Five months ago, WXY Architecture + Urban Design’s plan to transform a four-mile-stretch of the East River into public parkland was a commendable story about the city’s changing public park systems. Today, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, their East River Blueway is a critical project, a model for how New York will plan for a future wracked by mega-storms and rising tides.
WXY began work on the Blueway design back in 2011, the same year Mayor Bloomberg unveiled a sweeping plan to transform 500 miles of deindustrialized New York coastline into parkland. Backed by local community groups and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, the Blueway calls for the creation of a winding green thread of beaches, wetlands, and pedestrian bridges and paths that hug Manhattan’s eastern edge, a notoriously pedestrian-unfriendly stretch of land that’s overshadowed by the Brooklyn Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge, and FDR Drive at different moments. "The Blueway really puts the emphasis on the approach from the water," WXY Principal Claire Weisz told me over the phone. "The design examines the environmental and social value of the East River to communities along the waterfront." The project’s tagline? "River to the people."
The challenge with transforming this tricky sliver of land into usable public space is twofold. Even on a clear day, the East River is finicky and fast—not an ideal body of water for public use. And when it floods, it rises rapidly and without much warning, putting nearby housing developments in danger. The solution to both issues deals with what Weisz describes as "soft edges," a term that refers to design elements that can slow the river’s currents and withstand powerful storm surges. On the Blueway, soft edges come in the form of salt-resistant marshlands, sandy beaches, and bulkheads that reduce wave action. A series of tidal pools will keep kids away from the rapid currents while keeping surges at bay during storms.
The Blueway will cost millions of dollars and take several years to get under way, but as Weisz noted, Hurricane Sandy has served as a wake-up call both for New Yorkers and their city government—on February 7, Stringer pledged $3.5 million to the project. "Sandy made it possible to explain the things we feel need to happen, like soft edges and reducing wave action, that deal with protecting neighborhoods but also help to mitigate storm damage," Weisz added. "The social side of infrastructure is becoming more and more urgent as our infrastructure gets more dilapidated and our climate gets more erratic."
For a more in-depth look at the WXY’s plan, check out an excellent interview on Urban Omnibus.