Last March, MoMA opened an exhibit on how to adapt New York City to the watery effects of climate change. Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront was strangely clairvoyant. Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm before it sauntered into New York and didn’t flood the city the way experts feared. But for the first time, New York City had to face the fact that its infrastructure was deeply vulnerable to a major storm. And it’ll only get worse as the city gets wetter and its weather gets wilder in the age of climate change.That’s a design problem. (For evidence, just look to the mega-huge failure of design during Hurricane Katrina.) So it’s worth revisiting some of the ideas in the exhibit, in which five architecture firms showed how the city could prime itself to deal with storms instead of fortify itself against them. The architects called it “soft” infrastructure. “We wanted to think about how the city could live with the larger natural phenomenon instead of walling it off,” Adam Yarinsky, principal of Architecture Research Office (ARO), tells Co.Design. “That failed catastrophically in New Orleans. It’s about wetlands edges, green edges, and basically allowing water to come into select areas of the city.”
ARO was tasked with rethinking the design of lower Manhattan, which includes the financial district, Ground Zero, and Battery Park City, a tony, yet vulnerable, residential development on landfill. According to ARO’s predictions, rapid melting of the polar ice cap will raise sea levels 6 feet by 2100, inundating 21% of Lower Manhattan at high tide. A Category 2 hurricane, meanwhile, will stir up storm surges some 24 feet above that, flooding a whopping 61% of the same area.
The architects’ solution: “In lieu of a literal wall around lower Manhattan, which would cost millions of dollars but would only perform in a flood, we proposed an ecological infrastructure that would allow water in and out of lower Manhattan,” Yarinsky says. “We’re thinking about a continuum of land and water.”
That would unfold in two ways: The edge of the city would be peppered with islands and marshes to diminish the force of storm surges, and the streets themselves would be more “porous”; in other words, they could flood without shutting down the city. Existing systems, like water, sewage, gas, and electric, would be relocated to waterproof vaults beneath the sidewalk, and roads and buildings would be renovated with greenery and rainwater storage to help absorb rainfall and channel storm-surge inundation to New York Harbor. These solutions wouldn’t keep the streets dry. But that’s the point. As Yarinksy tells it: “Downtown will flood because the low-lying areas are below sea level and because of tidal conditions. It’s not about preventing flooding, anyway. It’s about mitigating the impact of flooding on the city, and living with the fact that there are times when the city would flood. But you can manage public spaces, improve the building stock, and relocate infrastructure so it won’t be damaged.”
Such a holistic approach to urban design requires serious investment, both in time and money—two things cities never have enough of. The good news: New York has already made some significant strides. As part of PlaNYC, Mayor Bloomberg has commissioned dozens of acres parkland, which will help absorb stormwater runoff. More recently, the city issued an outline for improving water quality by supplementing traditional infrastructure with “soft” features like swales and green roofs. As for the rest of it: Yarinsky hopes that Irene convinces New York to embark upon more drastic measures, like those spelled out in his Rising Currents plan. “This was not a cataclysmic tragedy,” he says. “This is an opportunity to do things better, to live in better balance with our environment. We’ve got time to let this work out. This should be a wake-up call.”