“Living Breakwaters” Wins Buckminster Fuller Challenge

SCAPE / Landscape Architecture, founded by Kate Orff, ASLA, has just received $100,000 from the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI) for their “comprehensive climate change adaptation and community development project” called Living Breakwaters. This innovative project in Tottenville, at the southern tip of Staten Island, New York, will be first large-scale experiment with “oyster-tecture.” It has already been slated to receive $60 million in financing from the U.S. government, as it also won HUD’s Rebuild by Design competition. With the added support from BFI, Living Breakwaters is now considered one of the most promising systems-based designs for coastal resilience.

The BFI uses its annual challenge to highlight game-changing systems-based designs, that is approaches that can truly upset current modes of operating and lead to paradigm shifts. Last year’s winner, Ecovative, came up with a novel approach to packaging, inventing a new biodegradable form of Styrofoam made of mycelium and agricultural waste. According to BFI, Living Breakwaters takes a system-based approach as it combines “ecologically-engineered” oyster-tecture with education around coastal resilience, and a focus on the “restoration of livelihoods traditional to the community of Tottenville in Staten Island,” while also spurring regulatory changes.

Bill Browning of Terrapin Bright Green, a 2014 senior adviser and jury member, said what’s exciting about SCAPE’s project is that it’s about partnering with natural systems instead of fighting them. Furthermore, the project deals with seemingly separate ecological and social systems together as one. “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 due to climate change, but you can ameliorate the force and impact of 100 and 500 year storm surges through ecological interventions while simultaneously catalyzing dialog to nurture future stewards of the built environment.”

The project will deploy “innovative, layered ecologically-engineered breakwaters;” strengthen biodiversity and coastal habitats through “reef streets”; nurture and resuscitate fisheries and historic livelihoods; and engage the community through new partnerships and educational programs meant to address the social side of sustainability.

Orff describes the concept in more detail: “Rather than cutting communities off from the water with a levee or wall, our approach embraces the water and its economic and recreational opportunities, using shallow water landscapes to stabilize the shore and rebuild diverse habitats. Sitting at the mouth of the New York Bight, Staten Island is particularly vulnerable to wave action and erosion. Our pilot project in Tottenville utilizes a layered system of breakwaters, constructed of ecologically engineered concrete, to attenuate wave action, create habitat for juvenile fish, and provide calm waters for recreation on the landward side. We have designed ‘reef street’ micro-pockets of habitat complexity to host finfish, shellfish, and lobsters, and hydrodynamically modeled the breakwater system at a macro scale to understand how and where they can most effectively protect communities. Structures called Water Hubs are located at critical points along the shore to serve as places of gathering for classes, orientation, kayak & equipment.”

And she articulates the potential systems impact of her thinking: “Our initial project aims to protect the South Shore of Staten Island but the concept, through site-specific study, could be replicable along much of the U.S. coastline.”

A new system may come at not a moment too soon. So much of our coastal ecosystems are under threat, with sea level rise, temperature changes, and the rise of nitrogen levels. Orff says our critical estuaries and bays could be at risk of “disappearing within decades, if not years.” Let’s all hope this experiment works — and can truly be replicated at reasonable cost.

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