Living Breakwaters

“The Living Breakwaters project combines coastal resiliency infrastructure with habitat enhancement techniques and community engagement, deploying a layered strategy that links in-water protective forms to on-shore interventions. We aim to mitigate the risk to humans from periodic weather extremes, improve the quality of our everyday lives, and rebuild our ecosystem.” —Kate Orff, Project Director, Living Breakwaters

SUMMARY: Living Breakwaters is a comprehensive design for coastal resiliency along the Northeastern Seaboard of the United States and beyond. This approach to climate change adaptation and flood mitigation includes the deployment of innovative, layered ecologically-engineered breakwaters, the strengthening of biodiversity and coastal habitats through “reef streets”, the nurturing and resuscitation of fisheries and historic livelihoods, and deep community engagement through diverse partnerships and innovative educational programs. The transformative educational dimension amplifies impact to the next generation of shoreline stewards while leveraging the expertise of the members of the SCAPE Architecture team, who are making groundbreaking inroads into state and federal agencies, setting new precedents for multi-layered and systemic approaches to infrastructure planning.

PROBLEM SPACE: Our team embraced the coastal protection potential of the existing landscape along the Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, comprised of a network of coastal edges, shallow waters, and bay systems. Within the New York region, Staten Island and Raritan Bay is a complex and critical area of topography, maritime economies, and recreation, and hosts historic ecosystems which are under threat of disappearing. Already stressed by a history of expanding urbanization patterns and increasing population density, climate change is bringing new challenges to this region. Its predicted effects include a rise in mean temperature and precipitation, and accelerated sea level rise. Because of its geographic location and the occurrence of periodic weather extremes like hurricanes, New York City faces a high degree of potential risk, compared to places like The Netherlands. These phenomena, coupled with the excess nitrogen levels in our waters from treated wastewater and fertilizers, put our critical estuaries and bays at risk of disappearing within decades, if not years. We know that a loss of these endangered landscapes would threaten not only the cultural connection to our waters but also destroy the crucial absorptive ecological infrastructure that helps reduce risk for communities located along the water’s edge.

SOLUTION: The concept for breakwaters originated through a Museum of Modern Art invited exhibition looking at sea level rise and New York City called Rising Currents. Our Oyster-tecture concept envisioned the rebuilding of oyster habitat at strategic locations along the coastline for wave attenuation and to create a new ‘blue park’, engaging a social and cultural element of the city. After the exhibition we developed the project into a more complete system, relying minimally on the oyster and more on the expanded habitat potential of other shellfish and the creation of breakwaters through specialized concrete installations like our SIMS Habitat Pier pilot project. The dedication to creating new social spaces and enlivening the cultural opportunities of the New York waterfront gained in importance over the life of the research and pilots. Living Breakwaters was developed through a series of meetings with community members and stakeholders have been held to collectively brainstorm on how to best program and occupy the proposed interventions. The Tottenville pilot will be used to study the ecological benefits, wave reduction impacts, and the economic and recreational potential, as well as bring these benefits to the Tottenville community now.

The Living Breakwaters project acknowledges the fact that risk is embedded in all coastal resiliency strategies. Rather than cutting communities off from the water with a levee or wall, our approach embraces the water and its economic and recreational opportunities, using shallow water landscapes to stabilize the shore and rebuild diverse habitats. Sitting at the mouth of the New York Bight, Staten Island is particularly vulnerable to wave action and erosion. Our pilot project at the southernmost tip of Staten Island, in Tottenville, utilizes a layered system of breakwaters, constructed of ecologically engineered concrete, to attenuate wave action, create habitat for juvenile fish, and provide calm waters for recreation on the landward side. We have designed ‘reef street’ micro-pockets of habitat complexity to host finfish, shellfish, and lobsters, and hydrodynamically modeled the breakwater system at a macro scale to understand how and where they can most effectively protect communities. Structures called Water Hubs are located at critical points along the shore to serve as places of gathering for classes, orientation, kayak & equipment. Our initial project aims to protect the South Shore of Staten Island but the concept, through site-specific study, could be replicable along much of the U.S. coastline.

The Living Breakwaters project aims at reducing risk, and making the threat legible and part of everyday life while growing ecological habitat and building social resiliency. This proposal aims to step down risk with each investment, redefine scales of harm, and move beyond the impossible scenario of enclosing ‘dry’ from ‘wet’ to address larger long-term issues of ecosystem collapse, cycles of regional decline, and managed, calmer, and non-disastrous inundation events. The Team developed a framework to link people with the shoreline and with the water through education, engagement, and the expansion of a water-based recreational economy. The project strengthens ongoing shoreline improvements and creates opportunities for rethinking the coastal edge. For example, new dune systems created by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation will be protected from erosion by the offshore breakwater system, and new seawall constructions can incorporate living marsh elements due to lower wave velocity. The proposed project will revive ecologies, inspire a new generation of harbor stewards, and build a more resilient region over time.

The SCAPE team is composed of SCAPE/LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE with Parsons Brinckerhoff, Dr. Philip Orton / Stevens Institute of Technology, Ocean & Coastal Consultants, SeArc Ecological Consulting, LOT-EK, MTWTF, The Harbor School and Paul Greenberg. This project was refined as part of President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force Rebuild by Design initiative.

Selected Comments from Advisors and Jurors:

Living Breakwaters is about dissipating and working with natural energy rather than fighting it. It is on the one hand an engineering and infrastructure-related intervention, but it also has a unique biological function as well. The project team understand that you cannot keep back coastal flooding in the context of climate change, but what you can do is ameliorate the force and impact of 100 and 500 year storm surges to diminish the damage through ecological interventions, while simultaneously catalyzing dialog to nurture future stewards of the built environment.” — Bill Browning

Living Breakwaters has huge, worldwide implications, both in its understanding of how to communicate ecological issues to the local community within its own context, as well as in its rigorous, multi-disciplinary research and smart use of technology. Aside from the solid science, planning, and building approach, the most compelling aspect of this project is its community involvement through the engagement with students working on real-world science problems and being part of the solution to a local coastal problem that could contribute to similar solutions worldwide.” — Susan Szenasy