For centuries, the conventional wisdom about protecting shorelines from storm surges has been to build a seawall. And if that fails, build a bigger wall. But in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated much of the New Jersey-New York coastline in 2012, that rigid line of thinking is being tossed on its ear. Instead of erecting ever-bigger barriers – which when breached can trap floodwater, as in a bathtub — civic planners are embracing bold new ideas that would redesign shorelines to accommodate some managed flooding and minimize destruction.
“The challenge for us over the next several decades is how we learn to live with water and not fight against it,” said Samuel Carter, an associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation, which is helping fund a new project to reinvent the coastline of New York and New Jersey.
The project, Rebuild by Design, brings together many of the world’s top engineers, architects and others to create innovative ways to minimize flooding and protect shorelines. Among their ideas: building a series of protective breakwaters in New York Harbor that slow the force of waves while serving as living reefs to rebuild the dwindling oyster population; designing “hyperabsorbent” streets and sidewalks that would mitigate storm runoff; digging channels along streets to divert storm-water; and creating buildings that are designed to flood without being damaged.
Ten of the best ideas have been chosen by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan to be further developed into formal designs. These may be eligible for federal Sandy-relief funding and eventually be implemented across New York and New Jersey while serving as a model for flood-protection efforts in other parts of the world.
With sea levels expected to inch higher in coming decades, these kinds of projects will only become more crucial, especially in urban areas.
The idea, Rebuild by Design’s planners say, is to come up with collaborative, flexible new solutions tailored to each community instead of just rebuilding and inviting history to repeat itself:
“It’s a normal thing for human beings all around the world: When something (bad) happens, they want to go back to where they were (before). But when it comes to Superstorm Sandy, that would be a total failure,” said Henk Ovink, co-chairman of the Rebuild by Design jury and a senior adviser for the federal Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. “Water can be a threat, but it’s also a necessity and a resource,” Ovink said. “You can embrace water. Working against nature is not a solution.”
Finally, the main question is: How will change the landscape with this project? How will be analyze it?