GreenBiz Reads

New York's challenge to design a truly 'blue' dune

ShutterstockMarharyta Kuzminova
New York City is at risk of a 1-in-70 year storm surge.

The following is an edited excerpt from "Blue Dunes: Climate Change by Design" by Jesse M. Keenan and Claire Weisz (Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2017).

While atmospheric scientists cannot predict when extreme weather events will strike or with what impact, it is inevitable that another major storm event, whether a hurricane or nor'easter, will hit the Mid-Atlantic coast sooner rather than later. When these storms arrive, the economic burdens will continue to be borne by a diverse range of public and private stakeholders with little relief in sight.

Advances in oceanography offer a potentially unappreciated perspective on how to prepare for future events. The predominating sociotechnical bias has been to conceive of solutions on existing terra firma without thinking about coastal interventions. The forces shaping the coastline are driven by energy from the atmosphere and from the ocean. Coastal processes are controlled by wind, waves ocean currents and the highly predictable tides that move water and sediment day in and day out. These processes are responsible for the constantly changing, shifting and evolving landscape of the coast. Sand dunes, for example, result from the movement of sediments that reflect these processes.

From one perspective, these forces of nature result in a materiality that is far superior in its capacity to mitigate the impacts of flooding and storm surge than the hard edge conditions of human interventions, which are extraordinarily capital intensive and limited in their operational life. A wide variety of examples, from wetlands reducing the impact of storm surges to vegetation preserving coastal landscapes have demonstrated the latent resilient capacities of natural ecologies.

As a type of green infrastructure, scalability in theoretical terms is nearly infinite if the forces of nature are to be harnessed. Likewise, the energy and materiality of natural systems are far more efficient and cost effective in their deployment than oil, concrete, and steel. However, the reality is that these interventions are not "natural," as we generally conceive them.

They are manipulations of material and ecological processes at the hands of man. A constructed dune that more or less superficially appears to be natural may have an embodied energy profile on par with many forms of conventional architecture. Therefore, the design and scientific challenge is to explore the extent to which natural processes and energy dynamics may be harnessed for scaled interventions that serve either resilience or adaptive ends.

Blue infrastructure

Given the scientific and engineering research in the conservation of dunes and coastal landscapes, it raises a larger question as to whether it is feasible or desirable to conceptualize how one might proliferate and cultivate these natural systems in the service of a larger human ecological resilience. Scientists have developed theories and models, both conceptual and mathematical, to explain how ocean currents and waves create and deplete dunes and generate dynamic ecologies. At the same time, designers and engineers have been simulating the construction of the material and horticultural elements of these systems to not only mimic their aesthetic qualities but to emulate those performative qualities that advance water quality and biodiversity.

To provide justification in terms of actuarially sound mitigation interventions, economists have consistently provided evidence that many ecological engineering efforts yield real dividends in terms of reducing short- and long-term economic burdens. As more damage is concentrated as a function of urban growth, the insurance industry and regulators have also advanced the necessity to investigate closer synergies between human and natural ecologies in terms of designed resilience.

In this sense, public and private sectors have increasingly sought to find co-benefits that inure to the benefit of environmental conservation, disaster risk reduction and social and economic stability. What unites these often-oppositional forces is the universal nature of risk from climate change, the disproportionate impacts and the necessity to find efficiencies that bring interventions within the realm of feasible — if not possible.

In 2013, as part of President Barack Obama’s international design and ideas competition Rebuild by Design (RBD) — and informed by the aforementioned scientific and professional discourses with regard to ecological design and engineering — the Blue Dunes project led by the design firms WXY and West 8 was selected by RBD as a finalist for further design and development. The Blue Dunes team consisted of scientists, social scientists, engineers and designers from various organizations that found common ground in the ambition of addressing coastal risk from a regional scale.

As an artificial archipelago off the coasts of New York and New Jersey, Blue Dunes distinguished itself among many other competing ideas at the time by not only its scale and ambition, but also by its utilization of oceanographic science, led by the Stevens Institute of Technology, as well as civil engineering led by the global firm Arcadis. These scientific logics for advancing the reduction of regional flooding and storm surge risk were reinforced by the inclusion of the catastrophic modeling firm AIR Worldwide.

As a collective team, the Blue Dunes project represented a diverse array of scientists, social scientists and designers who had a common set of goals, comparable professional values and very different languages. This book tells the story of a team searching for an effective and innovative strategy to address sea level rise and storm surges. Blue Dunes offers a lesson on how discipline-specific methods of scientists and designers intersect and diverge but are otherwise resolved as a consequence of the desire to acknowledge that the challenges confronting society do not have a single solution grounded in a single discipline.

Three pillars

At the beginning of the design competition, architect Claire Weisz and landscape architect Adriaan Geuze posed three fundamental questions to urban oceanographer Alan Blumberg: 1) how could shorelines be planned and designed with natural coastal processes in mind; 2) what could be done in lieu of investing in flood gates, which would also necessitate miles of potentially destructive levees; and 3) how could we imagine planning and paying for the thousands of miles of integrated flood protection measures that would otherwise be advanced as sea levels rise? The team hypothesized through a range of methodologies that there could be a way to explore the design and testing of a well-placed but discontinuous set of offshore barriers to deflect storm-driven water.

Initial work coalesced around sketches exploring various configurations of a series of offshore artificial islands that would otherwise form the basis for further investigation as to whether there was an opportunity to reduce storm surge forces. These early representations were based on very basic parameters of the laws of physics that form the basis for understanding ocean dynamics. The team hypothesized that risk reduction could be achieved through the creation of new landforms seven to nine miles out along the coastal shelf, through the similar placement of a line of wind turbines, or a combination of these two strategies.

The team of scientists argued that any potential human benefits would need to be measured against the downside risk of damaging the marine habitat. It was understood that future advanced research would need to account for sediment transport, salinity, nutrient levels and fish migration. In many ways, this research would follow the workflow comparable for many environmental mitigation assessments but with the proviso that onsite mitigation could be internally configured into a larger system and not merely serve as an external offset for netting ecological benefits.

Spurred on by this initial design query, the RBD process would focus on the design of a specific concept for constructing artificial barrier islands construction, as well as the effects of such construction across a variety of ecological scales. To this end, cause and effect provided an iterative design process that calibrated scope and scale. Initial financial and hydrodynamic modeling demonstrated that there was a significant potential for a barrier island system to save lives and billions of dollars in avoided damages across the region.

In addition, these islands could potentially decrease the height of storm surge, thus enabling lower, softer, and less disruptive landside storm protections. The resulting project centered on the prospects of creating an offshore barrier island chain centered on the New York Bight — a shallow section of the continental shelf, which has the hydrodynamic qualities of funneling storm surge into the New York metropolitan region.

As a proposal, Blue Dunes was not just the engineering of sand and dredge for purposes of land reclamation. It progressively evolved into a much more complex design for landscape and architecture that had the dual task of accommodating natural and human ecologies, from the balancing of the conservation and commercialization of fisheries to the balancing of recreation with habitat preservation. In fact, an often overlooked aspect of regional climate change can be found in the relative vulnerabilities of the recreational and commercial fishing industries that play a significant role in the coastal economy of New York and New Jersey.

In 2012, these industries accounted for over 102,000 jobs, $14.2 billion in sales and $3.1 billion in income for the region, according to NOAA. With less turbulent waters, Blue Dunes raised the prospect that critical breeding grounds could expand regionally or that surf conditions might change to the benefit of the fishing community. These are just two examples that highlight the complexity of working with a wide variety of stakeholders, who often have conflicting and interrelated interests between community and commerce. Ultimately, these and other concerns are all paradigms of human-derived economy.

America is caught in an era where a political half-life will not allow for a public discourse on coastal retreat and will also not take the steps to invest in the infrastructure necessary to forestall such a retreat. There is a long history in America of infrastructure investments driven by a collective national interest — not the special interests that dominate piecemeal politics of current conventions. Part of the challenge of climate change is to conceive of how climate can be "mainstreamed" into a wide range of policy and commercial domains.

Blue Dunes does not just provide a platform for fisheries and storm protection; it represents a challenge for a broader industrial mobilization that covers everything from dredge fleet development to the physical siting of offshore renewable energy facilities. For instance, wind farms on the barrier islands could transform the project from a focus on risk mitigation into a project that promotes climate change mitigation through the production of renewable energy. Additionally, the wind farms could be a major job generator, as facilities for servicing and building turbines could be sited on coastal brownfields that are often located at underutilized sites within former ports.

The concept of an offshore wind farm to support the economics and development of Blue Dunes highlights just one example of a vast array of potential benefits and innovations that could manifest themselves as a consequence of a vast industrial mobilization to address climate change. In terms of spatial planning and design, it is not simply a matter of repurposing a previous generation’s coastal infrastructure. It is also an opportunity to redefine a range of spaces and experiences that promote a sustainable accommodation of a unified ecological state whose boundaries weigh human and biophysical processes.