“Miles and miles of waterfront would be significantly altered for the worse if that project goes forward,” says Chris Reed, founding director at STOSS landscape architecture and a professor at Harvard’s graduate school of design. “It’s just stunning to see that kind of old-school thinking still in play.”
The key consideration when designing climate adapted waterfronts is “balancing resiliency with access” says Sanjukta Sen, a senior associate at James Corner Field Operations, speaking in her personal capacity. “The Army Corps’s preferred solution certainly doesn’t do that right now.”
Sen worked on recent waterfront park projects—like Greenpoint Landing and Gansevoort Peninsula—that would be sliced in half by the Corps’s seawalls. “Park space in New York is already very limited,” she explains. “Any solution shouldn’t make the waterfront experience suboptimal.”
Though there’s widespread agreement among designers and environmental advocates about the issues with the Corps’s plan, there’s disagreement on the solution. In their New York Times opinion article, Robert Yaro and Daniel Gutman advocated for the Corps to revisit an alternative option that would construct massive barriers at the entrances to New York harbor similar to those in London and Venice. That plan, they say, would provide more distributed protection to the entire region and reduce the need for seawalls in the city.
“The problem with the harbor barrier is that it’s only meant to guard against hurricane-level storm surges, not ordinary sea-level rise or floods caused by rainfall,” says Kate Boicourt, who works on coastal protection in the New York area for the environmental defense fund. It also has a major impact on ocean ecosystems and is very expensive to construct and maintain. “It’s an all eggs in one basket solution,” Boicourt explains.
Instead, Boicourt and like-minded designers like Sen want to see “a more integrated flood protection strategy” on the city’s waterfront, similar to the East Side Coastal Resiliency project already under construction next to FDR Drive in Manhattan. That could include folding flood barriers into the park landscape, adding natural tidal features, raising roadways, and potentially even buying out landowners in extremely at-risk areas.
No matter what, flood-proofing New York won’t come easy—or cheap. The East Side project, initially planned as a bare-bones flood barrier like the ones proposed by the Corps, more than doubled in cost when it adopted a more integrated design. “I don’t use the name Robert Moses lightly, but we’re already experiencing some of the largest changes since that era,” Boicourt says. “We are renegotiating our relationship with land and the built environment right now. And it’s hard.”