Protect cities by embracing the ocean, not walling it off

The Living Breakwaters project uses hydrological modeling to determine the best reef system for each area
Living Breakwaters
The Living Breakwaters project uses hydrological modeling to determine the best reef system for each area.

The way to protect shoreline communities from monster storms and climate change’s rising seas might not be to erect huge walls to fight the water, but to use its own energy to control it. 

That’s the idea behind a comprehensive coastal resiliency project called Living Breakwaters, which in late October won the 2014 Buckminster Fuller Institute Challenge for socially responsible design. The system, created by SCAPE/LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE PLLC, looks to reduce risks by rebuilding tidal habitats such as oyster reefs that once protected shorelines along with smarter coastal planning and development.

At its heart, the winning idea is to construct rocky mounds and sloped walls within the water column that would armor the coastline and diffuse wave energy. Those in front of undeveloped onshore lands such as parks and refuges would be fully submerged tidal breakwaters while those in front of developed communities would protrude above the waterline as exposed islands. Both versions also act as artificial reefs that rebuild ecosystems and become homes for fish and shellfish. These are meant to serve as buffers between populated land and open water that absorb wave energy to diminish erosion and flooding. 

“We focused on building a layered system that puts a thick section between land and water, from stepped living shorelines and dunes to tidal flats and onshore breakwaters,” said Kate Orff, SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters project director.

The project’s creators used hydrological modeling that included sediment movement and water flow to test whether their designs could mute the power of swelling seas along the coast of New York City’s Staten Island, an area hit hard by 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. “We studied the landscape typologies that characterize shallow water zones to understand their protective benefit, and began to combine and test these systems through hydrodynamic modeling to understand their effectiveness as ecological infrastructure,” Orff said.

Living Breakwaters cycle of culture, ecology, and risk reduction

Living Breakwaters makes priorities of culture, ecology and risk reduction.

Another major component of the team’s concept is to include the community by connecting teachers and students to their coastline for education and recreation. Also, by restoring old shellfish harvesting and fishing grounds, the developers hope the project can revitalize traditional water-based economies.

"Living Breakwaters is about dissipating and working with natural energy rather than fighting it,” said Bill Browning, a sustainable design consultant and a member of the Fuller Institute selection committee. “It is on the one hand an engineering and infrastructure-related intervention, but it also has a unique biological function as well. The project team understand that you cannot keep back coastal flooding in the context of climate change, but what you can do is ameliorate the force and impact of 100- and 500-year storm surges to diminish the damage through ecological interventions, while simultaneously catalyzing dialog to nurture future stewards of the built environment.” 

SCAPE’s Orff said the project was meant to highlight optimism about the future of humanity while harnessing cooperation between people, two ideas highly prized by architect, designer and inventor Buckminster Fuller.

“As climate change impacts threaten shoreline populations, Living Breakwaters hopefully represents a paradigm shift in how we collectively address climate risks, by focusing on regenerating waterfront communities and social systems, and enhancing threatened ecosystems,” she said.

This story originally was published by GE's Txchnologist.