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New York battles to save Manhattan from rising tides

A presentation of BIG's 'Dryline,' which is set to break ground in 2017.
A presentation of BIG's 'Dryline,' which is set to break ground in 2017.

Three years after the New York metro area was devastated by the US Northeast’s most destructive storm in history, Manhattan is set to undergo a flood-proof transformation that could change the very shape of the iconic island.


in New York

With more than $19 billion in damages to New York City alone, Hurricane Sandy was one of the United States’ most costly storms. Bridges, roads and tunnels were left in ruins, some 305,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and more than eight million people lost power, some of them for weeks.

After years of rehabilitation, New York today is looking towards a disaster-free future.

The city’s first-ever recovery and resiliency director, Daniel Zarrilli, is driving an ambitious project to reshape Manhattan’s coastlines in order to keep flood waters out when the storm comes in.

Sandy was a wake-up call for New York, Zarrilli says, and “there is no time to waste”. While much of the city sits higher than many world metropolises, lower Manhattan isn’t much further from the rising tides than Venice or Amsterdam, and yet, little has so far been done to protect it.

“Before Sandy there was no roadmap, no clear next step,” Zarrilli told a summit on urban planning in New York on Friday. “But the key lesson learnt is that this is not something that’s going to happen to us 100 years from now. This is something that’s happening now.”

Zarrilli said it was near impossible to get funding for climate-change related projects before Sandy hit. Today, the city is close to guaranteeing almost a billion dollars to safeguard Manhattan from future storms.

Much of that money will finance bold designs by Danish architecture firm the Bjarke Ingels Group, or “BIG,” which staved off fierce global competition in its bid to build the critical defences for Manhattan, with a multipurpose, sustainable and spectacular-looking prevention plan.

'Playful fortress'

BIG’s “Dryline” (originally called the “Big U” for its shape), acts as a coastal barrier of raised land and deployable walls, but also provides a ribbon of much-needed public space on a cut of the island where skyscrapers dominate.

Speaking to FRANCE 24, BIG spokesperson Daria Pahhota summed it up as “both physical and social resiliency,” pointing out the importance of waterfront accessibility. Until recently, New Yorkers paid little attention to the water that surrounds them. Today, the Hudson and East rivers are recognised as a boon to the city, with parks, bars and art installations springing up along the water’s edge (a similar transformation has been taking place elsewhere, notably in Paris).

The Dryline initiative has been applauded for turning an environmental quagmire into an urban opportunity, and has already won several prizes around the world for its ingenuity.

“It’s a response to a direct and imminent threat, one we can no longer rationalise nor ignore,” New York-based architect Ben Olschner told FRANCE 24. “But it’s also a compelling attempt to make a playful fortress. The playfulness distracts us from any real danger the city might perceive”.

The entire project covers 10 miles of the Manhattan coastline, but the city’s projected one-billion dollar budget will only fund around three miles of the work.

Zarrilli’s office, acting under left-wing mayor Bill de Blasio, has chosen to fund a largely poor and particularly vulnerable stretch of the so-called “Big U” running from 23rd Street on the Lower East Side to Battery Park on the lower tip of the island. Areas covered include Chinatown, Alphabet City, two major social housing developments and critically, the Con Edison power plant that exploded when water poured in from the East River during Hurricane Sandy, leaving millions without electricity.

City officials are quietly hoping that the rest of the “Big U” project will be privately funded, as developers point out that if only a part of the island is protected, then water might easily overwhelm other areas.

“Water moves on its own, it doesn’t have boundaries,” Eric Kaufman, head of sustainability group The Natural Resilience Fund and a leading advocate of the Dryline project, told FRANCE 24. “Water is not going to stop at 23rd Street.”

Kaufman is hopeful for the rest of the project – it’s not unusual in New York for public space initiatives to be privately funded (Central Park being the prime example), and climate change is considered a real threat by a majority of the city, which is crucial in a country where only 48 percent of the population views global warming as “happening and a result of human activity”. In New York that number is 70 percent. 

Eric Kaufman, a public advocate of the Dryline, says that it's New York's best bet at protecting Lower Manhattan for the coming decades.
Eric Kaufman, a public advocate of the Dryline, says that it's New York's best bet at protecting Lower Manhattan for the coming decades.

“When the very fabric of our life in the city is threatened, impossibly large projects suddenly find themselves becoming quite feasible because we have a common enemy to unify us,” Olschner argues, while pointing to New York’s failure to act on other issues, such as the dire public transport links between the five boroughs of New York.

Changing the shape of Manhattan?

Looking even further ahead, Zarrilli’s office is examining proposals to expand Manhattan into the East River, building a multi-purpose levee with some 20,000 homes on it. Authorities have ruled the plan “technically, legally and financially feasible,” but it is likely to face fierce opposition from residents on the current waterfront, whose view of Long Island would be blocked by new towers, half of which are planned to house low-income New Yorkers.

Kaufman, who acts as a bridge between the city and residents, expects “10 or 15 years of fighting” before locals agree to the project. The levee is hoped to be finished by 2050. BIG is hoping to break ground for the Dryline in 2017 and finish the first of three stages within four to five years.

But even if the entire "U" and the levee are built, they may not protect the island for much more than a century. Sea levels are expected to rise by three feet (90 centimetres) by 2100 – which the 19-foot Dryline and levee would handily tackle – but some scientists say the world’s ice caps could melt more quickly. If Greenland and Canada’s ice caps alone were to disappear, water would start pouring into lower Manhattan.

While Kaufman is a keen advocate of the Dryline, he sees it as a short-term solution to a problem that generations to come will inevitably be left to handle.

“As human beings we don’t think much longer than 50 to 80 years ahead,” he said. “Will Mother Nature wait for us to get our s**t together? Probably not. But you’ve got to do something.”

Olschner agrees that the Dryline is Manhattan’s best bet, at least for the time being.

“When the floods come, they might come quietly,” he said. “But in the meantime, we have a playground for adults and children alike to enjoy. We will certainly have a richer and better city because of it.”

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