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Oysters Could Save New York From More Sandys: Commentary

Kate Orff and SCAPE
Kate Orff and her landscape architecture firm, SCAPE, proposed the bay edge to protect communities from future large-scale storms in a Federal effort called Rebuild by Design. Source: SCAPE via Bloomberg

Kate Orff wants to grow oysters in New York’s Jamaica Bay. Not for you to eat, but to save the shore from mighty storms.

Great piles of mollusks will diffuse the energy of 10-to-15-foot waves, like those from Sandy that shattered boardwalks and beach homes and shot like missiles up city streets.

On a map in her busy, sunlit lower Manhattan loft office, she points to oyster-reef blobs she has proposed just off the end of New York City’s fragile Rockaway peninsula. They look as substantial as jellyfish.

Over decades, she says, oysters will grow atop a rock and shell base, attaching themselves to poles and ropes as they accumulate into serrated reefs.

Orff, 41, is a landscape architect, heading her own New York City firm called SCAPE. Her practice includes the gardens and parks you would expect, but she has made a specialty of “how urbanism and nature coexist.”

Or don’t. She’s developed design guidelines to minimize the collisions of birds with buildings. And she collaborated on one of the scariest books on pollution: “Petrochemical America,” a mapping of the lower Mississippi River’s transformation into Cancer Alley. Richard Misrach’s disturbing photographs visualize the horror.


The oyster idea evolved from the Museum of Modern Art’s 2010 exhibition “Rising Currents.” Chief architecture curator Barry Bergdoll asked interdisciplinary teams to envision new ways to cope with sea-level rise induced by climate change.

“Oystertecture” sounds whimsical but is now taken seriously, thanks to the eye-popping cost of massive flood gates proposed for Jamaica Bay.

Though the bi-valves are only one tactic in a broad-based strategy, Orff said their sucky helpfulness has gotten a supportive response. She is consulting with federal, state and city government agencies on long-term shoreline protections.

After running her proposals on a Stevens Institute of Technology super-computer model of New York’s hydrology, she learned that the Rockaway reefs “can reduce wave actions significantly on Coney Island,” and would allow less-intrusive protective beach dunes to be built in Brooklyn and Staten Island.

I asked her why a landscape architect is in the business of redesigning nature on such a large scale.

Earth Institute

“Working in the public realm attracts me,” she said. “It’s a complex process involving rooms full of people. It’s not like being an artist making a sculpture in a loft.”

She is a full-time professor in architecture and urban design at Columbia University and teaches at its Earth Institute. Of her workload, she says, “It’s kind of 200 percent.”

For downtown Lexington, Kentucky, Orff proposed a park that would excavate Town Branch, a stream that has long run within a buried culvert.

Because of the porous local limestone geology (which gives Kentucky bourbon its unique taste), the stream will bubble up in some locations, and, as it weaves among pathways and playfields, disappear into holes in the stone layers.

Another project will open more of the Mississippi riverfront in Minneapolis to citizens. This park threads through a tangle of dams, locks, and road bridges.

The planet -- and our own New York corner of it -- isn’t in great shape, I say. Is she ever overwhelmed by today’s environmental challenges?

“I’m an optimist. I became a landscape architect because I could productively work on the issues that affect the future.”

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Philip Boroff on Broadway and Amanda Gordon’s Scene.

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