Global warming will make New York spectacularly vulnerable to flooding. Some researchers even suggest that in 200 years, Manhattan could look like Venice. Does that mean 8 million people oughta start packing their bags? Of course not. But experts agree the city should do something. Enter Tingwei Xu and Xie Zhang. The U Penn students think New York can protect itself the way a guy cracking lobster protects his tie: by strapping on a bib.
No joke. In their vision, an intelligent, lace-like membrane would be draped over building bases in low-lying parts of the city, guarding precious infrastructure from incoming floods. The membrane would feature a “transforming surface” that’d adapt to different weather conditions, offering more protection when it’s wet out and less when it’s dry. It’d also be planted with trees and other flora, which can form a natural barrier against floodwater.
Katrina made it glaringly obvious that traditional “hard infrastructure” (i.e. a levee system) fails. Many architects and engineers now believe that instead of trying to form a bulwark against flooding, cities should embrace it, while trying to soften its effects. They propose doing that with what they call “soft infrastructure”—spongelike sidewalks, marshes, manmade islands, and other absorbent surfaces that can slow storm surges and soak up excess water. But these surfaces don’t dry out the streets altogether. And a lot of folks are, understandably, uncomfortable living in such close quarters with water.
A giant bib for New York seems to split the difference: It would allow the streets to flood at the same time that it would safeguard the city’s buildings (and, importantly, the people inside of them). It’s a totally zany idea, to be sure. Too zany, actually. We doubt the technology is there. Besides, imagine trying to convince New York landlords to cover their valuable storefronts in a giant holey bib. Not gonna happen. But at least Xu and Zhang are on the right track.