Design for Climate Change: Kate Orff’s Living Breakwaters and Gowanus Lowlands

South Brooklyn, home of the Gowanus Canal (a federally recognized Superfund site) and a hot spot for controversial development practices is the location of landscape architect, Kate Orff’s, most recent vision for a more holistic urban-scape. The project, the Gowanus Lowlands in collaboration with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, embraces the Lowlands in an effort to reclaim what it once was. Orff’s vision incorporates community design methodologies to inform her and her firm of the project's path. A bespoke approach to such projects has been proven far more effective than the top-down delivery of solutions as is evidenced by the thousands of unused ready-made parks across the country that are as neglected as the original land. Orff does not disregard industry or human wants and desires, rather she celebrates them by imagining the Lowlands as a biologically and culturally diverse community hub for South Brooklyn residents. Currently in its second year of community collaboration, the Lowlands’ design team at SCAPE (Kate Orff’s Landscape Architecture firm in New York City) along with the Conservancy will be moving towards a master plan sometime in late 2018. Follow the project on the SCAPE website.

Another of Orff’s exemplary projects dealing with the effects of massive human ecosystem-intervention and climate-change-related-disaster is that of the Living Breakwaters, a project that won Kate Orff the 2014 Buckminster Fuller Challenge award of $100,000. In response to Hurricane Sandy, Orff and her team at SCAPE put together a conceptual master plan to install 4,000 feet of living surge-blocking seawalls in New York Harbor. The “living” quality of these seawalls is in the habitat they create for fin and shellfish who help to reduce wave action as well as restore sediment to the shoreline. The 2014 award of $100,000 has proven to be merely the beginning of steady funding to see this project through. Living Breakwaters has been selected as one of six resiliency projects by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through their Rebuild by Design competition. The selection has granted them another $60 million that will go towards a scheduled kick-off date for the design in 2018 on the southern shore of Staten Island.

Bijarke Ingel’s Group’s Dryline

Another winner of HUD’s Rebuild by Design award comes from Bijarke Ingel’s Group’s (BIG) Dryline. Proclaimed by Ingel as “The Big U,” the Dryline will be a system of earthen berms and retractable walls that trace the southern portion of the island of Manhattan. Every aspect of the design is intended to mitigate the catastrophic impact that Hurricane Sandy-like storms have on the city as well as boost community connectivity between the city and the water’s edge.

Inherent in these designs is a recognizable embrace of the power water holds, while respecting its potential for large-scale alterations in human-made infrastructure. As we imagine new ways that we can employ to mitigate the socio-economic effects of climate change, we must be careful not to run from the realities at hand, but rather work with them, thus putting in place far more than new designs, but a new way of being with nature’s elements for generations to come.

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