A decade after Sandy, Manhattan’s flood barrier is lastly in sight — form of

When Superstorm Sandy made landfall on October 29, 2012, it pushed 13 ft of storm surge into New York City’s harbor, sweeping throughout the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts and wiping whole neighborhoods off the map in Staten Island. Flooding knocked out energy in Lower Manhattan, plunging downtown into near-total darkness as water rushed by way of the streets. The storm prompted $19 billion in damages within the metropolis alone, and it was clear that future storms may very well be even worse until one thing modified.

Less than a yr later, the Obama administration unveiled a large federal initiative to make sure that town not solely recovered from Sandy, however constructed again higher. The initiative, dubbed Rebuild by Design, promised to funnel cash towards long-term local weather adaptation measures within the hardest-hit areas, supplementing the same old barrage of catastrophe support with cash earmarked for forward-looking initiatives. 

To say that officers aimed excessive can be an understatement. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, which managed the initiative, threw its weight behind an concept known as the “Big U.” The plan, drafted by the agency of Danish movie star architect Bjarke Ingels, proposed to wrap the island of Manhattan, the monetary and cultural capital of the United States, in miles of berms and synthetic shorelines, creating an enormous grassy defend that will each improve city inexperienced area and defend town from storm surge. The feds doled out an eye-popping $335 million for the primary part of the challenge, which quickly captured the general public’s creativeness, partly because of iconic renderings from Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) that confirmed a inexperienced paradise enfolding Manhattan. Ingels referred to it as “the love-child of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.” 

If you stand in Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan as we speak, 10 years after Sandy, it is perhaps arduous to think about that town is about to make the Big U imaginative and prescient a actuality. Look a bit nearer, although, and there are indicators of progress. Multiple items of the borough’s flood barrier have damaged floor up to now yr, and nearly all the cash for the system has been secured, with just a few items left to fund. After years of planning, design, and debate, the bodily construction is beginning to take form.

“Once you begin to see it in actual life, it feels completely totally different,” stated Amy Chester, the managing director of Rebuild by Design, which has gone on to assist different cities plan resilience initiatives. “I labored in metropolis authorities without end, and I didn’t anticipate all these initiatives to occur, however it occurred.”

An early rendering of the Big U berm structure at the Battery.
An early rendering of the Big U berm construction on the Battery. The plan first emerged within the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
Courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group

The Big U was a check case for large-scale local weather adaptation. It wagered that cities might use a catastrophe like Sandy as a second to rethink their relationship with nature, reasonably than simply rebuild what had existed earlier than. 

In some methods, the guess paid off. The Big U challenge did handle to safe funding, and it’s now being constructed, albeit years not on time and in modified type. After nearly a decade of design work and public engagement, town has confirmed that unconventional adaptation initiatives can work, and that cities can look past conventional flood partitions and levees. 

In one other sense, although, the Big U is a actuality examine for these massive initiatives. The challenge was kickstarted because of a rush of post-disaster cash from a presidential administration that prioritized adaptation, however it couldn’t have gotten thus far with out New York City’s unparalleled native assets. As Chester places it, New York is a “totally different monetary animal” than the remainder of the nation. Whereas different jurisdictions rely closely on the federal authorities to fund massive infrastructure initiatives, town may also command big quantities of municipal and state funding, which helps open the door for extra bold and forward-looking initiatives. Absent a revamp of how the federal authorities funds local weather adaptation, such initiatives will proceed to stay out of attain for many cities. 

“There are so many communities throughout the shoreline together with different main cities like Houston, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, Miami, Tampa,” stated Linda Shi, an assistant professor of metropolis planning at Cornell University who research local weather adaptation. “Are they going to see such sums of cash? And then what about a lot smaller municipalities? They for positive should not going to see such ranges of funding. That’s an actual problem, to consider how our infrastructure spending goes to satisfy that hole.”


The first activity within the Big U challenge was to interrupt Ingels’s dramatic imaginative and prescient into achievable chunks.

The $335 million that town acquired from HUD went to fund an enormous section alongside the east aspect of Manhattan, one of many metropolis’s hardest hit areas by the storm. For centuries, this a part of the island consisted largely of wetlands, earlier than builders crammed it in to make room for dense residential neighborhoods and public housing developments. When Sandy hit New York, its storm surge sought out these historic low-lying stretches, however the tidal channels and mudflats that had as soon as absorbed extra water had been lengthy gone, changed by concrete buildings and streets.

Ingels’s preliminary plan for the east aspect known as for a large tiered berm that will slope up from the water at East River Park, however this imaginative and prescient quickly hit a roadblock: Officials in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration decided that constructing the berm can be too disruptive for a close-by freeway — the busy FDR Drive — and a subsurface energy line owned by the utility ConEd. Instead they determined to raise the entire park on eight ft of synthetic fill. But town made just a few severe missteps in speaking with locals concerning the new plan, and a coalition of locals, artists, and activists quickly banded collectively to oppose it, arguing that it could take away timber and cut back entry to a precious group area. 

Despite the general public relations nightmare, town started development work on the east aspect challenge in earnest late final yr, and has since ripped up about half the park. Dozens of vans, cranes, and backhoes now fill the positioning, laying the groundwork for the fill that may increase it off the bottom. The metropolis now expects the challenge to be full in 2026.

Activists chain themselves around a tree at City Hall Park in New York City in a protest against the East River Park flood project.
Activists chain themselves round a tree at City Hall Park in New York City demanding then-City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to carry a direct Oversight Hearing on the East River Park flood challenge.
Erik McGregor / LightRocket through Getty Images

There’s the same challenge within the works on the other shore of Manhattan, in an space known as Battery Park City. Built within the Nineteen Seventies on synthetic land that extends out into the Hudson River, the neighborhood is ruled by a state authority that may difficulty its personal bonds, permitting native leaders to fund an $800 million resilience scheme to assemble one other section of the Big U. As in East River Park, the plan right here is to create a tiered sequence of elevated lawns that may cease coastal flooding from pushing inland.

But identical to throughout city, this plan is just not going over properly with some locals, who’ve objected to the truth that it would shut the park for a number of years. Earlier this summer season, the campaigners attracted the eye of Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, who urged the state to pause development till native considerations are heard. 

“Residents have identified that Wagner Park didn’t expertise extreme flooding throughout Superstorm Sandy,” stated Zeldin in an announcement to the press. “Others have raised considerations concerning the exorbitant price.” A gaggle of locals is pushing another design for the park, however crews are nonetheless anticipated to start development within the coming weeks. 

The third and most troublesome section of the waterfront to guard is the two-mile stretch between these two different initiatives: the southern fringe of Manhattan, stretching from decrease Battery Park City previous Wall Street and up towards the East Side. This stretch of shoreline is residence to the towering skyscrapers of the Financial District, the offramps of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, the packed historic neighborhood across the South Street Seaport, and one other dense cluster of high-rise housing developments, to not point out a thicket of important transportation infrastructure, together with the elevated FDR Drive expressway and a subterranean automotive tunnel to Brooklyn.

Because the world is so overbuilt, with just a few dozen ft of free area between the water’s edge and the closest avenue or constructing, town doesn’t have the room to construct massive flood partitions or berms like those it’s developing in East River Park. Much of the waterfront territory within the neighborhood sits on concrete piles, which implies it possible couldn’t help the two-story construction wanted to guard the low-lying Financial District from an enormous storm occasion; the dense community of underground transportation and energy infrastructure solely additional complicates such an effort. Plus, most of the buildings within the Seaport district are designated historic landmarks, making it even more durable to construct one thing new of their midst.

Faced with all these challenges, designers needed to get artistic. In one a part of the issue space, close to the dense Two Bridges neighborhood, town selected a novel technological resolution from the unique Big U plan: a $500 million array of deployable flood partitions that may flip up out of the bottom throughout storm surge occasions, creating a short lived water barrier. Mayor Eric Adams broke floor on that challenge this week, and additionally it is anticipated to complete in 2026. Further down the shore, town hopes to increase a man-made shoreline out into the water, making a two-tiered berm with one section that soars fifteen ft into the air and one other that sweeps down towards the river.

An early rendering of the flip-down flood walls now under construction in Lower Manhattan.
An early rendering of flip-down flood partitions alongside the waterfront in Lower Manhattan, first proposed within the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. A modified model of the challenge is now beneath development in Lower Manhattan.
Courtesy of Bjarke Ingels Group

Finding the funds for this final piece could also be difficult. Much of the cash for the flip-up flood partitions arrived six years in the past thanks to a different Obama-era grant program that funded novel resilience methods, however the berm across the Seaport will price round $3.6 billion, in accordance with town’s newest estimates, and can take greater than a decade to finish. Unless town is hit by one other Sandy, there possible gained’t be one other big pile of post-disaster federal cash for this challenge, which raises questions on how town can pay for it. A current federal grant to assist help the challenge supplied solely $50 million, at most 1 % of the whole price of the challenge.

Victor Papa, the president of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, which represents residents within the space, stated he’s optimistic the challenge will come to fruition, and stated he wasn’t disturbed by the lengthy timeline. 

“We’re feeling very assured,” he instructed Grist. “I’m of the thoughts that when a challenge impacts hundreds of individuals, in hundreds of housing models, that’s not an in a single day course of, that’s a course of that’s going to have a studying curve. I feel town did an excellent job of their design and their implementation.”


Even with a lot of the funding locked down, the trajectory for ending the Big U is troublesome to foretell. The development timeline for the remainder of the challenge stretches to the top of the last decade and past, and that’s assuming every thing goes properly. Future mayors could need to take care of controversy over development impacts and price overruns. The lengthy timeline may additionally jeopardize the effectiveness of the challenge: the flip-up flood gates, as an example, solely present safety in opposition to the sea-level rise that may happen by 2050, which might make them insufficient as little as twenty years after they’re accomplished. There’s additionally the chance that one other Sandy might strike whereas town remains to be constructing the Big U, setting the timeline again even additional.

“I feel a few of the estimates on time that town put out proper after Sandy had been absolutely the best-case state of affairs, and never every thing turned out to be finest case,” stated Daniel Zarrilli, a particular advisor on local weather and sustainability at Columbia University who served as a local weather coverage advisor to Mayors Michael Bloomberg and de Blasio. “These are massive, billion-dollar infrastructure initiatives and issues do are likely to take time, which is unlucky, as a result of time is just not on our aspect.”

Submerged cars on Avenue C and 7th Street in Manhattan during Superstorm Sandy.
Submerged vehicles on Avenue C and seventh Street in Manhattan in the course of the extreme flooding brought on by Superstorm Sandy.
Christos Pathiakis / Getty Images

The present framework can be notable for what it leaves out — town’s ambitions for the Big U are smaller than the unique proposal from the Rebuild by Design days. The unique berm construction conceived by Ingels would have prolonged from forty second Street on the East Side all the way in which across the island and up the West Side to 57th Street, however the metropolis has lopped off sections on each side. Rather than push the challenge up the edges of the island, town scaled again its ambitions to the barrier section it knew it might afford.

The duty for safeguarding the remainder of Manhattan and New York City now lies with the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, the nation’s chief builder of flood initiatives. In most different cities, the Corps may need taken cost of storm surge adaptation from the start, drafting an infrastructure challenge and securing cash for it from Congress, however that wasn’t the case in New York. The pot of cash town acquired from HUD allowed it to pursue the nontraditional imaginative and prescient of the Big U, and leaders later rejected the Corps’ controversial proposal to create a five-mile storm gate throughout New York Harbor. 

Now, although, the Corps has returned to fill within the gaps: The company this month unveiled a $52 billion plan to construct a sequence of storm gate constructions throughout town and in New Jersey as properly. One construction would lengthen deployable flood gates up the West Side of Manhattan, approximating the extent of Ingels’s unique scheme. If executed properly, the Corps plan would additionally assist bolster flood resilience in weak components of town that didn’t obtain the identical jackpot of HUD cash that Lower Manhattan did. There had been different bold Rebuild by Design ventures for a few of these locations too, together with the Bronx and Staten Island, however none so bold because the Big U. On its personal, a flood barrier round Lower Manhattan wouldn’t assist these areas, and would possibly even push extra water towards them throughout storm surge occasions. 

“There’s solely a lot cash that town had, and the federal funding streams allowed us to do some work, however not all of it,” stated Zarrilli. For the remainder of it, he stated, “we want the Army Corps.” 

Even this some-but-not-all achievement can be troublesome to copy in different cities that don’t have New York’s native assets or a pot of restoration cash from a pleasant presidential administration. Bond measures and federal resilience grants will help fund smaller-scale adaptation initiatives, however transformative inexperienced infrastructure on the dimensions achieved in Manhattan will possible stay out of attain elsewhere within the United States.

Furthermore, Shi, from Cornell, cautions that new infrastructure can’t be the one manner we adapt to local weather change. The Big U could also be an admirable instance of how cities can rebuild for rising seas, however it gained’t work until accompanied by different measures that shift growth away from flood zones and assist folks relocate from the riskiest locations. 

“I feel there’s a sure sort of hazard to the siren track that the Big U sings for us, as a result of it’s so visually interesting that we would suppose that it’s going to remedy the issue by itself,” she stated. “But that’s only one sort of innovation. And that very same sort of creativeness must be there in these … non-design areas to ensure that all of this to really pencil out.”


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