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New York’s Future

[ 49 ] November 4, 2012 |

I found these proposals to re-reengineer New York City pretty interesting. Essentially there are 3–create marshlands on the edge of Manhattan to serve as a buffer against rising sea levels and big storms while also placing permeable roads that would allow storms to seep into the soil, create oyster beds which do the same and also help with water quality, and a storm barrier/drawbridge to protect Staten Island. Not sure about the last one, but the first two provide some very good ideas. Marshlands, managed retreat from the lowest lying areas, oysters, permeable streets–these are plans that make a lot of sense. Huge engineering projects like building barriers in the ocean are not only ungodly expensive but also are not likely to work over the long term–and it only takes one failure for a complete disaster to strike. Blending the big and small makes a lot of sense on a number–likelihood of success, aesthetics, ecology, and cost. Oyster beds and marshlands might not seem very New York what with its Empire State Building and Museum of Modern Art and hub of world modernity, but a move away from futuristic modernist thinking is in order to deal with climate change realistically.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of political will out there to pay for any reasonable kind of public works to protect our low-lying cities. If there were, we would first allow the Mississippi to flood naturally and rebuild the marshlands that protect New Orleans, but since Hurricane Katrina seven years ago, there’s been only the tiniest of progress on this while more of the swamps turn into open water, leaving New Orleans more vulnerable than ever.

Comments (49)

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  1. Richard says:

    New Orleans needs more marshlands (and less open water) AND rebuilt levees. Its getting neither . If you want to watch a good but depressing movie, I highly recommend Harry Shearer’s The Big Uneasy, a fine documentary about the engineering and planning failures by the Army Corps of Engineer that caused the Katrina flooding and continue in its wake. Its available on Netflix streaming

    On the other hand, just back from five days in New Orleans, the city has never been more vibrant.

    The New York recommendations, with the exception of oyster beds which just seems silly, seem very good and there’s no reason a combination of the old and the new wont work.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Agreed on The Big Uneasy.

      But why do the oyster beds seem silly? They are proven to be effective at everything claimed in the article.

      • Richard says:

        Maybe silly wasn’t the best word. More like unusual and unproven (there’s no claim in the article that they have been tried anywhere else) and clearly going to be a very hard sell to the powers that be.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Very low cost, not hard to implement. Almost certainly a very appealing idea as a test.

          • scanner says:

            The water filtration aspect seems a heck of a bonus, practically good enough on its own. 50 gallons filtered a day from one bivalve? Yes, please.

            • Bruce Vail says:

              Efforts in the Chesapeake to bring back over-harvested oysters have not been particularly successful. Its not as easy as it sounds.

              • Richard says:

                Correct. I doubt its going to be tried in the New York area unless its been tried and shown to work somewhere else. If its so cheap and easy, it must have already been tried in other places.

          • TT says:

            You’re seeing more and more permeable pavement on public works projects, at least in the DC/MD/VA region where I live. (I work in construction and in the recent past worked as an estimator for an asphalt contractor.) It’s not too common as yet for cost reasons, as the pavement itself and the stone bedding/filtration systems underneath can be significantly more expensive than conventional asphalt, which is why it’s restricted primarily to parking lots and spaces, driveways and entrances. But it’s coming, and hopefully will become much more widespread in the near future.

          • Lee says:

            Do we get to eat some of the oysters? If so, I’m all for it.

            • benjoya says:

              don’t think you wanna eat oysters out of the gowanus canal. (skip the coney island whitefish, too.)

            • kindness says:

              You wouldn’t want to eat anything that has spent any time in East River or Hudson River water. Seriously.

              And mashlands….Have you ever been to Battery Park where Manhattan flooded? There is no shore there, only a wall. Unless you are willing to dump fill in to create wetlands marsh (and forget about EPA approval) it ain’t gonna happen.

              • Halloween Jack says:

                Is that based on past history or their state at the present? I don’t know a lot of specifics about the latter (such as any residual heavy metal pollution), but I was under the impression that the days when the NYC rivers were open sewers and industrial dumps were long past.

              • xaaronx says:

                That is exactly what is (part of what is) being proposed:

                “On the Lower East Side of the island, Mr. Cassell and his team envisioned extending Manhattan by a block or two — with additional landfill — to create space for another new park and a salt marsh.”

  2. wengler says:

    Any planned flooding that doesn’t also protect the transportation system probably wouldn’t be politically acceptable on practical grounds.

  3. dp says:

    Those of us who live in south Louisiana have been waiting to hear the calls to abandon New York City as unsustainable in the long run.

    The lack of political will to undertake projects to solve these problems is apparent, and depressing. I guess we can’t be unduly burdening the job creators, even if it is to save their homes.

  4. Eric W. says:

    I’m intrigued by how the oyster beds would work. The islands were once laden with massive oyster beds beneath the water line until over the years they were farmed away and are no more. Oysters were for a long time THE New York street food, indeed one of the first democratic foods in the New World – everyone ate them. In fact some of the older historic buildings contain crushed oyster shells among their bricks and mortar, one solution to the gobs and gobs of shucked shells.

    It’s part fascination with this lost bit of NY lore, but also a wonder at what calming effects such oyster maddens might have had on bad storms, that makes this partly intriguing. It couldn’t be terribly expensive, and I also hear they may improve the water quality, but I may be wrong.

    • Bill Murray says:

      I think they’re oyster middens. Oyster maddens is the new combo retro city building/football game from EA Sports

    • Halloween Jack says:

      I share that fascination; one of the things that I found remarkable during the short time I lived in NYC was how much the city had changed geographically, including the substantial part of Lower Manhattan that consists of landfill and didn’t exist at the city’s creation, or that the Five Points intersection (home of the notorious slum depicted in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York) no longer exists.

  5. beckya57 says:

    I think the odds are actually a bit better for NYC than for NO. The plutocracy does care at least a little about NYC: a lot of them live and work there. They don’t give a damn about NO, which is a poor, minority-dominated city. My guess is the only thing in Louisiana that they care about at all is the oil rigs; as long as those continue to function, NO can drown for all they care. They might actually have some motivation for saving NYC, however.

    • Thom says:

      Of course, it’s the canals cut by the petroleum industry, not just the lack of natural flooding from the river, that is eroding the marshlands and making NO more vulnerable. But the petroleum industry has no need of NO as a city, and therefore doesn’t care.

    • BigHank53 says:

      New York is, depending on the decade, among the top five most valuable real estate markets in the world. It’s also insured. Someone would have to pay for it–the bankers won’t, and it’s a political impossibility for the Tea Party, since they hate them some elite NY liberals. Saving New York will be cheaper by a couple orders of magnitude.

  6. Phoenix Woman says:

    Oyster beds would be splendid – provide a new habitat for the critters, revive an old food source for New Yorkers, please the locavores, and serve as a speed bump for hurricanes. Let’s do it.

    Meanwhile, check out what the Occupy folks have been doing to help NYC and NJ in the wake of Sandy:

    http://interoccupy.net/occupysandy/

  7. Marek says:

    Well, Rivera says he’s coming back, so that’s good, on top of an already solid bullpen. Got to try to sign Pettitte and Kuroda to one-year deals – not New York’s “future” but a bridge. Extend Cano. Pray that Jeter can return to form and that A-Rod has been hiding an injury. I don’t think we’ll see New York’s future for a few years.

    Wait, what?

  8. Ruviana says:

    Apparently some of the oyster use is already occurring and not just as part of a storm buffer. From Alternet:

    http://www.alternet.org/food/why-we-may-be-able-start-feeding-ourselves-urban-waters-again

  9. Amanda in the South Bay says:

    Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of political will out there to pay for any reasonable kind of public works to protect our low-lying cities.

    Yeah, and many on the left are against anything but the smallest scale public works.

  10. montag says:

    Speaking of low-lying areas, I have no doubt that some future Bush spawn governor of Florida will be demanding in 2100 that the feds put up a sea wall all around Florida, at a cost of quadrillions of quatloos.

  11. cpinva says:

    in other words, return the island, at least partly, back to what it was, before “civilization” took over:

    create marshlands on the edge of Manhattan to serve as a buffer against rising sea levels and big storms while also placing permeable roads that would allow storms to seep into the soil, create oyster beds which do the same and also help with water quality,

    the island of manhattan contained marshes on its outer limits, with a very high water table throughout (hence, the need for 24/7/365 water pumps in the city’s subway tunnels, they’d flood otherwise), with clam and oyster beds. the surrounding waters also teemed with shellfish. then, 19th and 20th century “improvements” nearly completed destroyed the native eco-system, along with making the area susceptible to flooding, during major storms.

    bear in mind, the island also has major league bedrock, that doesn’t absorb water, also a contributory factor to flooding. i love nyc, but they have historically failed to take into acct. the environment, when planning all those great technological marvels of which they are justly proud. it’s finally coming back to haunt them, in a huge, costly way.

    • Jon says:

      I have a 1950s (?) era map of Manhattan which shows piers running the length of Manhattan from the West 60s down around the southern tip and around back up to the Williamsburg bridge or so on the East Side, except for Battery Park. With more docks, of course, lining the Jersey side of the Hudson and the East River sides of Brooklyn and Queens.

      When exactly were the marshlands destroyed? I always understood the city to have been built around shipping, which would seem to be inconsistent with a fringe of marshes.

  12. Murc says:

    While I am favor of these hypothetical oyster and clam beds from an ecological perspective, am I overly squeamish in thinking that I really, really don’t want to eat anything that was marinating in the East and/or Hudson rivers it’s entire lifecycle? At least, not without some additional major rebuilds of both rivers extending far, far upriver of NYC?

    • Bruce Vail says:

      Not overly squeemish at all.

      Based on the centuries of pollutants dumbed into the NYC waterways, it would be insanely reckless to encourage people to regularly eat any oysters grown there now.

      Last time I was in Cold Spring, NY, there were numerous signs warning fisherman not to eat certain varieties of fish caught there, and that’s only about 50 miles upriver.

  13. joel hanes says:

    If we allowed the lower Mississippi to flood naturally, the mouth would jump nearly a hundred miles west, to near Morgan City LA; the Atchafalaya River captured the lower Mississippi at Old River well over fifty years ago, and only heroic engineering has kept the larger stream in its Baton Rouge / New Orleans bed.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      There’s a difference between letting the river flood naturally and engineering the already engineered and channeled river to allow water to escape at various places to rebuild the marshes.

      • xaaronx says:

        This is true, Erik. But what you said–though I don’t think exactly what you meant as it is being discussed in the above comment–is “If there were, we would first allow the Mississippi to flood naturally. . . .”

  14. Joe says:

    I am a bit more optimistic of this sort of thing happening in NY than LA. Chris Hayes has made climate change his big moral issue and it is sad how little importance it is being given in the political conversation. Those who want to tar Obama, e.g., use drones as a ready first move. Climate change long term will affect a lot more lives than drones. Want to make an issue with him? I rather some people point to him not concerned enough about this issue.

  15. Eli Rabett says:

    In case anyone has not noticed, the southern end of Manhattan is built out on landfill (gotta have a place to put all those foundations for the other buildings. Take a look at Battery Park City for example.

  16. PSP says:

    The last attempt to seed oyster beds in the region did not far so well. NJ required them to be destroyed, due to the fear someone might eat the oysters.

    http://www.ahherald.com/columns-mainmenu-28/old-oak-trail/8821-why-does-njdep-hate-raritan-bay-oysters

  17. I think the marshlands idea, or some variant of it, has a lot of promise. It’s worth thinking about how Battery Park City did in this context. Unlike everywhere else south of 39th street, most of the electricity stayed on in BPC. (See the New York mag cover picture – those shining lights near the front are mostly residences in BPC.)

    And, at least at the north end, there wasn’t even any flooding on the streets. The reason is that Rockefeller Park basically absorbed all the water, and acted as a nice flood barrier.

    But Rockefeller Park doesn’t look like an engineering works most of the time; it’s a really fantastic park. Putting more big green gently sloping fields around the rest of the island would both protect us from more storms, and create fantastic public spaces. It wouldn’t be cheap, but none of the solutions are. And it would create more value on a day-to-day basis than flood barriers in the mouth of the bay would.

    Having said that, the big issue is how much you want to protect. If you want to protect Staten Island and Red Hook as well, I don’t see what the options are going to be other than barriers. The shorelines are too big to feasibly build new parts/water traps all the way around them. And maybe if you built the barriers, the parks in Manhattan would be redundant, at least from a flood protection perspective.

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