The Waterfront is Not Alone<

“The waterfront” in New York City and the region is actually a placeholder term for an astoundingly diverse range of conditions, comprising ocean, riverine, and estuarine systems within a broader context of water flow. The Urban Waterfront Adaptive Strategies study that is currently being drafted by the New York City Department of City Planning will elucidate and classify the array of different shoreline and land-use conditions that make up “the waterfront.”<

The waterfront zone is, literally, a transitory edge. Our culture has been changing in recent years to counter attempts to harden waterfront edges and transform them into permanent habitable places. If we are to continue to adapt to changing conditions in the future, we will need to be even more versatile in the ways we design our coastal built environments. Flood events and storm surges are not anomalies; rather, they are parts of historic natural cycles, although their frequency and intensity are dramatically increasing because of continuing global warming. They only become tragic events if we deny their existence and fail to plan for them.<

Every waterfront edge is an integral part of an interconnected regional watershed, and the dynamics of that watershed provide the context for any individual waterfront plan or design.<

Within this ecological context, and with appropriate planning and design, there is a wide array of opportunities to integrate diverse land-uses including natural habitats, public access, parks, housing, commercial districts, and working waterfronts at appropriate locations.<

The principles described here emphasize the overall context and commitments needed to support successful, innovative adaptations to changing waterfront conditions.<

Innovation, Experimentation, Research

More scientific research is needed to understand the interactions between urban waterfronts and human ecologies, especially in terms of communication with regulators and designers about the impacts of design decisions.<

Our challenges over the next decades and centuries will be genuinely unprecedented, considering the number of people living in waterfront environments and the uniqueness of the variables facing the New York metropolitan region. We must create new opportunities for a dynamic and innovative approach to waterfront projects—one that allows for experimentation through multiple scales and flexible policies, and provides for short- and long-term innovations with novel strategies for resiliency.<

Interdisciplinary Collaborations

Organizational structures and funding mechanisms must be created to allow for more robust collaboration among pure and applied disciplines linking the design, scientific research, and regulatory communities.<

Teams of architects, landscape architects, engineers, planners, and permitting specialists, working closely with scientists (ecologists, biologists, and climate scientists), environmental regulatory staff, and local communities, have the capacity to identify innovative options and opportunities and to create smart, novel, and feasible solutions.<

Current project and research funding structures enforce occupational and disciplinary silos that often preclude innovation. Waterfront regulatory restrictions need to evolve with more interdisciplinary research, more opportunities for experimental projects in selected locations, and more feedback from these projects.<

Complexity and Site-Specificity

With 520 miles of shoreline in the City alone, and an enormous set of variables in geomorphology, hydrology, land-uses, and habitat types, there is an equally broad range of types and combinations of solutions.<

Even within a specific area there is more than one solution. Rather, it is important to increase alternatives. There are short-, medium-, and long-term possibilities for a range of flexible scenarios that allow for success and provide safeguards in the event of failure. Planning and design of waterfront areas should embrace their unique, authentic, site-specific attributes and capture the essence and identity of each one.<

We need to set priorities for use of current and future funding for the alternatives being discussed at the City’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resilency (SIRR), the Department of City Planning’s year-long Urban Waterfront Adaptive Strategies Study, and NYS 2100 Commission. These include nourishing beaches and expanding dunes; reinserting wetlands; raising bulkheads; adding tide gates and revetments; building breakwaters; installing passive and deployable floodwalls; constructing seawalls and surge barriers; and conceiving of dual-use or multi-purpose levees.<

Ecological Sensitivity

Rich waterfront habitats are among the most productive ecosystems on the planet, and shoreline designs in the coming years need to be based on a healthy respect for the water and natural systems.<

We must learn to “go with the flow,” both a more controlled flow from the watershed to the sea, balanced with a mitigated flow from the sea onto land. The notion that the human-built realm should be considered first and foremost, often to the exclusion of other life processes, needs to be rethought. With current extreme declines in fish, bird, and pollinator populations (to name a few), better waterfront management practices can protect the ecosystems of which we are a part, and provide a better scientific understanding of how they function.<

Redundancy and Modularity

Flood protection and stormwater management should duplicate critical functions and be self-sufficient in densely-populated areas.<

Such approaches are similar to those employed to ensure the stability of essential infrastructure systems and services (power, transportation, and waste).<


Involving all members of waterfront communities in ongoing planning and implementation requires making community outreach and communication priorities.<

Engaging and supporting well-developed social networks and information dissemination will promote trust and local leadership among and within communities, and foster both inter-agency communication and collaboration among government, professionals, and local citizens.<

There are strategies that can enhance and enable the ability of planning and design professionals to act on opportunities:<

  • Break out of occupational silos. Foster meaningful, longer-term collaborations among designers, ecologists, biologists, and climate scientists.
  • Recognize naturally occurring districts bioregions, watersheds, and smaller ecosystems. Although jurisdictional rather than natural divisions structure our political geography, there are other precedents such as watershed management entities worthy of emulation.
  • Seek out environmental regulators willing to be involved with experimental approaches and problem solving. Current regulations and regulators are sometimes change-averse, even when projects might have the potential to improve environmental conditions.
  • Advocate for appropriate funding levels to adequately maintain and operate public urban environments.
  • Put in place mechanisms and funding for long-term monitoring and evaluation of waterfront design solutions.
  • Educate stakeholders on the value of “green” solutions and stewardship of urban open spaces. These elements are sometimes misguidedly value-engineered out of projects because of funding constraints and a lack of understanding and commitment.

Widely implement green infrastructure approaches to stormwater management throughout watersheds and “sewer sheds”—water harvesting, capturing, treating, and management at all scales, from building and site to metropolitan and regional.<

Give consideration to other issues such as inland flooding and wind damage in addition to our major focus on coastal flooding from sea-level rise and storm surges.<


The Waterfront Lab: Design and Planning for Resiliency

The tremendous amount of uncertainty about the future—from the effects of climate change and rising sea levels to the frequency with which we will be experiencing major environmental events—provides an opportunity to explore and test the effectiveness of innovative ideas to expand the range of current waterfront strategies. Numerous governmental, academic, professional, and advocacy groups are already collecting and analyzing data and making recommendations. Rather than duplicate those efforts, the Waterfront Lab focuses on complementary explorations of new and innovative waterfront planning and design strategies.<

The starting point was to ask, “What went right?” and draw lessons from what weathered Superstorm Sandy successfully. That investigation raised the additional questions of “What could be explored further?” and “What needs to open up for that to happen?” The answer was to create a Waterfront Lab for testing ideas, producing data, and monitoring results, especially after substantial environmental events. The Lab is a place to investigate strategies with the potential to mitigate storm surge, prevent erosion along the urban edge, and soften the impact of rising tides. Such experiments would focus on testing ideas for both predictable and unpredictable events within a framework that does not threaten the life and property of surrounding areas. Experiments also take into account the different typologies found in the New York City region—the ocean, estuaries, and rivers—and the widely different scales of projects, from individual sites and neighborhoods, to larger areas and the region as a whole.<

The work of the Waterfront Lab could be an important contribution to how the City assesses new proposals that have never been put in place here—efforts that could advance flexible and sustainable waterfront planning and design for the future—based on best practices around the country and world.<

As the number of major events on the waterfront is projected to increase by designating areas for experiments along the water’s edge, promising strategies can be implemented and their performance examined. Those that prove successful may then be expanded upon and put into practice in other locations throughout the region.<

Looking holistically at potential strategies, there are both short- and long-term experiments that could be employed. Instead of merely replacing outdated structures or landscapes in kind, more resilient and climate-neutral alternatives could be put in place and evaluated. Waterfront planning and design must continually adapt to maximize response to rapidly changing ecosystems.<

The challenges facing New York City and the region as we adapt to new realities brought on by climate change over the coming decades are enormous. Cross-disciplinary collaboration within a broad structure that allows for innovative strategies to be applied and tested can address public safety issues and protection of the built environment, and can also integrate innovative solutions for managing stormwater, enhancing biodiversity, incorporating renewable energy, and creating myriad combinations of new strategic approaches.<

By connecting local communities with teams of professionals—from architects, landscape architects, planners and engineers, to environmental consultants, maritime experts, ecologists, and biologists—a case can be made for obtaining funding for meaningful projects. The design and scientific communities can, together, contribute to solving urgent issues confronting the City. What is needed is a ground-up, incremental approach—not just a few high-cost, high-profile projects. Partnering with local communities we can develop sensitively formulated, localized solutions, arming property owners with a menu of resilient strategies, and lending our voice to the important discussion about what uses are put on the waterfront.<

From the government side, we look for agility and flexibility in the planning and design of waterfront solutions in the context of a collaborative, problem-solving approach. This need for agility applies to all scales—from new regional models for watershed management to site-specific experimental projects to test the performance of materials. We must evaluate zoning and land-use along our shores, where hard and soft edges are best suited, and how to integrate buildings and open space in response to rising water levels.<

Funding for Waterfront Lab projects (research, capital, maintenance and operations, and monitoring) could come through planing and financial structures that allow for deeper, longer-term collaborations among many disciplines and stakeholders. The Waterfront Lab could be a continuing means of testing innovative ideas, bringing New York City to the forefront of innovative waterfront resiliency planning and design.<

Below are additional reports and appendices by individual working groups, individuals and organizations who are part of the Post-Sandy team.  They are posted as submitted by the authors and have not undergone review or rewriting by the editorial team.<

Waterfront Lab Concepts and Additional Resources<

Bonnie A. Harken, AIA, APA
Jessica Sheridan, AIA, LEED AP
Denisha Williams, RLA, ASLA, LEED AP<

Alex Alaimo, AIAS
Venesa Alicea, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Robert Balder, AICP
Adrian Benepe, Hon. ASLA
Meta Brunzema, LEED AP
Teri-Lee Burger, RLA, ASLA
Andrew Cairns, PE, PMP
Carl Carlson, RLA, ASLA, LEED AP
Andres Carter
Margaret Castillo, AIA, LEED AP
Taewook Cha, RLA, ASLA, LEED AP BD+C
Caleb Crawford, LEED AP
Kathleen d’Erizans, AICP
Adam Elstein, LEED AP
Julie Engh, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP
Claire Fellman, ASLA, LEED AP
Arnold F. Fleming, PE
Owen Foote, AIA
Richard Gonzalez, AIA, LEED AP
Jeff Grob, RLA, ASLA
Rachel Gruzen, M.E.M., LEED AP
Patrick Hewes
Ricardo Hinkle, ASLA
Amira Joelson, AIA, LEED AP
Ilana Judah, Int’l Assoc. AIA, OAQ, LEED AP BD+C
David Maestres, Assoc. AIA
Sandra McKee, AIA, LEED AP
Arthur Platt, AIA
Alihan Polat
Alison Popper, Assoc. AIA
Sean Rasmussen, Assoc. AIA
Austin Reed
Hal Rosner, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP
Eli Sands
Giovanni Santamaria
Alan Smart
Braulio Sotomayor, AIAS
Michael Spina
Halina Steiner
Cortney Worrall
Ayodele Yusuf<