New York’s Clever New Park Will Weather Epic Storms and Rising Seas

SAM LUBELL Wired 7 Jul 16;

ON JULY 19 Governors Island, a 172-acre park about half a mile off the southern tip of Manhattan, will open its new centerpiece: “The Hills”—as the four enormous mounds are called—will span ten acres and give visitors amazing views, art installations, and plenty of space for play and relaxation. They’ll also be a model for protecting a city vulnerable to climate change-powered storms and sea level rise.

When the Trust for Governor’s Island imagined the site in 2006, the term “resiliency” wasn’t even in the vocabulary of New Yorkers, says Trust president Leslie Koch. This was years before Superstorm Sandy, after all. But in 2007, Koch and her colleagues selected West 8, a Dutch architecture and landscape design firm known for the attention it pays to the threat of climate change, to lead the project. “We got a crash course in what it meant, before everyone else,” says Koch.

For starters, they would have to plan ahead by elevating the park out of harm’s way. As sea levels rise, coastal groundwater can become salty, killing vegetation. To protect the park’s trees, West 8 design director Adriaan Geuze told Koch and her colleagues they would need to lift nearly 40 acres of land on the southern half of Governors Island—which is mostly shallow landfill and completely surrounded by brackish water—7 to 15 feet, on top of fill. “The island is in the middle of the ocean,” Geuze says. “Tides roll around it, and exposure is part of its life.”

The message didn’t sink in right away. But Geuze convinced the Trust. “I was very skeptical. I thought this was just something Dutch people do,” Koch says. “But we reviewed the data more than once, and it became clear this was a necessity.”

Additional steps included securing the hills—mostly made of construction debris under the lovely lawn—with jute mesh (forming what’s called an erosion control mat) and planting trees, shrubs, and grasses to prevent erosion and stabilize the new topography. The builders also installed a rocky sea wall to break up the surf and concrete seat edges at the bottom of some of the hills that also act as water barriers. They encouraged a subtle downward slope toward the shore that will flush tides that make it over the wall. The hills, themselves, work as a natural water barrier.

The Hills also works as a beautiful park. The rolling hills invite you to explore by hiding destinations just beyond your line of vision. Atop the undulating mounds, the project’s botanical team has planted over 40,000 shrubs and almost 3,000 trees. The team has “overplanted” those trees significantly, allowing natural selection to weed out the ones that won’t make it in this harsh, windswept place, and creating a soil base that is extra rich in nutrients and bacteria. “In essence we learned to accept that nature’s not changing,” says Koch. “It’s how are we going to live in it, not how are we going to stop it.” She adds: “This kind of thinking should be happening with every development in New York City.”

For Geuze, who trained as an agricultural engineer, none of this is new territory. “This is what I’ve done for 90 percent of my projects,” he says, pointing to works like the New Hondsbossche Dunes in Petten the Netherlands, designed as a natural landscape as opposed to a sandy dike. “There is a lot of talk about sustainability in the media. But in my profession—landscape architecture—sustainability has been the core issue since the 19th century. Without it your project will fail.”

The battle to prepare New York for rising tides is just beginning. In 2013, shortly after Hurricane Sandy, the city launched the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency. The plan outlined countless measures to address resiliency, ranging from the installation of flood protection infrastructure, to increased accessibility to drinking water during storms, to the passage of measures that would ease the elevation of building systems. Today, most of those initiatives are in progress or completed.

“We are never going to be where we want to be. We always want to be safer,” says Amy Spitalnick, a spokesperson for the city. “But I think we’re moving forward more aggressively than anticipated, both in terms of securing the dollars and executing the projects.” The city’s Building Resiliency Task Force, a group established by the New York Chapter of the US Green Building Council, estimates the city is about halfway to meeting its resiliency needs. Projects like the Hills show that those needs can come with a dose of fun, too.

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