with Hurricane Sandy, the thinking has been put to a harsh test across the city and a huge section of the mid-Atlantic region.
“Yes, this really can happen,” says Catherine Seavitt, ASLA, one of the people who helped get all this thinking started among designers. In 2009, Seavitt published an ambitious proposal with the engineer Guy Nordenson and the architect Adam Yarinsky for “soft infrastructure” around the Upper Bay of New York and New Jersey to show ways to counter the effects of sea-level rise in a big coastal city. The proposal, called On the Water/Palisade Bay, anticipated a catastrophe much like the one that occurred this week. The project, funded by a Latrobe Prize given by the American Institute of Architects, began in 2007, when “hurricanes weren’t on anyone’s radar” in New York, Seavitt says. But On the Water went on to inspire the 2010 MoMA show, “Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront,” which posed structural ideas for coping with climate change in cities. People have been talking about it ever since.
Susannah Drake, ASLA, the principal of dlandstudio and one of several landscape architects who led a design team for the MoMA exhibition (with Yarinsky and his partner, Stephen Cassell, of Architecture Research Office), has been getting calls from the New York Times and Bloomberg this week, among other media. “It was a sort of an, Oh my god, we were so right moment when all the electrical transformers started to blow up,” Drake says. “They need my waterproof vaults to put the infrastructure under the sidewalks.”
For the MoMA show, Drake’s team rearranged much of lower Manhattan’s infrastructure in anticipation of a heavy saltwater soaking, with three kinds of streets designed to take huge amounts of water, and, of course, her system of protected electrical vaults. “It’d be everywhere—make it all waterproof,” she says. “The city was looking at all these fuzzy green edges and green swales, all of which is great low-hanging fruit, but this is a combination of engineering and landscape design. It’s expensive and complicated.” As is having one-third of the city without power for at least two days.
Designers of New York’s new waterfront parks, which have been a huge part of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s plan to transform the city, are taking stock of what they’ve kept and what they’ve lost. Signe Nielsen, FASLA, of the landscape architecture firm Mathews Nielsen, has checked out her section of Hudson River Park in Tribeca, and sounded pretty sanguine about it. “The pier for the most part fared well. It was completely inundated,” she says. “The biggest crisis was in this one area where the Styrofoam under the pavement had water underneath and pushed the Styrofoam up and completely destroyed all the paving.” One shallow-rooted tree came down. Nielsen said that in looking around the city, she noted that the trees already bare were fine; those blown over had leaves. “A lesson we learned some time ago is to use very small-leaved trees, and salt-resistant too—zelkova, honey locust, hackberry.” Callery pears were down all over the city, Nielsen says, unsurprised.
Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, had been to the edge of Brooklyn Bridge Park on Tuesday, the day after the storm, and things seemed not to have broken or eroded much. Many of the plantings are elevated, but some were close to the edge, planted to meet a tide. He wondered how they will come out. “It depends on how long the salt water was there. It wasn’t five minutes, and it wasn’t six hours,” he says. (A surreal image of Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park, surrounded by water inside its pavilion designed by the architect Jean Nouvel, made its way around Twitter this week.)
But when we spoke, Van Valkenburgh still hadn’t been to Teardrop Park in Battery Park City, Pier C Park in Hoboken (which is basically a small island in the Hudson River), or his Segment 5 of Hudson River Park. “You know when your dog runs out in the road and gets hit by a car? This is that kind of feeling,” he says.
Governors Island is, of course, surrounded by water just south of the Battery, where the surge rose to nearly 14 feet, higher than that seen during Hurricane Donna in 1960. West 8 is building out the first phase of its master plan for a new park on the island, which won a 2012 ASLA Professional Award for Analysis and Planning and is scheduled to open next year. Leslie Koch, the president of the Trust for Governors Island, says a small number of trees are lost and there is “a lot of debris” on the island, including shipping containers, but that the original historic areas of the island were above the surge. “It’s all intact,” Koch says. “The point of the proposal was to raise the lower south island. We’re building 30 acres above that. The island’s already higher than it would have been.”
Ken Smith, FASLA, says in an email that he had not been to his East River Waterfront Esplanade and Piers, designed with SHoP Architects, but that a member of his staff, John Ridenour, had gone to see it and reported that the fixtures and plantings were “in pretty good shape.” Ridenour added that there had been an oil spill somewhere on the water, and the whole area reeked of petroleum. “The East River Waterfront is mostly pretty durable design,” Smith writes, “and the plantings are relatively salt-tolerant since they regularly get some degree of salt spray.”
Uptown, along the Hudson at Riverside Park South, Thomas Balsley, FASLA, said his design lost some riprap, but “all is well,” though he sent a picture (top of post) that shows a bit of cleanup will be needed. His other waterfront projects around the city, including Hunters Point South Park 9, designed with the architects Weiss Manfredi and still under construction, were fine, as is Balsley’s West Shore Park in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
All of these waterfront spaces have had a good amount of surge resistance baked into them. Catherine Seavitt says that the close call with Hurricane Irene in 2011 reminded people generally that sea level rise is something to take seriously in a densely populated port city. In the wake of Sandy, Seavitt says, she has seen very little she didn’t expect, having pored a lot over 100- and 500-year flood maps—though she was curious about flooding around East 96th Street between First and Second avenues. The Viele map of 1865 shows a marshy area with a small stream that flows from what is now the Harlem Meer in Central Park. “There are all these old watercourses where water wants to go,” Seavitt said. “It’s pretty straightforward.”