Life at the Water’s Edge

Caption Robin Madel

A re-envisioned lower Manhattan, adapting to sea level rise.

Climate models for New York City predict that sea levels in New York Harbor will rise by two feet over the next 50 years and four to six feet by the end of the century. This will dramatically affect the city and, in particular, those areas surrounding the harbor. Surprisingly, when asked if they know that sea level is rising in the city, most of the residents in my informal survey said no. I asked people what they think New York City’s government should do about rising sea levels and most were stumped.

“You can’t move the downtown, so I suppose the City will have to shore up the banks,” said Daquel, 39, an administrative worker from the Bronx. Seventeen-year old Caleb, a Manhattan high school student and recent transplant from Michigan said, “I've heard about it but I'm not sure I believe in global warming, so I'm not sure what the City can do.” Carol, 70, a Manhattan sales representative, had a more creative solution: “We should all pack up and move to Norman, Oklahoma and give it over to the fishes.”

Humor aside, Carol’s suggestion might not be too far off. We've built ourselves right up to the water’s edge with no room for retreat. With this dilemma in mind, the Museum of Modern Art commissioned Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront. The exhibit, running through October 11, is the culmination of workshops by five architectural teams tasked with re-envisioning the New York City waterfronts in a manner that integrates infrastructure and open space.

Rather than recommend retreat from the water’s edge in the face of rising sea levels and larger storm surges, the team devised ways to reorient the city to the harbor, designing new infrastructure that could render it more resilient. -- Rising Currents Exhibit

Some of the more innovative options offered by the architects include turning streets into wetlands and waterways, suspending housing projects over the water and turning the Gowanus Canal into an oyster hatchery. Other, more traditional solutions include constructing seawalls and floating dams.

The projects are as much architectural playground and consciousness raising tool as they are true strategies for managing rising sea levels. The City is just beginning to plan for rising sea levels, so it will be interesting to see which, if any, of the ideas proposed in Rising Currents gets adopted by City Planning. Budgets and politics will undoubtedly shape the actual strategies put into place. Hopefully, many of the decisions will take public input into account.

The City just released a plan to deal with sea level rise in its strategy for climate change adaptation. The plan includes terms such as “Flexible Adaptation Pathways” and “facilitating risk-sharing mechanisms” that sound generic and don’t specify what actions can or will be taken. By contrast, architects and planners in Boston use very specific terms for comprehensible activities, such as raising highway and subway entrances, creating seawalls, and relocating electrical and mechanical equipment from basements to above flood levels. These are concrete actions that people can actually wrap their heads around.

Given that many of the actions required to reduce vulnerability will take decades to complete, the time to begin them is now. But sea level rise is a concept that most people can’t yet personalize. It’s still widely seen as something that happens to people who live on islands in the middle of the Pacific, not those of us living in New York City. More public education is vital to ensure that New York City’s residents are able and willing to make informed decisions about specific actions and their associated budgetary requirements. Then we won’t be forced to react to natural disasters, instead we will proactively avoid or minimize the damage from the changes we inevitably face.