“The Future of Zone A”: A Panel Discussion on Climate Change Adaptability

By Philip Shea, Associate Editor

Photo by Philip Shea

As the effects of climate change continue to make themselves known around the globe, New York City has become all too familiar with this new and devastating phenomenon. Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call to public officials, architects and engineers alike, who are now grappling with the prospect of rising sea levels and what this means for city planning in vulnerable coastal regions.

On Jan. 10, the Cooper Union Foundation in New York City hosted a panel discussion on “issues and ideas for the future of coastal New York” that included architects, researchers and professors. Ideas ranged from new adaptive structures and spaces to new infrastructure, as well as a greater allocation of public resources by the three levels of government.

Kerri Culhane, associate director of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, illustrated the vulnerability of Two Bridges and other neighborhoods laying in Lower Manhattan’s Zone A—an area designated as being most at-risk in the event of a storm surge.

“In 2011 and 2012, two years in a row, we had flooding in the neighborhood that was directly resulting from increased storm-surge possibilities, and the projections for the future only get worse,” said Culhane. “What do we do in this neighborhood where displacement from climate change is now as big of a threat, if not a greater threat, than displacement by gentrification?”

Noting that certain elements in older building design—such as locating boilers and generators in the basement—were perhaps the easiest things that could be targeted in the short-term, Culhane then honed in on the long-term and asked the question:

“Are there market-based solutions that we could look at that can be both ecologically sound and socially responsible?”

Susanna Drake, AIA and founding principal of dlandstudio and senior associate of the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design, posited that perhaps the best approach is a dualistic one that creates new, ecologically based infrastructure and adapts existing infrastructure to better handle potential flooding.

One project Drake is currently working on is sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and focuses on creating a wetland around the edge of Lower Manhattan, while also making upland streets and infrastructure more “permeable” to absorb flooding.

“So what we want to do is think about how ecology can shape the city,” Drake said. “It would take a high water level of only 4.9 to 5.7 feet above mean sea level to cause flooding over the [existing] sea wall.”

Drake proceeded to showcase plans and renderings created by students at a Harvard University design studio. Designs included green corridors and gardens across Lower Manhattan, the removal of sea walls and subsequent creation of “dynamic edges,” and new buildings that would be elevated to allow floodwater to flow in and out beneath them.

Claire Weisz, AIA and principal at WXY Architecture, put forth yet another challenge facing New York—noting the abundance of existing infrastructure in Zone A and the many factors that have to be taken into consideration when altering them. One key issue she specified is the proper elevation of structures like piers and walkways.

“How high do we build? How do you connect to the world where it is right now, whether it’s Zone A or Zone B? If the world has to be higher, how do we mediate this?”

Source: WXY Architecture + Urban Design

In addressing the natural barrier and wetland concepts, Weisz was more cautious in her assessment of the possibilities and notes that sacrifice is something that’s going to have to be made by all parties, especially considering the limited amount of space in New York City.

“There’s a tension between doing these natural edges and ceding space, because you can’t go out in the water due to current regulations,” Weisz notes. “So there’s a lot of pressure. Everyone feels the pressure to use every inch of space.”

However, one innovative solution put forth by WXY is a shoreline park that employs steel-railed walkways and piers to maximize pedestrian space, while also creating a sizable buffer in the event of a storm surge. The WNYC Transmitter Park in Brooklyn serves as a potential model for future green zones, ones that would not infringe upon existing inland buildings and infrastructure.

The final speaker of the evening was Tom Angotti, Ph.D. and professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College, who laid out a different approach on the whole matter, shifting from an adaptation perspective to one of prevention and management.

“I welcome the opportunity to revisit the way the city has been developed, [yet] too much of what has been proposed is very short-term still,” said Angotti. “Unless we start getting at the fundamental fact that this country, among all of the major countries, has the largest per capita production of greenhouse gases, our notion of adaptation is not enough.”

Angotti also emphasized the value of public housing, which has suffered a series of funding cuts by both Congress and state and local governments. He further noted that most of the existing public housing stock in New York City lies along the shore in areas vulnerable to flooding.

“So unless we do something serious about saving pubic housing, there will no longer be affordable housing [in New York City],” said Angotti. “This has to be saved, and it’s not going to be saved by technological fixes and designed fixes. It’s going to have to be organized.”

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