Architects, engineers compete to save the New York coastline

There were only two emails sitting in Henk Ovink’s inbox when he entered his New York City office on July 19, 2013. One was from a concrete company; the other from an artist in Arizona. Both were entries for his design competition to rebuild storm-damaged New York and New Jersey and protect the community from another Hurricane Sandy. But neither fit the contest criteria. He had expected at least 50 to 75 entries in this competition. And that day was the deadline.

But by lunch, there were 24. And they kept pouring in. By 6 p.m., 148 teams of architects, engineers, scientists and designers from around the world had submitted their flood protection plans for the New York City area.

In this report that aired in October 2013, Miles O’Brien reports on high-tech infrastructure adjustments in New York City after Hurricane Sandy.

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy hammered the New York and New Jersey coasts with eight-foot storm surges, killing 117 people, destroying whole communities and causing an estimated $71 billion in damage for the two states.

Ovink, a Dutch designer who had worked in the Netherlands building for sea level rise and flooding, is a senior advisor to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Recovery Task Force. Climate change and resulting storms like Hurricane Sandy is forcing engineers, architects and governments to change how we live with water, Ovink said. In the future, flood protection and rebuilding needs to encompass be more than simply putting up a wall, he said.

“It’s a paradigm shift from seeing water as a threat and just wanting to be protected to saying water is part of our life. Living with the water is a better perspective to moving forward,” he said.


He and Donovan collaborated to create Rebuild by Design, a competition that challenged designers to collaborate with communities hit by Hurricane Sandy to develop innovative ideas to protect the New York and New Jersey shoreline. After receiving the applications, they divided the 148 applicants into 10 interdisciplinary teams. Each team was asked to form a coalition with their site’s surrounding community leaders, businessmen and residents to guide their design.

“We didn’t want a design team that goes to the community and says, ‘Here’s a golden egg.’ We wanted a collaboration that had a base in those communities and that could be innovative and come up with sustainable solutions,” Ovink said.

Six winners were announced last week. New York state, New York City and New Jersey will be awarded a portion of $920 million from HUD’s Community Development Block Grants-Disaster Recovery for the Sandy region to implement the winning proposals.

Here’s a look at the winners’ plans:

The BIG Team—Lower East Side
Prize: $335 million

The BIG U is a protective series of raised berms and bridges that would stretch along the lower end of Manhattan. The Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) took on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, creating a vertical protection system covering ten miles of coast. The berms and bridges are planted with salt tolerant plants, which would keep ocean water out. The design also allowed for flood walls that can be raised in a disaster. But the spaces are also designed for recreation. A raised berm in Battery Park, protecting the city’s financial district, also provides park recreational space for New Yorkers, and a new maritime building along the water provides flood protection and “Reverse Aquarium”, a water-facing ground floor to educate visitors about the marine life.

OMA—Hudson River Region
Prize: $230 million

OMA’s plan for Weehawken, Hoboken, and Jersey City looks at flood prevention and drainage for the towns. Two-thirds of Hoboken lies in a FEMA flood zone, and 94 percent of its surfaces are impermeable, trapping water. Building wetlands along the towns will delay incoming ocean-water, and filter outgoing storm water. Permeable paving, rain gardens, and bioswales allow surface water to drain, and a rainwater storage system will filter rainwater while serving as a public park.

Prize: $150 million

The Meadowlands region is New York City’s “staging area”, said Alexander D’Hooghe, head of the MIT team.

“It’s literally the backstage of New York. If you have a financial firm, the furniture is stored in Meadowlands. The people who work in Manhattan, lower and middle income, live in the Meadowlands,” he said. And more importantly, 80% of New York City’s fuel storage is located in the area, D’Hooghe added. The area, including Little Ferry and Moonachie, was hard hit by Sandy.

D’Hooghe’s team designed a floodable marshland park and a 15 to 17-foot high berm with a street on top. The team also proposed redeveloping the area behind the berm, with mixed-use housing and commercial buildings.

“You can’t do protection just for sake of protection. You have to look at all the other layers. Let’s protect but do in way that’s ecologically beneficial and has the opportunity for economic growth,” D’Hooghe said.

The Interboro Team—Nassau County
Prize: $125 million

Nassau County on Long Island is also threatened by rainwater and storm surge. The Interboro Team proposed rebuilding the South Shore’s diminished wetlands, constructing a series of connected marshes and dikes to guide water back to the bay. The expanded wetlands system cleans stormwater runoff and recharges local aquifers, while providing more space for recreation.

SCAPE/Landscape Architecture—Staten Island
Prize: $60 million

The Living Breakwaters project builds out Staten Island’s shoreline, building a marshland system along the shore supported on underwater berms. The berms, made of eco-friendly concrete, serve as a place for wildlife like clams and mussels to build their homes. Their plans involve wetland education centers for islanders, areas for kayak and recreational equipment storage and support for the local fishing community.

Building wetlands lets the water out in the event of a flood, filtering it and cleaning the surrounding bay. A wall would hold water on the island like a bathtub and further disconnect New Yorkers from their marine surroundings.

“Rather than cut off communities from the water, we would embrace the water and its recreational and economic opportunities,” said Kate Orff, project leader from SCAPE. And the $60 million prize covers nearly the entire cost of the project, she said.

PennDesign/OLIN—Hunts Point
Prize: $20 million

The food market at Hunts Point in the South Bronx distributes food for 22 million people in the tri-state area. It’s also a major jobs center, employing more than 20,000 people and generating $5 billion in revenue. The food distribution center narrowly missed being flooded during Hurricane Sandy, but with sea level rise it will be in the floodplain by 2050, said Richard Roark, partner at OLIN.

“You can’t leave your food supply sitting in a floodplain forever. It’s Russian roulette,” he said.

Hunts Point has more problems than flooding, he said. The area has a 19 percent unemployment rate, air and water pollution problems from the local industrial complexes. The PennDesign/OLIN project builds on the South Bronx Greenway, keeping transportation open in a disaster, incorporating floating flood walls to protect the food distribution center. The new “cleanways” provide transportation routes for residents, incorporating eelgrass and other wetland plants to stall rising water and filter storm runoff. Another component of the design is a Levee Lab along the Bronx and East rivers, which acts as a levee and allows engineers and scientists the opportunity to test how seawalls perform under different current conditions.

Correction: An earlier version of the story said that the winning teams would receive a portion of disaster recovery funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This money will be awarded to New York state, New York City and New Jersey to implement the winning proposals.

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