After massive flooding from Hurricane Sandy last year, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg drummed up a $20 billion plan to install permanent and temporary flood protection systems across the city. Yet these are only partial answers, and the biggest of them–a massive flood gate sealing off New York Harbor during a storm–is likely too expensive and impractical.
But a very different type of engineer could help save the day: a gelatinous invertebrate living in the river.
SCAPE Studio architect Kate Orff has designed a native oyster habitat for Brooklyn’s Red Hook and Gowanus Canals composed of rope structures and sunken pilings as part of MOMA’s Rising Currents project. Orff hopes to recreate the natural infrastructure and organisms that sheltered the city’s coastline for centuries as part of urban development of the future.
Before succumbing to over-harvesting and pollution during the last century, oysters were once one of Manhattan’s defenses against coastal erosion and storms sweeping up the Long Island Sound. After attaching to the river bed as larvae, they secrete calcium carbonate shells that can turn muddy, eroding coastlines into rocky bulwarks against the ocean. Over time, reefs can form living seawalls, furnishing the region with a defense that repairs itself.
Although not a panacea, this “soft” or green infrastructure is emerging as one of civil engineers’ tools for coastal protection.
“Infrastructure isn’t separate from us, or it shouldn’t be,” said Orff to The New York Times. “It’s among us, it’s next to us, embedded in our cities and our public spaces.”
The trick will be coaxing ecology to catch up with design. The Gowanus Canal, for example, is a federal Superfund site. Although New York’s waterways are as clean as they’ve been for decades, restoring oysters to their native habitat has proven incredible expensive–and ineffectual–despite billions of dollars in places such as the Chesapeake Bay.
Yet there is hope. Breakthroughs by scientists in Maryland waters have led to reestablishment of one of the largest oyster sanctuaries in the world. The coastlines of North America, Europe and Australia have lost more than 90% of their native oyster populations. Struggling to make progress in the Chesapeake Bay, historically one of the country’s most abundant oyster fisheries, researchers and lawmakers cordoned off 35.3 hectares as permanent oyster sanctuaries and seeded experimental reef beds. A study, published in the journal Science in 2009, reported the return of 185-million oysters to the area, a population rivaling that of Maryland’s entire oyster population.
Nevertheless New York’s oysters restorers, if such a project finds its sea legs, will have their work cut out for them.