Can oysters help us defend coastal areas from rising seas?

The Seas Are Rising. Could Oysters Help?

How a landscape architect is enlisting nature to defend our coastal cities against climate change—and doing it on the cheap.

By Eric KlinenbergAugust 2, 2021

Kate Orff

In New York, Kate Orff will use oyster reefs to mitigate storm surges.Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

On a windy afternoon in April, the landscape architect Kate Orff stood on the open walkway of a container crane, some eighty feet above the Red Hook Terminal, in Brooklyn, and the Buttermilk Channel, a tidal strait on the southeast side of Governors Island. Most places in New York City make it easy to avoid thinking about the rivers, canals, and ocean waters that form an aquatic thoroughfare for the global economy and surround the industrial corridors, office towers, and densely populated neighborhoods where millions of people have settled. This place is not one of them.

Orff, who is forty-nine, pushed back strands of ash-brown hair that had blown loose from her ponytail, and pointed out the busy navigation channels, which, for more than two centuries, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has dredged in order to keep them deep and fast. Then she pointed toward the steel-and-concrete barriers that separate the city from the harbor but that, in 2012, proved no match for Superstorm Sandy.

“I’m interested in reworking the edges,” Orff told me, squinting into the breeze. Farther west, along the Hudson River, we could make out the ports and cities in New Jersey where the risk of tidal flooding has more than doubled over the past generation, as sea levels have risen. Behind us were the Red Hook Houses, the largest public-housing complex in Brooklyn, with some twenty-five hundred units set on a peninsula, a former tidal marsh that will take on more and more water as the planet continues to warm.

“Before Buttermilk Channel was dredged, people used to walk from here to Governors Island at low tide,” she said. “There were oysters, tide pools, grasses, lots of colorful marine life, and they were a big part of New York’s coastal-protection system. They acted like breakwaters, absorbing wave energy and slowing the water before it hit the shore. We’ve spent the past one hundred years dredging out everything for shipping and hardening the edges. Now we have a different climate, and we need a different approach.”

A great deal of Orff’s work addresses the inescapable fact that the Atlantic Ocean is rising, and coming for the land. She’s the founder of the design firm scape, the director of the Urban Design Program at Columbia University, and the first landscape architect to win a MacArthur “genius” grant. She’s also at the forefront of an emerging approach to climate resilience that argues we should be building with nature, not just in nature. Its guiding principle is that “gray infrastructure”—the dikes, dams, and seawalls that modern societies use to contain and control water—is often insufficient, and sometimes destructive. Green infrastructure, by contrast, involves strategically deploying wetlands, dunes, mangrove forests, and reefs to reduce threats of catastrophic flooding and coastal erosion, while also revitalizing the land. This carefully designed “second nature,” the thinking goes, could be our second chance.

It won’t be the same as the now disappeared natural world. Some conservationists advocate “rewilding,” returning developed land to indigenous flora and fauna, but in places like New York City that’s not an option. “I know people who have this romantic view that we should just let nature take its course,” Orff said, eying the factories and tall buildings that line the riverfront. “But that doesn’t take into account the damage we’ve already done.”

That afternoon at the Red Hook Terminal, Orff, in a long black jacket and sneakers with fluorescent yellow laces, was inspecting a mollusk setting tank belonging to the Billion Oyster Project, a nonprofit that aims to reintroduce the bivalve, in vast quantities, to the waterways of New York City—oysters being a critical part of her coastal-infrastructure plans. Correctly deployed, oysters can form dense reefs that slow the movement of water and mitigate the impact of storm surges. The Red Hook terminal is situated where the East River feeds into the Upper Bay, which was once a prime habitat for oysters; they could grow to weigh more than a pound apiece and fill an entire dinner plate. But, in the past century and a half, extensive river excavation, industrial pollution, and overharvesting have destroyed nearly every oyster colony in the New York Harbor region.

The Billion Oyster Project has retrofitted four beige nine-thousand-gallon shipping containers into oyster tanks. They look a little like back-yard aboveground swimming pools, complete with blue plastic interiors, and are connected to the harbor through PVC hoses and powerful water pumps. On Governors Island, several hundred yards away, project staffers and volunteers build wire cages, or gabions, filled with cleaned oyster shells. Then, in a cavernous warehouse at the Red Hook Terminal, the gabions are loaded into the salt-water-filled tanks. Next, oyster larvae are released into each tank, starting a process called “setting.” After about a week, the shell-anchored larvae, or “spat,” are transported to the restoration site and placed underwater, where they will spend their adult lives.

Much of Orff’s work involves translating arcane topics—from ecology, marine biology, climate science, and architecture—into concepts that resonate with nonexperts. When she explains a project, Orff holds her interlocutor’s gaze; you can sense her mind racing to calibrate the right language for the occasion, and you hear it as she punctuates her key ideas, her voice rising and then resting so that her words can sink in. “We’re essentially mimicking the activity that would be happening naturally in a healthier body of water,” Orff told me. “We have to hit the reset button if we want nature to come back. There’s no more natural nature. Now it’s a matter of design.”

To the south, behind the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, Staten Island was a greenish mound on the horizon. There, almost half a million people live near a triangular indentation of coastline and ocean known as the New York Bight, which funnels storm water directly onto the land. During Sandy, a sixteen-foot storm surge slammed into residential neighborhoods on the South Shore, tearing entire houses off their foundations. Twenty-four people died on the island. After the disaster, local leaders called for the government to safeguard coastal communities with a seawall. But blocking off the vulnerable parts of New York City would have been extraordinarily expensive, and the ecological costs of cutting off the flow of water into the Hudson River and its tributaries—or of locking it into places that experience heavy rainfall—were equally daunting. We can’t live without water; the challenge is learning how to live with it.

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When Orff looked into Staten Island’s predicament, she couldn’t help but notice how much it resembled the situation in other parts of New York City and, for that matter, in coastal cities throughout the world. At scape, she put together a plan, called Living Breakwaters, for protecting and reanimating Staten Island’s coastline. In 2014, the proposal earned the highest score in the billion-dollar Rebuild by Design competition, an Obama Administration initiative that invited designers, engineers, scientists, and planners to build systems for a wetter, warmer world. Orff designed a necklace of sloped rock formations and “reef streets” to be submerged in Raritan Bay, where they would attenuate the energy of waves crashing into the South Shore of Staten Island and serve as habitats for oysters, lobsters, and juvenile fish. The system, which would be largely invisible to the area’s residents, wouldn’t prevent storm water from reaching their sidewalks and streets. But it would lessen the impact, lowering the risk of major damage in future hurricanes while helping people connect with one another and with the ecosystems that sustain them.

The project, which will cost sixty million dollars in federal funding—a modest sum for a flood-protection system that protects a long urban shoreline—includes nine separate breakwater segments, spanning twenty-four hundred linear feet across the bay; a floating oyster nursery; an environmental-education hub; and a set of man-made tide pools, shallow rocky basins built in the zones where water and land mingle at high tide. “A lot of coastal infrastructure lacks surface complexity,” Pippa Brashear, one of Orff’s colleagues at scape, told me. “It’s mostly hard walls.” The scape project will be the opposite. “If you put on a scuba suit and swim around Living Breakwaters, you’ll see something that looks like an oyster reef, with lots of nooks and crannies,” she said. “It’s designed to be messy, with lots of little critters, invertebrates like tunicates, really colorful sponges, young sea bass and striped bass and silversides darting around and finding places to hide. Then we’ll have the oysters, hopefully tons of them. It’ll be teeming with life.”

“It’s not easy,” Orff said of the project’s ambitions, which are both social and ecological. “But the oysters do a lot of the work.”

Orff grew up in suburban Maryland and describes herself as “a classic latchkey kid.” Her father, an engineer and an avid birder, was a civil servant who worked at nasa and the N.S.A.; her mother worked as a secretary for the county executive. “I had a lot of time to explore things and basically do whatever seemed interesting,” Orff told me with a slightly mischievous smile. “For me, that wound up being a pretty weird mix of things.” In high school, most kids get sorted into specific roles and identities: freaks and geeks, jocks and goths. Orff refused to be limited. She was an artist, the captain of her lacrosse team, a feminist, and a budding environmentalist.

Airline passenger's anxiety is stowed under the seat and in the overhead bin.
“Your anxiety should fit either under the seat or in the overhead compartment.”

At the University of Virginia, she studied with the late pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty and wrote an undergraduate thesis on ecofeminism; at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, another eminence, the architect Rem Koolhaas, selected her to join his six-person urban-design seminar and research team. “I wasn’t even supposed to apply, because I was still so early in the program,” Orff recalled. “One day, I saw my name posted on his board, and when I walked into his office he said, ‘O.K., Kate. You are landscape.’ ”

Orff’s first design job after her graduate training was at a traditional corporate design firm in Sausalito. One day, Koolhaas called and asked if the projects she was doing were “beautiful.” “I was working on a courtyard at Stanford, a tourism complex in Egypt, a gated community in Myanmar,” Orff told me. “I’m not even sure that one was legal. I said, ‘No, they’re not beautiful.’ And he said, ‘Well, why aren’t you working with me?’ ” She went home, posted an ad to sell all her furniture, and then pulled up stakes. In 2000, Orff helped open a new Manhattan office for Koolhaas’s firm, O.M.A. (Office for Metropolitan Architecture). She rented a small studio apartment on Fifteenth Street, and, like a typical New Yorker, she quickly discovered how much she needed to escape it.

Her friends recommended that she take advantage of Central Park. “But by then I had already spent all this time studying it in graduate school, and I was basically uninterested,” Orff recalled. Instead, she volunteered with the National Audubon Society and started spending time at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a sprawling oasis in Queens, between Kennedy Airport and Rockaway Beach. It has more than twelve thousand acres of wetlands, dunes, salt marshes, forests, and beaches, along with some three hundred species of birds. For Orff, it became a source of inspiration.

“You could tell the whole history of New York in, like, one square metre of Jamaica Bay,” Orff explained. “It was full of Lenape settlements, with shell mounds and hunting grounds. People lived between the water and the land. They caught every kind of fish.” European settlers appreciated the area’s flora and fauna, but they also liked its beaches, where they disposed of waste. “The entire bay is ringed with the detritus of modern society,” Orff said. “It’s where we put everything that we didn’t value. Including horses. There’s actually a place here called Dead Horse Bay, where horses who worked the streets of New York City—including the ones who lugged the soil they used to make Central Park—got shipped out and dumped. You can still find bones there, and some of them are big.”

In Jamaica Bay, Orff met ecologists and environmental activists who were warning about the dangers of rising sea levels but struggling to gain traction in a city fixated on post-9/11 security concerns. “They understood that the marshes, and a lot of the life they nurtured, were going to disappear unless there was major intervention,” she recalled. “And I started thinking about what that intervention would look like. I mean, what would it mean to design Jamaica Bay? You would need to garden it. You would plant oysters, plant marsh grass, renature the ecosystem. But where? And how?”

Orff took these questions to Kenneth Frampton, a renowned scholar of architecture at Columbia whose essay “Toward an Urban Landscape” was a formative influence, and they chatted in his office in Morningside Heights. At the end of the conversation, he said, “Kate, why aren’t you teaching here?” Orff worked up a proposal for a new seminar called “Landscape, Infrastructure, Intervention,” and the following year she joined the faculty of Columbia’s graduate program. The course attracted students from different departments and created buzz around campus. “It was exciting to see so much interest in wetlands, coastlines, and urban infrastructure,” she said.

In 2005, she launched scape, where, by all accounts, she has cultivated a role more like a coach and a choreographer than a dictator who demands that the staff build their napkin sketches at scale. But her professional breakthrough came four years later, when she was invited to participate in “Rising Currents,” a Museum of Modern Art exhibition that showcased new ideas for combatting global warming in the urban environment. Orff, the sole landscape designer leading a team for the show, was asked to develop a plan for Liberty State Park in New Jersey. But the site didn’t work for her, because there wasn’t enough daily social life to support the cultural connections she’d envisaged between people and place. “I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “So I told them I had a conflict of interest because of a client in Jersey. Bit of a stretch!”

Instead, she put in for the Gowanus Canal, a 1.8-mile-long, hundred-foot-wide waterway in Brooklyn that runs from Boerum Hill through Red Hook and into New York Harbor. Although it once nourished an abundant supply of oysters, it’s now better known for holding enough “black mayonnaise”—a toxic mixture of raw sewage, oil, coal, chemicals, and heavy metals—to fill twenty-two Olympic-size swimming pools. A few years earlier, in 2007, a young minke whale was spotted swimming near the mouth of the canal after a historic rainstorm. The Daily News nicknamed it Sludgie the Whale (a play on the popular Carvel ice-cream cake Fudgie the Whale), and New Yorkers rushed to see it. But the Gowanus, which receives about three hundred and sixty million gallons of untreated wastewater each year, was no place for a young whale to visit. Sludgie, injured and disoriented, promptly beached herself on some rocks and died. In March, 2010, just as Orff’s exhibit was going up at moma, the E.P.A. designated the Gowanus a Superfund site, spurring a $1.5 billion dredging-and-cleaning project. (It finally began last year.)

Orff’s submission, called “Oyster-Tecture,” imagined a living reef in the canal made of tangles and webs of fuzzy rope that, by harnessing the filtration powers of shellfish and eelgrass, would help support a resurgence of aquatic biodiversity. On the banks of the canal, she designed a water park for families, with lots of places to sit and to stroll, and new channels that could flow out of the canal and feed into Brooklyn’s residential communities; the waterfront, treated as a dumping ground for decades, would become a gathering place.

Bags of oysters stacked on top of each other
In the past century and a half, overharvesting destroyed nearly every oyster colony in the New York Harbor region. Now the Billion Oyster Project is raising the bivalves in modified shipping containers, then introducing them into the environment.Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

It was a utopian-sounding vision, and some people dismissed it. In the Times, the critic Nicolai Ouroussoff belittled what he called Orff’s “effort to turn back the clock to a time when New York was an oyster capital of the world”; he found it “slightly hokey,” which he ascribed to her being one of the show’s “young and relatively untested” contributors.

“I was so riled up when that came out!” Orff recalled. “He didn’t get it.” Other influential people in the design profession did, however, and the Army Corps of Engineers asked for a meeting. “It’s a beautiful idea,” said Guy Nordenson, a Princeton University engineering and architecture professor whose research helped inspire the “Rising Currents” exhibition. “It connects with things Europeans are doing, making room for the river instead of walling it off.” Orff delights in the popular appeal of Oyster-Tecture, convinced that ecological design should be an enticement to those who see climate change as cause for building a better world.

“The way we talk about global warming is usually dark and pessimistic,” she told me. “It can be stifling. Part of my job is showing people new ways to see things, to offer a vision of places we can live in, responsibly, and also enjoy.”

On a cold day this spring, Orff met me at Plumb Beach, a short, narrow stretch of shoreline at the southern edge of Brooklyn, and a nesting-and-breeding ground for horseshoe crabs. Right off the Belt Parkway, near Sheepshead Bay, the beach looks across to the Rockaway Peninsula, a natural barrier between it and the open ocean. It’s sometimes referred to as New York City’s “hidden beach,” accessible only via an eastbound exit, and invisible until you step out of the parking lot and onto the sand. Giving me directions on the phone, Orff warned that the beach was like the seventh-and-a-half floor in the movie “Being John Malkovich.” “It’s after Exit 9 and before Exit 11, but there is no Exit 10,” she told me. “It’s a warp in time and space. Just trust that it’s there.”

Plumb Beach, the site of a federally funded ecological restoration project, provided an early test case of whether Orff-style natural infrastructure projects can succeed. The push for this approach in the United States came after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, when some studies indicated that the disappearance of marshes and wetlands around the Gulf of Mexico had allowed storm waters to pick up force as they approached New Orleans, adding pressure on levees and seawalls. Calls to restore these ecological systems gained support from Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers. Today, the Corps has a team of nearly two hundred scientists, engineers, and resource managers, who are developing guidelines for the task. In the past dozen or so years, they have done small-scale wetland restoration in Lower Township, New Jersey; on beaches and dunes in Encinitas, California; and at Shoalwater Bay, in Washington. But, for Orff, the Corps’s work at Plumb Beach was particularly significant.

On the day I visited, the forecast was baffling: frigid conditions at the start of the day, howling winds later in the morning, and, by afternoon, record-high temperatures. The beach was desolate, with a lone dog walker, a young couple snuggling, and a long line of flowers that local residents had left near the water, seemingly as some kind of religious offering. The beach was sheltered by sloping dunes, covered in thick grasses and plants.

It hadn’t always been that way. When a powerful storm hit Plumb Beach in 2009, Orff explained, “this was basically flat landscape, and the bay came close to washing away the Belt Parkway.” The Corps built a beach berm, two jetties made of large rocks, and a substantial breakwater, to thicken the edge of the land and to shield developed areas inland from future storms.

In 2012, soon after the government had completed the first phase of the project—building the berm, with more than a hundred thousand cubic yards of sand from harbor-dredging work—Superstorm Sandy hit. Orff was living in Forest Hills at the time, with her husband and two young children. “Like most New Yorkers, I was watching the storm in real time,” she remembered. “It was like a comet on a direct path to New York and New Jersey. But I don’t think a lot of people here were thinking about the risk of mass deaths or major infrastructure failures. I was mainly concerned about trees falling on our house.” She experienced nothing worse than a brief power loss, and woke up the next day feeling relieved—until she realized the extent of the damage throughout the city. The East River had rushed into a Con Edison substation, plunging a quarter of a million households into darkness. Scores of large apartment buildings were inundated. “The tunnels had turned into rivers,” she said. “People were wading through the streets of Chelsea. And there were many deaths in Staten Island, including the Dresch family, in Tottenville, whose house got torn off its foundations by the waves. The father and daughter drowned in that water. Their story is burned in my memory.”

In Plumb Beach, however, the berm held, blocking the storm surge and largely protecting the Belt Parkway, along with the people directly behind it. For Orff, the performance of the nature-based infrastructure during Sandy was revelatory. It suggested that a scaled-up version of Oyster-Tecture could be immediately useful—not for provoking discussion but for preserving communities along the coast.

A drainage pipe above ground
In Tottenville, Staten Island, drainage pipes, once buried, have been unearthed by coastal erosion. This summer, work will begin nearby for Living Breakwaters, among the most extensive nature-based infrastructure systems in urban America.Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

As vulnerable as New York was, Orff knew that other population centers were still more so. Back in 2010, after the BP spill dumped nearly five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and its neighboring waterways and wetlands, Orff made her first visit to the Lower Mississippi Valley, the nation’s largest floodplain, to begin a collaborative project with the photographer Richard Misrach. (It turned into the book “Petrochemical America.”) She wanted to see the Mississippi Flyway, where nearly half of North America’s waterfowl and sixty per cent of U.S. bird species migrate or winter, and where scores of fish and shellfish species make their home. Orff immediately took to the region, and scape now runs a busy office in New Orleans. The entire city sits on one of Orff’s “edges”—a site of extraordinary natural peril and promise.

On a hot, humid morning in late spring, I joined Orff and her collaborator David Muth, who directs the National Wildlife Federation’s Gulf Program, on a skiff at the Pointe à la Hache Boat Harbor, elevation seven feet. We were about an hour’s drive south of New Orleans. Our captain, Richie Blink, grew up shrimping on the bayous of the Mississippi River Delta; he now represents his district in the parish government, runs an ecotourism business, and, in his spare time, plants as many bald-cypress and willow trees as he can. “I’ve done about twenty-five thousand so far,” he told me. “But we’re gonna need a whole lot more.”

Trees, as Blink sees it, are essential green infrastructure for shoring up one of the world’s most fragile landscapes—what locals call the Bird’s Foot. It’s a strip of small islands, narrow canals, and murky wetlands that juts out from the mouth of the Mississippi River and extends Louisiana into the ocean; from above, the spindly stretches of land look like a young root system or, indeed, the delicate footprint of a bird. In recent decades, the foot has been retracting, with land disappearing into the sea at the staggering pace of a football field’s worth every hundred minutes. If current trends continue, the remaining four-thousand-square-mile coastal area will become open water in about fifty years, leaving New Orleans and the towns around it even more vulnerable to catastrophic flooding. The land loss is not just a matter of rising sea levels; it’s also driven by the way we’ve pumped water, oil, and gas from the ground, causing the terrain to sink, and by the way we’ve lined the banks of the Mississippi River with hard, flat construction material—including more than two thousand miles of federal levees. Because these levees confine the flow of the river, they increase its speed; instead of depositing sediment in marshlands along the way, the current sends it past the delta and its historic floodplain, into the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, though, Orff had been brought out on the water by a positive development. A few years earlier, new crevasses had formed in the riverbanks that hold the Mississippi River in place, and began slowing the flow of sediment out to sea. The backwaters were filling up with soil again. Gradually, but wondrously, new land was forming.

Although those crevasses were accidental, they also provided proof of principle. This year, Muth and Orff have lent their support to the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, a $1.5-billion plan to tear open a great hole in the levee that lines the Mississippi River in lower Plaquemines Parish, sending some seventy-five thousand cubic feet of water and sediment per second into the West Bank wetlands.

“It’s the best chance we have to restore and protect the coast before it drowns forever,” Muth told me. “We have funding for it, from the BP settlement, and about seventy per cent of the state supports it.”

The main holdout is the fishing industry, for which brackish seawater breeds abundance, while the arrival of fresh river water is hostile to most shrimp and other valuable saltwater harvests. The proposal, scheduled for permitting next April, includes more than three hundred million dollars to compensate communities that suffer losses from the diversion.

“I understand why some people are worried about changes,” Orff said. “But change is coming no matter what happens, and this is the way we can help.”

Blink, whose round, youthful face was protected by a fraying baseball cap, steered the small, seafoam-green boat through a maze of tree-lined channels and canals. Every few minutes, Muth spotted a bird (“painted bunting!” “prothonotary warbler!” “roseate spoonbill!”), an alligator, feral cows, or, on one occasion, a pair of goats. Blink pulled the skiff up along a patch of earth that had surfaced recently, formed by sediment that would formerly have been swept out to sea. It was already thick with vegetation.

Weathered sandbags on the coast of Staten Island beach
Sandbags on a Staten Island beach are remnants of previous makeshift flood-prevention efforts. Orff’s design for the South Shore of the island would be largely invisible to the area’s residents, but would help protect the coast in future hurricanes.Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

“Baby land!” Orff exclaimed, reaching her hand out to touch it from the bow.

“Careful,” Muth said. “They call it cut-grass for a reason.”

Orff, in orange Crocs and gray joggers, asked if it was safe to walk on.

“Sure,” Blink responded. “Just look out for cottonmouths. They’re all over this place.”

Unfazed, Orff swung her legs out and stepped onto the soft, mucky terrain.

“Heron prints!” she called out. “And tiny willows.”

Minutes later, she climbed back on board, beaming. “You may think this is silly,” she said, “but I find it almost prehistoric here. There’s something dangerous in the air, but also something overwhelmingly beautiful. You can feel the earth being born again.”

Mother Nature’s designs for the planet did not need to withstand any legal or scientific scrutiny. Orff’s plans must withstand both, and Living Breakwaters, in particular, had to provide evidence that it would function as intended in order to secure its funding. Using a supercomputer that digitally modelled what happened during Superstorm Sandy, the scape team was able to fine-tune its design by testing different configurations of reefs and breakwaters: Where should they be built? How many should there be? Two potentially conflicting goals had to be balanced—to weaken waves but also to prevent beach erosion. “If you slow the waves too much, you wind up starving the beach,” said Joseph Marrone, who works for Arcadis, a global engineering corporation known for large-scale water-management projects, and whose expertise Orff enlisted for Living Breakwaters.

But New York State funders weren’t content with digital simulations; they insisted that the project be tested with more extensive hydrodynamic wave modelling, using actual water. And for good reason. The Princeton engineering scholar Guy Nordenson cautioned me, “The dynamics in coastal ecosystems are truly complex, and although we have exciting ideas about how to protect them they’re not fully validated yet. It’s not like the science on what happens to tall buildings in earthquakes or windstorms. The people putting those up don’t just trust computer simulations. They put structures on shake tables or in wind tunnels and test them, physically.”

A bridge over a foggy highway in the Lower Mississippi Valley
Donaldsonville, Louisiana, in 2010. Orff and the photographer Richard Misrach travelled through the Lower Mississippi Valley, the nation’s largest floodplain, after the BP oil spill.Photograph © Richard Misrach, Petrochemical America, Aperture

In 2017, Living Breakwaters was finally subjected to physical, three-dimensional testing. The trials took place at a Canadian facility the size of an Olympic swimming complex, and the event had the nervous energy of a high-stakes sports competition. An exact model of the Breakwaters project had been built inside a long, narrow flume, at a one-to-twenty scale: each rock and concrete structure was painted a different color, so that observers would be able to easily identify which were unmoored during the simulation, and which held strong. The exact contours of the Raritan Bay floor had been replicated, too; even small variations could change the movement of the waves against the model shorelines. Probes were prepared to monitor wave energy and speed; “damage cams” were mounted at regular intervals.

Then members of the scape team took their positions on a catwalk above the model and, with the click of a button, the tranquil pool began its transformation into a tempest. For a moment, the waves moved slowly. “It sounded like being on a lakeshore,” Brad Howe, a scape designer, said. “We could hear the water lapping up on the rocks.” Moments later, everything intensified, the tension in the room heightening along with the waves. “We had never tested the reef streets in a real wave environment, and we didn’t know exactly what would happen,” Howe went on. “Years of design work went into this. What if all those colored stones that we’d set in specific places for the breakwater wound up looking like a pile of spilled jelly beans?”

They ran two simulations, and the breakwaters performed superbly: no jelly-bean effect in the water, no inundation of the shore. Still, a few surprises turned up. Some tidal-pool units underperformed, and scape decided to move them; the spacing between a few of the concrete blocks was adjusted, too. A third test, performed in a basin the size of half a soccer field, lasted several hours, and the results were even better than the team had expected. “When the tests ended, they drained the water out of the pool and I remember being, like, ‘Oh, thank God, nothing moved!’ ” Pippa Brashear said. Orff’s team left Canada feeling even more confident about the over-all design of Living Breakwaters—and about the likelihood that it would actually be built.

Later this summer, after seven years of environmental reviews and design refinements, the first in a series of barges loaded with armor stone and rock from a quarry in upstate New York will travel down the Hudson River and anchor off the coast of Tottenville, where marine contractors will begin installing Living Breakwaters. In total, those barges will be bringing a hundred and twenty-three thousand tons of quarried material. In a year or two, after the heaviest elements of the system have settled into Raritan Bay, a crew from the Billion Oyster Project will bring spat-on-shell oysters affixed to ecologically enhanced concrete units—mollusk habitats of various dimensions—to the landward side of the breakwater. The fantastic, “slightly hokey” idea that Orff first pitched at moma more than a decade ago will spring to life. When it’s completed, which is expected to happen in 2024, it will be Orff’s largest attempt to mend the landscape. In fact, it will be among the most extensive nature-based infrastructure systems in urban America.

And its timing finally seems right. In July, the Senate voted to advance a trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure plan that includes forty-seven billion dollars for “resilience.” This is a fashionable but fungible term, and can mean anything from community-education projects (which, skeptics say, cynically transfer responsibility from government agencies to ordinary people), to levees, parks, and trees. Critics worry that, without a clear strategy, these investments will be ad hoc and shortsighted, driven by defense contractors and municipal politicians pitching conventional projects, such as seawalls and floodgates, rather than by the new generation of engineers, climate scientists, and designers who, like Orff, want to revitalize ecosystems and let nature do its work. Still, demand for new, cost-effective, and sustainable models—Orff’s specialty—is high.

Orff is pressing ahead with new projects meant to address the overlapping crises of global warming, racial equity, and political polarization. In Memphis, she’s collaborating with the architect Jeanne Gang and the artist Theaster Gates on Tom Lee Park (named for a Black man who, in 1925, helped save some thirty people from drowning after a steamer overturned in the Mississippi River). It’s a space that aims to bring together communities in a segregated city, where many Black residents lack access to parklands. In Atlanta, she’s leading a “participatory design” process for remaking the Chattahoochee RiverLands, a hundred-and-twenty-five-mile trail that will link urban, suburban, and rural Georgia—access will be just a short bike ride away from Atlanta. “We all know how divided the state is,” she said. “My question is, Can we do with landscape what we can’t do with political ideology or the Internet? Can we mend things, ecologically, and also repair the social world?”

At the same time, she’s keeping a close eye on existing projects. (scape has almost doubled its staffing in the past several years.) When Orff and I visited the Gowanus Canal during a stage of its Superfund cleansing, I noticed expensive real-estate developments featuring beautifully landscaped promenades along the canal, and fashionable bars and restaurants with prime water views. “We’re still a long, long way from eating oysters grown in the Gowanus,” Orff said. “But this used to be a sewage stream. Look how far we’ve come.”

Recently, Orff and I met up in Tottenville, the town where Sandy swept George and Angela Dresch from their home. Two centuries ago, when Staten Island was farmland dotted with fishing shacks and small villages rather than an urban borough connected to Brooklyn by a highway and a suspension bridge, the community was organized around oysters. The beaches were long and expansive, the waterways shallow and slow. The South Shore was hit directly by the storms that came in off the Atlantic, but heavy reefs and wetlands buffered the coastline.

That afternoon, as we walked along the beach, Orff paused every few minutes to identify worrisome signs. There was a dead groundhog, lying face up in the sand; drainage pipes, once buried, had been unearthed by coastal erosion; tattered sandbags were evidence of previous makeshift flood-prevention efforts. Living Breakwaters, Orff expects, will offer not just natural protection but lasting restoration: in a few years, walking down the beach, she hopes to see a newly vital social landscape, with kayakers in the tamed water and bustling kiosks by the beach.

“I think of this as a blue-green infrastructure,” Orff said of the waterfront. “It’s engineered, but it’s not a traditional engineering project. We’re in a moment of crisis, and it’s not enough to just make beautiful landscapes. We have to fix them, too.”

She led me along the shoreline, where the waves rolled in slowly, and with each step our shoes sank deeper into the sand. The beach was calm and pleasant, the mood serene. But these days, as the climate changes and images circulate of catastrophic flooding—this summer, so far, in Germany, China, Ghana, Japan, and various places in the U.S.—there is always something ominous at the water’s edge. Someday the storm winds will pick up again, and the ocean will come back for the land. There’s another test coming; the only question is when. ♦


Published in the print edition of the August 9, 2021, issue, with the headline “Manufacturing Nature.”Eric Klinenberg is a professor of sociology and the director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. His latest book is “Palaces for the People.”

2 thoughts on “Can oysters help us defend coastal areas from rising seas?

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