Here’s one way to stop the floodwaters the next time a monster like Superstorm Sandy comes ashore in New York City: Build an 8-mile-long system of dikes around the low-lying parts of Manhattan.
A proposal for just such a network of flood barriers, nicknamed “The Big U,” was one of 10 infrastructure projects selected by U.S. officials on Nov. 14 in an international design competition aimed at finding ways to better protect the coast from the kind of catastrophic flooding Sandy caused a year ago.
The winning ideas include an array of strategies for making the coastline more resilient in an age of rising seas, including natural breakwaters that could take the punch out of storm surf headed for Staten Island, a ring of water-trapping canals and parks for Hoboken, N.J., and channels in Long Beach, N.Y., that would help drain Long Island’s coastal bays during storms or periods of heavy rain.
The 10 projects were selected by U.S. Housing and urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan from a pool of 41 submitted last month by teams of nearly 200 architects, engineers and social scientists.
Each will now move on to a new phase in the competition, where the design teams will work on concrete plans and talk with local leaders about getting their broad concepts implemented. Some could also get federal funding.
There is no guarantee that any of the proposals will become a reality. Some involve ideas that would cost hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars, and require massive amounts of cooperation between government officials, the private sector and individual property owners.
But officials involved in the competition said they all serve the primary goal of stimulating regional collaboration and getting policymakers thinking about big changes that may be needed along the coast due to climate change.
“Some of the projects are huge … but all of them have aspects of small-scale solutions,” said Henk Ovink, co-chairman of the jury that helped Donovan make the selections.
Dr. Judith Rodin, president of The Rockefeller Foundation, which helped coordinate the Rebuild by Design competition, said each selected project was “thoughtful, innovative and will ultimately inform development in locations facing similar challenges.”
One idea more likely to capture the public’s imagination is the “Big U” proposal by the Bjarke Ingels Group, an architectural firm based in Denmark.
The project doesn’t call for a monolithic, expensive seawall around the city. The Bjarke Ingels team said those types of massive pieces of infrastructure have often proven damaging to urban civic life. Instead, the team has suggested that the network of flood barriers be broken up into “small, relatively simple projects” customized by neighborhood and built on independent timetables.
In one spot, like Battery Park, the barrier might take the form of a grassy slope. On the West Side Highway it could be tucked into the street median. In other locations, it could be disguised as public art. Another possibility: burying all of Manhattan’s FDR drive beneath a berm that could also be a floodwall and a public park. Details would be left largely to local planners.
“We want to marry development with flood protection,” said Ovink.
Other winning concepts include a plan that would turn part of New Jersey’s meadowlands into a regional “tidal park,” while simultaneously opening up part of the area to development.
Another project would add a variety of green flood defenses to a waterfront area of the Bronx that is home to one of the largest food distribution centers in the world.
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