Welcome to Better Cities by Design, a podcast brought to you by Arcadis, where we talk to changemakers who are working to make our cities better places for people to live, work and play. I’m your host Davion Ford. This week we’re headed to New York to speak with Maggie Hopkins, Vice President of Civil Engineering and Environmental Planning at AKRF, a leading company specializing in environmental planning and engineering services for climate resilience and coastal adaptation. AKRF has been working in conjunction with Arcadis on New York’s East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, which is a leading climate adaptation effort started after superstorm Sandy ravaged the city back in 2012.
At the dawn of the 20th century, a significant transformation occurred as New York City emerged in its present form. In 1895, the residents of independent cities including Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island and Brooklyn voted to join forces with Manhattan, creating the foundation for a five-boroughs Greater New York. The consolidation plan took effect on January 1st, 1898, expanding New York City’s territory from 60 to 360 square miles and creating a city with a population of more than 3.3 million people. Even before this consolidation, modifications were made to support the development of a mega city. In the early days the original Manhattan shoreline coincided roughly with the line of present day Pearl Street, three blocks inland; it was extended into the East River through a landfilling process. Wooden frameworks were constructed and filled with debris to create new land, completely transforming areas like the South Street Seaport. The new valuable waterfront property attracted merchants, ship owners and shopkeepers, but the modifications altered the natural ecology and boundaries of the island transforming New York harbor from marshy shorelines with oyster beds into hardened shorelines and dredged shipping channels. And all of this left the shoreline vulnerable to storms and flooding. And no one event has proven this point like Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the Big Apple in 2012. It left an indelible mark on the city, taking at least 43 lives, destroying thousands of homes and causing an estimated 19 billion US dollars in economic damage in New York City alone. The storm’s arrival coincided with high tide amplifying the already elevated water levels along the city’s southern shoreline. Sandy was immense in size, wind speeds reached up to 80 miles per hour or 128 kilometers per hour. This generated a massive storm surge that shattered previous records. To shed light on the impact of Hurricane Sandy, we turn to Edgar Westerhof, Arcadis’ Solution Leader for Climate Adaptation. Edgar witnessed the chaos and devastation firsthand.
I had just moved from the Netherlands to New York and was hugely surprised to see the city disconnect from the water and also the exposure to the ocean. I was before Sandy made landfall, I biked downtown along the waterfront and I saw how ill prepared the city was I witnessed the complete chaos also the following day and weeks and in many places, as you know, there was no power, no telecommunication, the subway was disrupted, also tremendous coastal damage and you have more remote places like the Rockaways and, in essence New York City have come to a complete stop wondering what had happened to them.
Superstorm Sandy served as a wake up call for people around the world highlighting the urgent need for comprehensive climate and coastal resilience programs, not just in New York City, but in cities across the globe. One notable initiative that emerged in response to Sandy was the Rebuild by Design Competition. This competition was started to spur on innovative solutions to enhance urban resilience and reimagine waterfront areas. Once again, here’s Arcadis’ Edgar Westerhof.
The Game Changer post Sandy was the international Rebuild by Design Competition brought to the Sandy affected area, and Arcadis decided to participate. We were the lead engineer supporting that iconic and world class Big U proposal for the protection of lower Manhattan. And the Big U proposal has seen various spin off projects and the East Side Coastal Resilience Project was the first phase to be funded. Funded with USD 335 million in federal grants and construction kicked off several years ago; Arcadis as the lead engineer of that multifunctional flood protection plan along the East River effectively take 100,000 people out of the floodplain, tremendously improving quality of life for local citizens.
Now to find out more about the East Side coastal resiliency project, I’m really happy to welcome Maggie Hopkins to the show. Maggie is Vice President for Civil Engineering and Environmental Planning at AKRF.
Hello Maggie, welcome to Better Cities by Design.
Thanks so much. It’s great to be here.
So we’re going to be talking about the fantastic East Side Coastal Resiliency Project on Manhattan’s East River shoreline. But first, please tell our listeners a bit about yourself and what you do.
I’m an engineer at AKRF, which is an engineering and planning firm headquartered in New York City, and I lead our climate resiliency practice overall, and most specifically, have had the privilege of being the project manager for the design of East Side Coastal Resiliency for the last eight years or so.
Okay, so I mentioned in the intro that the impetus for this project was Superstorm Sandy, can you talk about the impact that Sandy had on New York, the world and also how you got involved in this amazing project?
Sure. It really is hard to overstate the effect that Sandy had on New York City as a whole, but really, in particular, this part of lower Manhattan. For example, The Battery, which is the southern tip of Manhattan. The storm surge during Sandy reached about 14 feet, and all the city had in place was a few rows of sandbags. So the impacts to the city from Sandy, people, utilities, infrastructure, the transportation network, people’s property, was just extremely broad and really revealed just how vulnerable New York City was to this type of threat. And as a result, the city state and federal governments tried to move quickly to respond to this urgent need that was revealed and rebuild in a way that addressed these underlying vulnerabilities. And one of those solutions was called the Rebuild by Design Competition, which was an international design competition for the metro area. The winning proposal for lower Manhattan was called The Big U, and East Side Coastal Resiliency was identified as the first portion of that Big U master plan to move forward into design and implementation. And AKRF teamed with Arcadis, who was selected to lead that project into design and implementation working with and for the New York City Department of Design and Construction.
Okay, so Hurricane Sandy was a real wake up call for New York, and also folks in cities living around the world, it really said that essentially, we have to do so much better. We can’t just leave things the way they are and let this happen to our cities. But of course, it’s one thing to know that something needs to be done. It’s another thing entirely to know what the best course of action is. So how did that proceed? What was the ultimate plan that was put in place?
Well, it’s a real challenge to mobilize a huge complex entity like New York City to address a huge complex problem like flooding from climate change. And there’s also a real tension between moving quickly to address this urgent need with ensuring that community members and stakeholders are brought along and feel engaged in the project and in the decision making process. So ultimately, the selection of a design approach for East Side Coastal Resiliency was really an iterative process. We worked with more than a dozen involved city, state and federal agencies to understand their priorities, their constraints, and develop a set of design solutions that were represented, sort of the range of feasible options. Then we took that to the public, and we had many rounds of public meetings to understand community’s preferences, get feedback on the designs, understand their concerns, refine the design from there, and then undertaking that process over and over again until we eventually advanced with a selected design into construction, which is where we are now. So the plan that’s currently under construction is a physical flood barrier. It spans 2.4 miles of the East River waterfront along Manhattan’s Lower East Side. And what that looks like varies along the length of the waterfront, just like the waterfront varies today. So in many places, it’s an above ground concrete flood wall with large steel gates that move to cross roadways and sidewalks. And in other places it’s a buried floodwall with raised landscapes on top of it, effectively maintaining the existing open space that we have along the waterfront.
So New York is one of the most built up cities in the world and that must have created many challenges. Can you give our listeners a sense of what it took to pull this off and make it work with all of the other infrastructure that was already in place?
Sure, as you can imagine, every square inch of space in lower Manhattan is spoken for and heavily used. So trying to find space to introduce a new type of infrastructure while preserving all the existing parkland and transportation networks and utility infrastructure was quite a trick. And it really came down to a combination of threading the needle where we could, and finding creative ways to make the infrastructure serve multiple purposes. So for example, achieving the elevation that we needed to protect from future flood events required raising portions of East River Park quite a bit over their existing elevation in some cases, as much as 10 feet. And we’re able to use that raised landscape to also improve the accessibility of pedestrian bridges that people use to access the park. So where previously there were stairs or steep ramps, now we have universally accessible ramps that land people in the park. Similarly, where we have flood protection, crossing roadways, like I mentioned, we have these large moveable gates that preserve that connectivity. And as we were designing those, we realized there was really an opportunity to reimagine some of these intersections and improve pedestrian visibility and access, introduced improved crosswalks, accessible pedestrian signals, and other accessibility improvements. And really, what we found is that a project like this needs to serve people every day of the year, it can’t just be important when there’s a hurricane coming, it needs to function in the day to day.
I really like how you’re emphasizing there, the efforts that were put in place on the stakeholder engagement front, but also around keeping in the forefront of everyone’s minds that this isn’t just infrastructure. These are things that become part of the lives of the citizens of New York. So that’s great. You’ve just spoken about how this project needed to be integrated into the physical infrastructure of the city, but it also needed to be and needs to be integrated into the administrative infrastructure of the city. And I understand that this type of flood protection system is really a new thing for New York. And of course, the city itself will need to administer and maintain this, once it’s in place. What’s that aspect of this project been like?
You know, it’s a great privilege to be the first project of its kind, but it’s also a challenge. And as the first ever large-scale flood protection project for New York City, there was definitely a learning curve for the city itself. New York City is great at building things, obviously great at building roads, and buildings, and sewers, and parks and all kinds of things. But there really wasn’t, and isn’t a city agency that is familiar with flood protection that knows how to design and build it or maintain it. And so the design development process was also an educational process, where we were bringing the city along with us, to help them understand how this type of infrastructure works, what kind of design criteria they would want to establish, and performance criteria for this kind of project. Some things as simple as how to review the designs that we’re proposing. And then, of course, what they needed to keep in mind for the long term operations and maintenance of a project like this. So our team and especially Arcadis with its long history of flood protection projects, was able to connect the city’s leadership, with peer leaders in other cities, and municipalities that had flood protection already in place, so that they could do sort of peer to peer knowledge sharing and ask questions of the people who’ve gone before them. And we found that to be a really useful tool to make sure that they understood what the full lifecycle of a flood protection project really feels like for the city. And it’s also a continually evolving process. Just in the last month, the city announced the creation of the new Bureau of Coastal Resilience, who will be in charge of these types of projects long term. So we’re collectively working to navigate a new delineation of responsibilities, making sure that as this project reaches substantial completion, and construction, and new operational entities come online, everyone knows who’s doing what and how to do that work.
I’d actually like to jump back to what we were just talking about the piece around the stakeholders. Now with any project of this scale, in a city like New York, there are bound to be residents who will be concerned that the changes being made are going to rob them of public space that they’re really intimately connected with. And in many ways, they may feel a sense of ownership of that public space. So how have you accounted for this, as well as broader concerns about equity? I’m thinking about the concept of climate gentrification. How did all of that come into the mix? As you guys were working on this project?
The question of equity is an interesting one, and something that this project has really sought to center in its design and planning processes. And part of why this project was selected to be the first to receive federal funding is because it protects a lot of public housing campuses and a neighborhood with a high proportion of low and moderate income residents. But of course, the other side of that coin is that those are the same folks who are going to have to live with several years of construction to see this project implemented. So, as I mentioned, we conducted dozens and dozens of public meetings and worked directly with the community groups and public housing resident associations to understand their perspectives, and their priorities as we refine the design of this project. And we really sought to ensure that the finished project reflects those inputs. For example, and this may seem like a small piece, but East River Park is being almost entirely reconstructed as part of this project. And we heard countless times in these public meetings, that the community really values the picnic and barbecue spaces that are in the park today. And while people understood the need for flood protection, in many ways, what they were most focused on was ensuring that those kinds of spaces that they’re using as part of their daily life are getting put back, and in many cases improved. So again, while it seems like a small part of such a large infrastructure project, making sure that there were plenty of very thoughtfully designed universally accessible picnic spots throughout this park, makes this space usable for the people in the community that it serves day in and day out. And while there certainly are still some people who are opposed to this project, the goal throughout has remained to serve the community that’s actually at the heart of this project.
So Maggie, you mentioned how the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project is part of a larger project. And it did also occur to me, obviously, we’re talking about one portion of lower Manhattan, but then not just the rest of Manhattan, you’ve got a whole city that ultimately needs to be protected. So maybe you can speak about the role of this particular project in the overall haul and what the plan is going forward.
Of course, so East Side Coastal Resiliency was selected to be the first compartment in part because of the vulnerability of the population it serves. But that’s not to say that there aren’t vulnerable populations and critical infrastructure to protect across the rest of lower Manhattan and across the rest of the five boroughs. So the remainder of the compartments in what was originally conceived of as The Big U, are in varying states of development right now. The next compartment south from East Side Coastal Resiliency is called Brooklyn Bridge Montgomery, Coastal Resiliency, BMCR. It’s quite far along in design right now, and along the rest of the Lower Manhattan shorefront, those projects are in varying states of design development as we speak, all the way around to Battery Park city on the West Side. So lower Manhattan is well on its way to achieving a more resilient future. There are initiatives ongoing across the rest of the boroughs as well. Red Hook has seen quite a bit of flooding, obviously, it’s a very vulnerable spot, and it has both interim flood protection measures and some long term flood protection planning in place. And in the intervening years since Sandy in New York City has also seen just how vulnerable it is due to flooding not just from coastal storm events, but from rainfall. We’ve seen even just last year that there is incredible vulnerability to rainfall flooding. In September of 2023, there was an incredible rainfall event that flooded large portions of the city. And so the New York City Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice has really taken the lead on making sure that not just these large scale flood protection projects are moving forward, but also a more distributed network of smaller flood protection projects, or flood mitigation projects across the city and understanding that it’s going to take working at all scales to improve the resiliency of New York City as a whole.
Okay, Maggie finally, when we look at the East Side Coastal Resiliency project, when it’s completed, what are the expected outcomes and in your mind, what will be the hallmarks of success?
The good news is the project is really progressing well as we speak. It’s in construction, portions of the floodwall are actually already completed and some of the parks are open. Anyone in New York City should head down to the side and check out Asser Levy Playground or Stuyvesant Cove Park. They look fantastic and it’s really exciting to see these spaces take shape. So obviously a critical marker of success is going to be the way that the project performs in a coastal storm event and achieving the goal of protecting the 100,000+ people who live in this area. But just as important is going to be the way that these reconstructed waterfront spaces function on sunny days. And in my mind this project will be a success, if and when, even more people are using these waterfront spaces than ever before, capitalizing on the improved access and upgraded facilities that we’ve been able to provide, over and above its flood protection purpose.
Maggie, thank you so much for your time. And of course, we certainly are hopeful about the great protection that this project is going to give to the folks living in the area they are. But we’re also mindful of the fact that we certainly hope that it won’t be necessary anytime soon. Thanks for coming on the show.
Thanks so much.
That’s it for this episode of the show. I want to give a big thank you to Maggie Hopkins from AKRF for joining us. For all of you out there listening, please stay tuned for future episodes as we continue to bring changemakers to the table who are driving progress in urban development. If you haven’t already done so, please be sure to subscribe and check out our other episodes. I’m Davion Ford, and you’ve been listening to Better Cities by Design. A podcast brought to you by Arcadis, the world’s leading company delivering sustainable design, engineering and consultancy solutions for natural and built assets. You can learn more by visiting our website arcadis.com or following Arcadis on LinkedIn or Facebook, and please, stay curious, get inspired and remember, the future belongs to those who dare to make a difference in the cities we call home.