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In Sandy’s Wake, Revisiting MoMA’s Prescient “Rising Currents” Exhibition

By Wendy Moonan and Aileen Cho
November 2, 2012
Image courtesy Hatje Cantz/The Museum of Modern Art

Research for the book On the Water: Palisade Bay by Guy Nordenson, Catherine Seavitt, and Adam Yarinsky inspired MoMA’s 2010 exhibition Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront

The exhibition Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront, which ran at the Museum of Modern Art in New York two years ago, provided a look into the future—and this past week, that future arrived, in the form of the catastrophic storm surge from Hurricane Sandy. In the prescient show, MoMA addressed rising sea levels resulting from global climate change. The curators chose five teams, each comprised of architects, landscape architects, and engineers to re-envision the coastlines of New York Harbor in New York and New Jersey. Each team was asked to present solutions for a specific coastal area: Lower Manhattan and Upper New York Bay, Northwest Palisade Bay and the Hudson River area in New Jersey, Southwest Palisade Bay in New Jersey and Staten Island, South Palisade Bay and the Verrazano Narrows in Staten Island and Brooklyn, and Northeast Palisade Bay and the area around the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.

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In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we asked several of the MoMA show’s participants what the Federal government and New York City should do next.

Which solutions from Rising Currents could be most easily implemented to help mitigate the impact of storms like Sandy? Do we need dams and seawalls?

“There’s no one magic bullet; we need the full gambit of solutions,” says Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s chief architecture and design curator. “We cannot make the city storm-proof. We need to make the city more resilient, to better handle these events. We need to rethink how streets can absorb water coming from two directions, the sky and the sea. We need to put electrical cables underground in vaults. We need high tech stuff like the Thames Barrier south of London, which has been used many more times than ever envisioned—more than 100 to date. We could make the New York Harbor an experimental site; We could do wetland restoration, put in oyster beds, create artificial reefs made out of old subway cars.”

Guy Nordenson, an engineer and participant in Rising Currents has been thinking about solutions to rising sea levels for years. “Zoning along the water needs to be rethought,” he says. “In the 1980s and 1990s, after earthquakes in San Francisco and L.A., there was a strong, well-organized effort to completely redevelop the seismic codes for the country. The result? The National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP), which has had an enormous impact on building design. No such thing has emerged for climate change since Katrina. This is a national problem. The Federal government has to commit itself to this, and the states have to cooperate. Every local politician has a solution. Mayor Bloomberg has done a lot, but there are a lot of things he cannot do: things controlled by the MTA or the Port Authority. Nor can Governor Cuomo; he has to rely on Governor Christie. It’s got to be Federal solution, with all these groups working together.”



How can building codes be changed to help make the city less vulnerable?

“Why not change the city codes?” Bergdoll asks rhetorically. “The city already has maps of floodable zones. For generations, builders have had to give a percentage of a building’s cost for art or public land (like pocket parks). Why not add wetland restoration to that list?”

What is the first step the city and feds should undertake to preventing the devastating impact of another Hurricane Sandy?

“The first step is to break down the mentality that has to do with installing one big sea wall,” says Adam Yarinsky, a partner at Architecture Research Office (ARO) in New York whose ideas led to the “Rising Currents” exhibition. “We do not need one storm surge barrier—it won’t protect the whole city anyway. I hope Sandy is a wake-up call. It is prefiguring what is to come. We need to be planning long-term. What’s good about architects is we are generalists. We gather information, analyze it, and use it to generate solutions. We are good at helping to visualize things. We can help bridge between specialists, scientists, and engineers. We need to know what the options are, to whet the appetite for political leadership. We have to be part of a bigger social contract. That’s what Rising Currents was about.”

Are there ways to make the city less vulnerable to storms like Sandy?

“For the MoMA exhibition, we devised a system of porous pavements that would absorb storm-surge water and also collect and distribute water on the Battery,” says Yarinsky. “The idea is to create a buffer zone on the coastline. And create dry vaults under the sidewalks to accommodate cable, electrical lines."

Susannah Drake of New York-based dlandstudio worked with ARO on its component of the exhibition. “We were proposing a combination of engineered streets and engineered edges—but with some of the engineering from a landscape approach,” she says “We used both hard and soft strategies to create a new landscape for Lower Manhattan."

The team proposed a redesign of the area’s northern streets using porous paving systems that can absorb surface runoff. Drake notes that while state regulations call for managing stormwater runoff up to a 1.2-inch precipitation level, “We’ve had nine storms out of a hundred that have exceeded that.” The team also suggested sequestration areas to capture and contain salt water and eventually drain it off.

“We proposed adding upland parks and freshwater wetlands, then saltwater wetlands further out to sea,” to provide buffers and to break up the frequency of the waves, says Drake. The plan called for dredged material from harbor-deepening projects, combined with geotextile layers, to form artificial islands arranged in a pattern to maximize the buffer zone. The team proposed a line of earthwork mounds strengthened by concrete would act like levees on the Lower East Side. Old historic boat slips near the New York Stock Exchange were turned into “sponges” to absorb incoming water.

Should land use along the water be re-thought?

If you are building in a flood plane, there should be restrictions about ground floor heights,” says Yarinsky. “But how do you deal with foundations of existing buildings, where you know they will flood? Do you put metal panels in doorways, the way they do in Venice? We need incentives for private property owners.”

What “soft” and “hard” infrastructure measures should New York City be implementing to protect property and infrastructure from storm surges and rising sea levels?

“There are three approaches, and the first is reduction of carbon,” says Paul Lewis of LTL Architects in New York, a participant in “Rising Currents.” “The second is ‘hard’ infrastructure: a physical barrier. This week, Governor Cuomo said we need to be thinking about a sea wall, something like the Thames Barrier, which could be put in relatively shallow water beyond the Verrazano Narrows,” he says. “Third is the ‘soft’ infrastructure. We need to consider new ways to soften the coastline. We can re-seed oysters. We can put barriers in the water to create an archipelago. The fourth problem is legal: We need to push for different options to deal with the coastline. We assume water is to be feared, so we put up handrails and hard edges. We need ways to have land descend into the water."

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