By Anthony Deen
The initial and most powerful impression of this exhibition is made by a simple chart at the entrance stating that over the next fifty years the water level in New York harbor could experience flood tides of as much as twenty feet. That’s both a surprising and frightening possibility, and given such a possibility the need for innovative and dramatic solutions to this potential crisis is very real. For those of us who live adjacent to the Gowanus, the potential for the canal combined with raw sewage to overflow is especially frightening.

Presented in the exhibit are solutions for five separate areas of the New York harbor categorized as Zones 1 through 5. Independent “boutique” architecture and landscape architecture practices were invited to address the issue of rising water levels during flood tight conditions. Each solution is unique - different from the others in every way. None lack for being innovative, but many come off as academic and either impractical or not sufficiently researched and rationalized. Several suffer from a complexity that no public/ private partnership could ever achieve them, rather than rational studies of how to address this pending problem. Given that these solutions are meant to be “shovel ready” this is a fatal failing for some of the design teams.

Of the five proposals I was most impressed with LTL Architects’s waterfront park for the zone making including Liberty State Park and a portion of the New Jersey port/ harbor. While I’ve previously enjoyed and respected LTL’s design work, I’ve also questioned their handicraft methodologies because it often seemed that their process necessarily limited the scale at which they could ever realistically work. This is not the case with their Zone 1 proposal. It is creative and aesthetically engaging yet focused and most importantly appears realistic - it looks like it would work. The solution enlarges the New Jersey coast line, raising it in places and infilling in others, ultimately creating over ten times the current land to water contact area. It’s a simple but dramatic solution that could be implemented by the public sector.

Kate Orff’s ScapeStudio was charged with Zone 4, the Gowanus Basin, and proposed a solution that’s been given the dubious name Oyster-tecture. Other groups have been looking at the reintroduction of oysters into local waterfronts because oysters have a natural filtration function that removes certain toxins and metals. It’s my understanding that these efforts have met with mixed results not to mention political resistance from ill informed local representative whose bias is a technological solution. It seems that at present the canal is too toxic to support the oysters for any period of time.

Unfortunately I came away from ScapeStudio’s solution in a NIMBY state of mind. ScapeStudio developed a number of programming elements for the canal - adding a water taxi landing, boat house, and storm water retention among others, which have been previously proposed by numerous designers and design studios. In other words nothing new or innovative there. Scape also proposed several forms of natural remediation, including the use of plants such as ell grass and creating giant oyster farms to filter both the water and soil of the canal and the bay. I appreciate that phytoremidiation is in vogue, and more so that it is a helpful method for cleaning waterways and limiting run-off, but I just don’t see it as a realistically effective solution to the level of pollution that exists in our canal. Additionally - and it could just be that I need to study this solution in greater detail - but I don’t see how oyster farms along a series of cable nets can slow flood water due to either climate change or a severe storm.

Not that oyster farms aren’t an interesting solution for programming the canal, but maybe that’s the problem with ScapeStudio’s proposal. It’s about programming the canal more than addressing the project’s original premise, rising water levels. And to be frank, we already have a number of interesting programming proposals for the canal, including some which are shovel ready and may actually be built. And in application giant nets for the oyster beds are pretty unattractive - not to be a NIMBY but can’t we just have a nice park?