Creating a New Waterfront

August 26, 2009 at 1:38 am Leave a comment

Public housing of a certain era is often a good historical indicator of where the least desirable areas of New York used to be. And many of those areas were along the water. Officials sited public housing in Alphabet City across the FDR Drive from the East River and far from inland subways. On my own block of Greenwich Street, towers of public housing were constructed a mere block from the Hudson River in an area that lacked amenities and was surrounded by old warehouses. For centures, the waterfront was a place for work, lined with factories and piers, and not for recreation or residences.

But that changed. The factories and piers migrated to the region’s roomier ports in other boroughs and in New Jersey or to other locations around the country and the world. It took yet more time before New York began to take advantage of its newly available waterfront property, transforming abandoned shipping facilities into valuable public space.

Waterfront locations are now desirable. They are the locations of many of the current “starchitect buildings.” The voyeuristic glass façades of Richard Meier’s Perry Street buildings work both ways, allowing their residents to soak in views of the Hudson. The waterfront has become a place to breathe, whether metaphorically by escaping the stress of ultra-urban New York, or literally by biking and shooting hoops. Sometimes it seems as though everyone is pounding their knees on stone pavers just to jog with views of ferries and kayaks.

Just as our city is rediscovering its waterfront, the waterfront is making an effort to rediscover the rest of our city. Our shoreline inherently exists only at the edges of our city, but that edge is changing. With sea level rise predicted from climate change, areas of the city with softer edges will risk becoming waterpront property, for better or worse. Some of the grand amenities, both public and private, along the current waterfront may be at risk as climate change pushes storm surges beyond bulkheads and riprap. Still, while steps should be taken to mitigate this potential water level rise and the increased potential for floods, this is also our opportunity to connect more of our city with the water around us and to continue the trend of opening up and increasing access to water.

We have the opportunity to think creatively about how we can allow water to comfortably enter our city in a way that enables more people further inland to benefit from its presence rather than simply build higher barriers to keep it out.

Could water plazas be incorporated into the urban fabric? Water plazas in public parks and building courtyards could be constructed where ponding usually occurs so that, during heavy rains, the plazas would fill with water, preventing flooding in other areas and creating access to water features in locations far from the water’s traditional edge. During drier seasons, the plazas would be usable for other purposes. Perhaps the same concept could be applied to sea water flooding, so that basins could capture excess water and channel it into specific water features, allowing water to penetrate further inland while reducing disruption to the functioning of the city.

As in parts of Europe where rivers often overflow their banks, the next generation of architects could design New York’s buildings with watertight gates or open ground floors so that the buildings could continue to function with water around their bases. In this way, New Yorkers who currently live near the water would be able to live above it and those who live blocks from it could live at its edge.

Finally, just as the last century’s growth took us in new directions – both upwards and out into former farmland – the next century’s growth should take us out of our flood plains. Over the last hundred years the development of Midtown shifted the center of Manhattan northward, and contemporary initiatives and policies could change New York’s geography again so that development occurs primarily outside of major flood zones.

This summer’s period of endless rain has finally ended, but before the idea of a city filled with water fades, we must reflect on how New York can better harness and provide access to its water amenities.

By Andrew Turco, Research Assistant

Regional Planning Association

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Entry filed under: Dive In, Public Waterfront, Region. Tags: , , .

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