A Bold Concept for Post-Sandy Manhattan

Imagine marshes, floating neighborhoods, and hydroponic farms on city land.

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In New York City, the wreckage caused by Hurricane Sandy has created the unique opportunity not only to plan for the protection of the city, but also to re-imagine it. Rising water tables and increasingly frequent "100-year storms" are big challenges. New York City needs to respond in a big way.

Following Hurricane Irene, a team of young architects, landscape architects and urban planners from the University of Michigan’s Master of Urban Design Program, where I teach, gathered to develop an innovative concept to keep Manhattan safe from climate change.

The concept took the long view – 25 to 100 years out – and emerged from a set of assumptions. These included decreases in regional climate stability; global decreases in the availability and affordability of oil; increases in Manhattan’s population; and increasing emphasis on health, education, research, technology and tourism in the city’s economy. The team did identify an important constant: the power of the street grid in organizing Manhattan’s urbanism. It also understood that the concept’s capital costs – in a city where the new Second Avenue subway line is expected to cost $17 billion – would be high but when placed against the New York area’s contribution of nearly 10 percent of the nation’s GDP (as quantified by the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto), would be worth it.

Concept Plan: Highlighting waterfront reconfigured with marshes, tidal defense berms, hydroponic farms and floating neighborhoods; areas for highest density development outside of flood plains; and thoroughfares turned into soil channels providing water run-off, new public spaces and light-rail routes.

From the edges to the center of the island, the Michigan team’s concept plan alternates marshes, tidal defense berms, floating neighborhoods, hydroponic farms and new parks to protect against flooding. It also retrofits flood plains with a new datum above the water line for service, emergency and power systems; turns numerous streets and avenues into soil channels to facilitate water run-off; concentrates high- density development on the city’s ridges above the flood plains (usually toward the middle of the island); gives new high rise buildings shapes reflecting increased wind conditions; "greens" existing and new buildings to reduce energy consumption in all seasons; zones all of Manhattan "mixed-use" to encourage people to walk between home, work and school to cut back carbon expenditures; integrates surface-transit modes such as BRTs, light rail and bicycle to reduce car use; and below grade, parallels new subways linking Manhattan to the boroughs and region with flood tunnels that help accommodate storm surges.

In the face of climate change, Manhattan becomes different from but remains similar to the one today: More accessible to but better protected from the water, denser yet greener, as energetic as ever yet calmer and quieter.

Here, river fronts are made more accessible to the public; flood mitigation structures are integrated with new public facilities such as schools and recreation centers; neighborhoods in flood plains are provided campuses mixing work and living spaces above the water line; congested streets are turned into landscaped pedestrian ways; energy-efficient and aerodynamic skyscrapers vertically layer commercial, office, research and learning places; and mass transportation choices are increased.

The results: A Manhattan more durable in the face of climate change that accommodates growth while providing a more sustainable, less stressful environment.

Given the team’s allotted design time of 14 weeks (or one academic semester), its work focused on Manhattan but with the knowledge that design ideas for the center of New York could be applied to the five boroughs as well as to the larger region. And although preliminary, the team’s concept illustrates the rich vein of planning and design that can be explored in securing New York against the elements while shaping an attractive and dynamic urban environment that keeps Manhattan Manhattan.

Top image: Reconfigured 125th Street and Park Avenue Train Viaduct. Showing soil channel flowing below air rights development with linear park on rooftop – part of Manhattan’s new datum of service, social and recreational spaces. © University of Michigan The concept and renderings were created by a design team at the University of Michigan, which includes Mrinali Bosikal, Evis Bushi,
 Lan Ge, Kelly Gregg, Yang-Yu Huang, Marisa Lopez, Rui Qian, 
Chen Qin , Jinwei Shi, Tongtong Wang, Yin Wang, Kelsey Williams and Enying Xing. Research Associate: Sandra Pires; Graduate Assistant:  Yang-Yu Huang.

 

About the Author

  • Roy Strickland, a native New Yorker, is a professor of architecture at the University of Michigan where he served from 2001 to 2011 as the founding director of the Master of Urban Design Program.