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How Can Design Change Our City’s Waterfront for the Better- and How Can You Get Involved?

By Heather Flanagan
January 25, 2017

Collaboration between landscape designers, architects, scientists, environmental activists, curators, and the public- rather than a top-down approach- is key to envisioning a more resilient New York City.


Fish, lobsters, oysters, and more coming to a coast near you via Living Breakwaters, a $60 million resiliency project in Staten Island that will include oyster restoration, education, and community programming. BOP is a partner on the project lead by SCAPE/Landscape Architecture. Image courtesy of SCAPE.

Art and design can play a key role in helping us imagine the New York City we want- and it’s up to all of us to shape this vision. At a recent Billion Oyster Project Curriculum and Community Enterprise for Restoration Science teacher fellowship colloquium, we explored how designers can work with ecological systems and local communities to develop public landscapes that mitigate the effects of climate change, restore ecosystems, and reconnect New Yorkers to their waterfront. Our speakers for the evening were Brad Howe and Nans Voron of SCAPE, a landscape architecture and design firm we’re collaborating with on Living Breakwaters, a winner of the Rebuild by Design competition launched by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to respond to Superstorm Sandy.

As a part of SCAPE’s presentation, Brad highlighted their project for the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) from 2009 called “Oyster-tecture.” It’s a fascinating case study of the power of collaboration on multiple fronts- between teams of architects, between architects and non-profits, and between architects and the public. It was part of an exhibition called “Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront,” the product of a two month architects-in-residence program at MOMA’s P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center “to address one of the most urgent challenges facing the nation’s largest city: sea-level rise resulting from global climate change.


Image from Oyster-tecture via SCAPE.

Rising Currents was a radical departure for MOMA- as Barry Bergdoll, the Architecture and Design Curator at the time noted:

“The Rising Currents project is an entirely different model with different selection criteria for participation: the five teams were not chosen on the basis of a design, but rather on the basis of a promise for interdisciplinary innovation, working on problems that are global in implication but local in application and design. The teams worked in a collaborative interchange rather than in competition with one another. In this case, the museum serves in an almost unprecedented way as the incubator for (rather than as the mirror of) new ideas. As a result, the project has been able to evolve at a rapid pace, with teams sharing their developing thoughts and designs each week.”

Five architecture teams worked on designs for five zones around New York Harbor in “open dialogue with each other as they work[ed],” punctuated by open studios, blog posts, and a presentation at which the public could give their feedback. Inspired and informed by the oyster restoration work already taking place by New York Harbor School, NY/NJ Baykeeper, The River Project, Brooklyn restoration advocate Bart Chezar, and others, SCAPE developed Oyster-tecture for “Zone 4” on the map below, an area encompassing Governors Island, Red Hook, and Gowanus. (You can see videos of two of our staff members, before the Billion Oyster Project even existed[!] in SCAPE’s blog posts for MOMA- our Director and co-founder Pete Malinowski and our Restoration Program Manager Katie Mosher-Smith.)

The Rising Currents project zone map. Courtesy Guy Nordenson and Associates, Catherine Seavitt Studio, Architecture Research Office via MOMA.

The Rising Currents project zone map. Courtesy Guy Nordenson and Associates, Catherine Seavitt Studio, Architecture Research Office via MOMA.

Oyster-tecture reimagined the Gowanus Canal as an oyster nursery:

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…with the nearby Bay Ridge Flats (shallow waters off the coast of Red Hook) festooned with oysters growing on a reef made up of “a 3-D web matrix of fuzzy rope” and timber:

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Oyster-tecture proposed to “not only foster[] the growth of oysters but also provide[] recreational outlets for city dwellers and boost[] the local economy- including a complex system of oyster husbandry, new pathways and parkland in the area, and a system of gardens that filter sewer overflow.” It envisioned a not-too-distant future in which New Yorkers worked with nature to develop more resilient and interconnected communities, not against it. Kate Orff, the project leader, wrote this on MOMA’s blog:

“If the twentieth century brought bulkheads, dredging, flat muck, heavy industry, and contamination to the water’s edge, the future landscape toolkit consists of FLUPSYs [floating upweller system, an aquaculture method], CSO sanctuaries, wave-attenuating oyster parks, and a nuanced, dynamic edge that supports living with the water in a phased approach that gets more intimate as water quality improves. Eelgrass, oysters, and mussels jump-start the cleaning process; cormorants, regional industry, floodable structures, fisher-businessman-commuters, Harbor Schools, and water-based regional economies and social networks evolve in tandem.”

Model of the "fuzzy rope" reef from the Rising Currents exhibit via SCAPE.

Future recreation at the “fuzzy rope” reef from the Rising Currents exhibit via SCAPE.

In an article entitled “In the Wake of Rising Currents: The Activist Exhibition” for the journal Log, Bergdoll argues for the kind of “advocacy curating” represented by the exhibit for its “potential to engage both designers and museums more purposefully in vital national and international debates.” By giving designers the mission “to come up with images so compelling they can’t be forgotten and so realistic they can’t be dismissed,” MOMA showed that museums, too, have a role to play in fighting climate change and strengthening the resiliency of our coastal cities.

Two years after the exhibit closed, Superstorm Sandy’s devastation of much of New York City’s waterfront added urgency to climate change preparedness.  SCAPE tested ideas and returned to partnerships from Oyster-tecture in the Habitat Piers Pilot Project at SIMS Municipal Recycling in Sunset Park, with New York Harbor School students and teachers participating in eelgrass planting and volunteers in a evening of “fuzzy rope weaving.” These kinds of experiences paved the way for SCAPE to win the Rebuild by Design competition in 2014 with Living Breakwaters– a large scale project that is now being implemented by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery with a $60 million budget (from New York State Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery [CDBG-DR] funds). This project off the coast of Staten Island will see the Tottenville neighborhood, once known as “The Town the Oyster Built,” become a center for restoration, education, recreation, and community-building.


Courtesy of SCAPE.

A breakwater is a rocky in-water structure that breaks waves and reduces the effects of shoreline erosion. Here’s a diagram of a California breakwater built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s:

Diagram via Daily 49er.

Diagram via Daily 49er.

Traditionally breakwaters are made of materials like rock and concrete, but SCAPE’s project integrates this “gray” infrastructure with a living component- shellfish restoration work planned and implemented by the Billion Oyster Project. These Living Breakwaters will be composed of multiple types of substrate designed to be attractive to oysters, with live cultivated oysters integrated in various ways, like the oyster gabions in the diagrams below:

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Courtesy of SCAPE for the Living Breakwater Project.

Oyster gabions (photo by Billion Oyster Project).

Oyster gabions (photo by Billion Oyster Project).

You can check out a time lapse video of oyster gabions being installed in the Tappan Zee reef below:

Like a man-made breakwater, natural oyster reefs attenuate wave energy. But live oysters (as participants in this project can attest!) do so much more, both ecologically and socially. By incorporating live oysters, Living Breakwaters turns a risk reduction infrastructure project into a hub of activity for student ecosystem restorers, citizen scientists, and the public, building the kind of social resiliency the city needs to protect New Yorkers in future extreme weather events. Check out the video below to learn more:

So what can you do to get involved with design projects at your waterfront?

Getting Involved with Living Breakwaters

Design for a Living Breakwaters “Water Hub,” a center for education and community programming. Via SCAPE.

Design for a Living Breakwaters “Water Hub,” a center for education and community programming. Via SCAPE.

Living Breakwaters, as a project funded by New York State through the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR), includes multiple ways for the public to inform themselves and weigh in. The GOSR’s page on the project lives here, which includes budget information, timelines, and a section on how to learn more. In July 2015, a Citizen’s Advisory Committee (CAC) was formed, with the State selecting 20 members of the public from paper and online applications. (It’s currently full, but if you’re interested in joining, the CAC continues to accept applications via this form in case a vacancy pops up.) Anyone can attend these meetings, though, so be sure to check out the Public Engagement page on the GOSR’s website if you’d like to come! The next meeting is an Informational Open House perfect for those new to the project (and there’s a PDF postcard you can send out to your networks if you’re interested):


Wednesday, January 25, 2017 7:00pm to 9:00pm
Public School 6
555 Page Ave
Staten Island, NY

Getting Involved with Your Waterfront- The Public

But what if you’re interested in getting involved with the waterfront design project closest to you? The Rebuild by Design competition selected six total winners in New York and New Jersey. These other five projects are being undertaken by various government agencies and their websites offer more information on how you can participate:

Rebuild by Design, much like the Rising Currents exhibit, emphasized collaboration in the design phase: “[T]he multi-stage competition guided participants through in-depth research, cross-sector, cross-professional collaboration, and iterative design. Participants collaborated with community and local government stakeholders to ensure each stage of the competition were based on the best knowledge and talent and final proposals would be realistic and replicable.” Inspired by the success of Rebuild by Design, President Obama launched the National Disaster Resilience Competition in 2014, in which states and counties that experienced a Presidentially-declared major disaster in 2011, 2012, and 2013 competed for a total of $1 billion in federal funds. The State and City of New York, the State of New Jersey, and the State of Connecticut all received funds (clicking the links will take you to pages with more information). New York City’s funds will support the next phase of part of the Big U, the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project.

Now that these projects are being implemented, your feedback as a member of the community is invaluable!

Getting Involved with Your Waterfront- Teachers

After hearing from SCAPE at our December Colloquium, our teacher fellows were tasked with envisioning resiliency projects of their own. Using tracing paper and printed maps from the BOP Curriculum Team’s Where is My ORS Site? lesson, teachers teamed up to create plans for NYC waterfront spots of their choosing. Teachers reflected on the following questions:

  • How can people interact with the site’s ecology and what could that look like?
  • How do people access the water now? How might they in the future?
  • How might waterfront access strategies differ based on the communities/neighborhoods they serve?
  • How can the ideas you’ve developed tie into a larger resiliency plan for the community/city/region?
  • Think about the landscape, bioscope, and social scape- how might the project change the lives of the people who live there?

Brad and Nans from SCAPE, along with BOP-CCERS scientists Bob Newton and Matt Palmer weighed in. BOP teacher fellows came up with ideas for the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the South Bronx near Hunt’s Point, East Harlem, South Beach in Staten Island, and Williamsburg. It’s a great activity to try with students! As a teacher, you might also want to build on this activity by inviting a design expert to talk to your class- SCAPE has already visited M.S. 88 in South Slope, Brooklyn and participated in the BOP Annual Research Symposium.

Getting Involved with Your Waterfront- Artists, Designers, and Architects

If you’re an artist, designer, or architect, consider sharing your expertise with BOP students! And if your work involves restoration, coastal resiliency, or other related fields, get in touch with us about presenting at the BOP Annual Research Symposium on Friday, June 23rd. Contact us at:

Want to know more about getting involved with BOP at your local waterfront? Click on the “Get Involved” tag above to find out! And if you’d like to attend a workshop like our Colloquium with SCAPE, we’ve got more great professional developments coming up- check them out on the BOP Digital Platform Events page:

  • February 7, 2017: Intro to New York Harbor with John Waldman, author of Heartbeats in the Muck.
  • February 21, 2017: Data Analysis for Teachers- Part 1. On acquisition, description, and quality assessment: getting the right environmental data into the classroom.
  • March 14, 2017: Oyster Aquaculture and Anatomy with Steve and Pete Malinowski.
  • March 21, 2017: Data Analysis for Teachers- Part 2. On interpreting and comparing patterns: figuring out what environmental data are telling us.

We hope you’ll join us! If you’d like to read more about BOP Schools, keep checking back on the Billion Oyster Project blog for more posts, follow the BOP-CCERS Tumblr, and sign up for our newsletter!