It’s 2050. In New York, the old working-class Long Island beach town of Mastic Beach no longer exists–and neither does the beach; the sand is underwater. What’s left of it combined with other flooded towns to become New Mastic. Offshore, ExxonMonsanto uses robots to harvest GMO seaweed for fuel. Near the former shore, streets are usually underwater, and the few homes that are left are on boardwalks. Over time, most of the residents accepted government buyouts of their houses and moved to higher ground. With few jobs, it’s common to live on Zuckerbucks–government assistance provided by the universal basic income program established by President Mark Zuckerberg in the 2020s.
While this future might seem somewhat unrealistic, it’s not. The Zuckerberg presidency may never come to be, but the changes in the environment, technology, and physical infrastructure are definitely coming. Even in 2017, flooding happens frequently enough in Mastic that people often keep waders in their car to walk home. By 2050, with a potential three feet of sea level rise in the area–worsening flooding during storm surges and high tides–the part of the village nearest the bay is likely to be underwater most of the time.
A team of architects and other experts spent the last six months envisioning what the coasts of New York and New Jersey might look like in the coming decades. The vision, along with visions from three other architectural teams that looked at inland areas, is one part of an upcoming plan from the Regional Plan Association, an influential urban research and advocacy organization focused on the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan area that releases detailed planning guidelines every 35 to 40 years. Cities and other planners look to the plans to shape their own local planning and zoning: The first plan was created in 1922, and the organization has helped suggest everything from the location of George Washington Bridge to creating a park on Governor’s Island. The 2017 plan, which will be released in October, will be the first to consider adaptation for climate change.
The architects who focused on the Bight–an indentation in the Atlantic coast that runs from Cape May in New Jersey to Montauk in Long Island–considered the possible future of three different sites, at three different times in the decades ahead. They say that by 2067, most of Jamaica Bay, the neighborhood near JFK airport, will be a sunken, underwater park, with the airport protected by a higher seawall; a new development called Bight City, built on three piers, will be filled with “Zuckerhuts,” President Zuckerberg’s program of universal basic housing. In Mastic, they envisioned a well-managed retreat from the shore producing a popular inland retirement community by 2050. In Seaside Heights, New Jersey, (known for the rollercoaster that was submerged during Sandy) they envisioned a community choosing to stay on the barrier island in 2037, living the “flood life”–using solar panels and composting toilets to live off the grid, on the edge of danger from the water–despite a government encouraging them to leave.
At each site, the designers suggest a strategy of relocating people from targeted blocks of houses near the water to other targeted blocks on higher ground, rather than trying to maintain development at the current coastline. Historically, the coast changed shape as ocean currents moved sand; more recent human attempts to build hard walls and barriers, like a seawall at the entrance of New York Harbor that was breached by Sandy or even the plans for a massive, 10-mile protective system around Lower Manhattan, aren’t guaranteed to last.
“We know why we built the cities where they were, but the fact that today they’re under risk doesn’t mean that we have to keep them as they are at all costs,” says architect Rafi Segal, who led the project with Susannah Drake’s DLANDstudio. “We have to adapt. We have been adapting. It’s simply irrational to say a city could stay as-is and we just build a wall to protect it from water. If the wall breaks at one point, it renders the whole thing obsolete. We have to have a much smarter strategy that is not dependent on a single piece of infrastructure.”
In their vision, cities would build at higher densities on higher ground, and through buyout programs, people would gradually move from low-lying neighborhoods. Schools, jobs, and everything else would also move. People who chose to stay longer might spend years surrounded by vacant lots, which could be used as pocket parks or community gardens.
“The more hurricanes come and become yearly, people would start to understand that certain areas are not the place to live, or, if they would like to live there, they’ll understand the consequences,” says Segal. “So this migration will happen in a way on its own, but the city will not just stand there and say, ‘Hey, I don’t know how to support you guys.’ They will have a plan in place.”
Along with proposing solutions, the plan includes imagined interviews with future residents, and detail-filled letters from the future, along with renderings. We learn, for example, that a second Sandy-like storm triggers panic about overvalued coastal real estate, causing a new financial crash in 2023, and that Governors Cuomo and Bon Jovi decide to privatize the Port Authority, which is sold to a Singaporean sovereign wealth fund.
Some of the narrative elements of the proposed future might be fanciful, but they’re designed to help you conceive of the future in concrete terms–even if some of the details don’t quite work out. “[Design is used] to allow people in a way to access the problem more easily and kind of open a bit the imagination and not keep it too abstract,” Segal says. “Sea level rise, storms, population growth, what does it all mean? It’s very abstract. But through design you can, in a way, make it real . . . We begin to use design to construct a story, because without a story, nothing will happen. If there’s no story to capture people’s imagination, change will not happen.”
The project, along with designs from the other teams, will be exhibited at Fort Tilden Park in New York City from August 5 to September 17.
Correction: This article referred to the Regional Planning Association, rather than the Regional Plan Association. As well, it incorrectly placed the New Jersey rollercoaster that was submerged during Sandy in Sea Bright, rather than Seaside Heights.