Living Breakwaters Wins 2014 Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award

This year’s Buckminster Fuller Challenge award goes to a group whose work on climate change resilience reflects one of Bucky’s mottos:  "Don’t fight forces, use them."

Considered the highest award for socially responsible design, the $100,000 in cash recognizes the Living Breakwaters project submitted by NY-based SCAPE/ LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE PLLC.

The project is moving forward with a $60 million grant from the NY State Sandy Recovery aid package approved by Congress. It is one of three selected by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Rebuild by Design contest – a competition held after Superstorm Sandy.

"This is a unique, first-of-its kind project that promises to reduce wave action by several feet," says Councilman Vincent Ignizio. "Had we had it before Sandy, it would have significantly lessened the damage that we sustained."

"We’re planting oyster beds off Staten Island. Just think of it: Oyster beds," says Governor Cuomo. "We spent decades devastating the oyster beds. Now we’re going back and rebuilding oyster beds because they were Mother Nature’s intelligence of a natural barrier."

While many concepts being developed to protect coastal communities from rising seas and storm surges revolve around restoring wetlands and natural barriers, SCAPE goes a step further by also incorporating the social dimension
– creating stewardship communities that value nature, and bringing back traditional livelihoods that support the human economy/ nature connection, such as fishing.

"We are also taking advantage of the opportunity to inform and educate our residents, especially our young people, about the importance of our natural areas and assets," says David Sorkin, co-chair of the Staten Island NY Rising Community Reconstruction Committee.

Rather than moving people away from the sea – separating them from nature by levees or walls – it creates new social spaces and cultural opportunities on the waterfront.

Climate Adaptation Living Breakwaters

"This year’s Challenge winners deeply know that doing a
physical intervention off the coastline would not be enough to create systemic
change. Living Breakwaters is a project based in connections – the leadership
team brings their deep expertise in technology and ecological science into the
social dimension onshore in partnership with the community itself," says Sarah
Skenazy, Program Manager of the annual Buckminster Fuller Challenge.

The project focuses on the south shore of Staten Island – one of the most damaged communities by Superstorm Sandy – but applies to coastal areas generally. It’s being piloted in Tottenville, Staten Island to document ecological benefits, wave reduction impacts, and economic and recreational potential, as well as to restore the devastated Tottenville community now.

"Fuller was optimistic about the future of humanity
and deeply believed in cooperation as the way forward. As climate change
impacts threaten shoreline populations, Living Breakwaters hopefully represents
a paradigm shift in how we collectively address climate risks, by focusing on
regenerating waterfront communities and social systems, and enhancing
threatened ecosystems," says Kate Orff of SCAPE.

It combines these concepts:

  • a necklace of layered ecologically-engineered breakwaters a quarter-mile offshore are made from concrete to greatly attenuate wave action, create habitat for fish nurseries and calm water for recreation;
  • "reef streets" are pockets of complex habitats within the breakwaters that strengthen biodiversity by hosting finfish, shellfish, and lobsters; oysters filter water and strengthen the breakwaters;
  • nurturing and resuscitation of fisheries and historic livelihoods;
  • deep community engagement that educates generations of shoreline stewards;
  • Water hubs connect people to the water and encourage water-based activities: bathrooms, water fountains, kayaks, gathering spaces and labs, restaurants, and nature observation decks;
  • working with state and federal agencies to incorporate these multi-layered, systemic approaches into infrastructure planning.

Ecosystems in Staten Island’s Raritan Bay have been hanging on by a thread because of expanding urbanization patterns and increasing population density, overwhelming estuaries with treated wastewater and fertilizers. Restoring them is a win for all concerned.

In 2012, the federal government spent more on disaster cleanup related to extreme weather events – about $100 billion – than it did on transportation or education. Creative resiliency plans can go a long way toward reducing taxpayer burden while creating new economic models for cities and communities that are vulnerable to rising waters due to the effects of climate change. 

Similar efforts are taking off in the Midwest to prevent flooding.

Read our articles, Mayor Bloomberg’s Prescient Climate Plan for NYC Released and Creative Resiliency Plan Transforms New Orleans Into City of Canals, Like Amsterdam.

Previous Buckminster Fuller Challenge awards have gone to the Living Building Challenge and Operation Hope.

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