Waterfronts and Preservation: Are They at Odds?

Is it ok for us to pay the billion-dollar price tag to preserve our city as is? I don’t think so. But I, like so many, don’t know what the solution is.

Red Hook flooded

photo courtesy The Brownstoner

Whether you call her Hurricane, Superstorm, or Frankenstorm, Sandy has brought devastation, destruction, and lasting change to our waters’ edge. Across New York City and the tri-state region, neighborhoods glimpsed the climate change forecast–massive flooding, storm surges, and rising seas. With lives lost and billions in damages, it’s safe to say our communities will never be the same.

Into this new reality comes a renewed vigor for finding new ways to cope. In New York City we’re hearing about many different solutions including storm barriers, oyster reefs, and waterfront parks–and as many political opinions. Some of these ideas treat water as something to keep at bay, working like the Dutch to build walls to protect us and keep the water out. But storm barriers pose a lot of problems. They wreak havoc on the marine environment, are challenging to implement legally and politically, can cost billions, and are a binary system, meaning they work up until they fail, then it’s a disaster. A barrier does help with one thing–preserving what we have.


Brooklyn Bridge and harbor, New York City, New York. 1903

New York City, founded by the Dutch and settled in 1624, was originally a trading settlement. It grew to be the economic superpower that it is today because of it’s foundation as a port. While the modern waterfront is becoming less of an economic engine and more of a leisure ground and condo doormat, we still have neighborhoods and communities that are rich with maritime history. These unique urban forms, composed of warehouses, factories, and maritime infrastructure were once the economic focus of New York, and they got their feet wet during Sandy. I’m a firm advocate of changing our cities because of climate change and rising sea levels. I believe that these settlements will be threatened and slowly destroyed by the very waters that gave them their original purpose. A storm barrier could help protect things the way they are, preserving the urban fabric and historic richness of our old working waterfronts. But is it the end-all solution? Is a storm barrier really the best answer? Do we save historic buildings and urban fabrics at the cost of the environment? Do we let other communities be damaged by the waters we keep at bay, just so we can preserve older communities? (A storm barrier keeps a large amount of water from entering the harbor, this captures the energy behind the wall, driving sea heights higher for areas not protected by the barrier. See this article discussing storm barriers.)


$7 Billion Storm Surge Barrier for New York City

Is it ok for us to pay the billion-dollar price tag to keep things the way they are? I don’t think so. But I, like so many talking heads these days, don’t know what the solution is. I just know that as bad as Sandy was, one day a storm will come that will be worse. And I hope that when that storm comes, we will have changed our thinking about oceanfronts for the better, or we may not have anything left to preserve.


Storm surge from the 1938 hurricane at the Battery, New York City.

Credit: NOAA/NWS Historic Collection.

Ryan A Cunningham is an employee of Metropolis Magazine; he has his MS in environmental city planning, specializes in resiliency research, and has experience working with New York City’s coastal communities.

Categories: Cities, Preservation