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A Better Kind of Flood Protection

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No need for intrusive barriers and floodgates in the middle of New York Harbor. If a $335-million pilot project, funded by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, is successful, instead of massive hard infrastructure to defend Lower Manhattan against the next Superstorm Sandy, the Big Apple eventually will have a 10-mile surge defense camouflaged as parkland, landscape and public art.

One of the architects for the project called BIG U—the most ambitious of six schemes that recently won HUD's "Rebuild by Design" competition—is so excited about the "designed" multi-use barrier that he predicts New York City will leapfrog the rest of the world in thinking about flood protection. "If you put up a 10-foot wall, you may have solved the problem, but you also killed life on the waterside of the barrier and the community's connection to the water," architect BIG's Kai-Uwe Bergmann says. BIG U would protect the city during the rare storm and take city life into account the rest of the time.

The plan calls for multiple compartments, each designed to accommodate the existing condition along Manhattan's edge. If one is breached, the others would not be affected.

On the Lower East Side, a two-mile-long barrier would take the form of an 8- to 10-ft-tall earth berm laid out as a park, with landscaped, pedestrian-bridge access over FDR Drive. The East River could flood the park on occasion, but, most of the time, the land would be dry and used by the public. On the lower West Side, BIG U envisions a landscaped berm, stepped in places for public seating, that would create a more linear promenade along the Hudson River (see renderings below). The promenade would be designed to flood when the river rises.

There's nothing like the BIG U project anywhere, and the BIG team has a long haul ahead of it. Even the first two-mile pilot stretch will involve buy-in by many stakeholders. It could take decades and billions of dollars to build the full 10-mile system. But it certainly would be nicer than a blank wall around Lower Manhattan or barriers and floodgates chopping up New York Harbor.

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