Mitch McEwen: Don’t Rebuild: Redesign

Destruction of the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962. From

In the second chapter of Ian McHarg‘s classic book, Design with Nature, he discusses in depth the ecology of barrier islands, including which areas are most and least suitable for development. Unfortunately, this idea of suitability for development had little influence where there was so much money to be made in beachfront property. This lead to unnecessary levels of disaster when the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 hit the New Jersey coast, killing many, displacing even more, and destroying 2400 houses.

McHarg points out that the houses that suffered the least damage—only broken windows and some lost shingles—were those on the back side of a dune well-anchored by dune grasses and other natural vegetation. If one is going to build on a barrier island, this is the place to do it. “But the status quo ante is being reconstituted without direction or constraint,” said McHarg. “What can the most unprepared people of New Jersey expect? We hope for the best, but it would be sanguine to expect anything less than disaster.” If McHarg were alive today, he would probably let out a disheartened “I told you so.”

Potential sea level rise. From

One thing that McHarg hadn’t planned on was climate change and its associated sea level rise. Mitch McEwen’s recent article on the Huffington Post describes how now is the time that we need to start talking about dealing with the effects of climate change on New York City. He summarizes some ways to address the situation, and some of the problems interfering with their implementation. Among the issues are the city being more interested in the income from waterfront development than in the dangers it could pose, but part of it is a lack of vision from the city. “We cannot build a big barrier reef off the shore to stop the waves from coming in; we can’t build big bulkheads that cut people off from the water,” McEwen quotes Mayor Bloomberg as saying. Well, why not?

The Maeslant Barrier, part of the Delta Works in the southwest of the Netherlands.

McEwen sites a few natural, soft infrastructure examples, such as creating reefs and using oysters, but there are many examples of hard infrastructure the world over. The Dutch are famous for holding back the ocean for the better part of 800 years, and some of their more recent works include the Delta Works and the Zuiderzee Works, which have been called one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Only slightly less famous is the Thames Barrier, which protect the city of London from storm surge. Similar major pieces of infrastructure can be found around the world.

While these address the larger scale, small scale interventions can also help, especially if there are a lot of them. These sort of small-scale interventions are a part of Philadelphia’s green stormwater infrastructure. Philadelphia encourages property owners to use these sort of interventions by charging them for their impact on the stormwater system, and charging them less if they take care of it on site.

There are a number of ways to deal with these sort of catastrophic coastal flooding situations in the future. In some cases, we do need to retreat; areas that have been hit badly will be hit badly again, while those that are protected now are more likely to be safe in the future. We can make largescale interventions, such as sea barriers or natural interventions. And we can all do our part by making small interventions that allow for greater infiltration. With sea level rise, these things are only going to get worse; we have to take action if we want to avoid this kind of destruction in the future.


About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

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