Atlantic Cities

Reviving New York Harbor With Oysters: Why Hasn't This Happened Yet?

Reviving New York Harbor With Oysters: Why Hasn't This Happened Yet?
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Consider the oyster, as M.F.K. Fisher urged. It is a creature worth considering.

When landscape architect and Columbia University professor Kate Orff and her colleagues from SCAPE Studio proposed a plan to help remediate the health of New York Harbor using what they called "Oyster-tecture," they got a lot of people’s attention (including mine).

The idea appeals because it is at once simple and visionary. Orff and her team advocated the creation of soft infrastructure made out of fuzzy rope that would allow aquaculturists to seed oysters at key points in the harbor. Each oyster is capable of filtering up to 50 gallons of water a day, removing nitrogen, algae, and other pollutants and creating a cleaner harbor (one thing they can’t do, Orff emphasizes, is make heavy metals magically vanish).

These artificial oyster reefs could theoretically help protect low-lying areas of Brooklyn around the notoriously fetid Gowanus Canal – a federal Superfund site -- from storm surges as climate change makes the city increasingly vulnerable to rising sea levels. The Gowanus itself, in Orff’s vision, could serve as an oyster nursery, and the bivalves, once famously abundant in New York waters, could make a comeback – and help make the city a safer, healthier place in the process.

A generation from now, you might even be able to eat these oysters! What’s not to like?

The idea was widely hailed when it was presented at an exhibit called "Rising Currents," mounted two and a half years ago at the Museum of Modern Art. In a review of the exhibit in Design Observer, Mimi Zeiger singled out Scape’s work as perhaps the most promising proposal on display:

[I]ts feasibility as infrastructure was convincing (even if Brooklyn foodies have to wait decades for an edible local oyster). Ultimately, Oyster-Tecture it is rooted in the real world and in existing and relatively low-tech solutions.

But implementing ideas in the real world isn’t so easy, no matter how sensible your concept or how many people are charmed by your renderings and your TED Talk.

"This thing could have been installed two years ago," says Orff in a phone interview. "This is not some billion-dollar thing that comes down from Mars. The technology is rocks and oysters and mussels – all things that exist."

So it hasn’t happened -- yet. Orff says that outdated regulatory structures placing restrictions on anything that could be viewed as "fill" in the harbor have been one of the main stumbling blocks for the Oyster-tecture concept. She also cites a lack of a sense of urgency about the city’s relationship to the rising waters around it, something Mayor Bloomberg’s administration has been criticized for by many environmental advocates.

But next month, Orff is getting a chance to finally put her ideas into action in a small pilot project.

A private client with a working marine pier in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood has commissioned SCAPE to retrofit the property with a fuzzy rope structure that Orff hopes will attract the ribbed mussel, which has a higher tolerance for pollution than the oyster. Orff says there is "a surfeit" of mussels in New York waters, so there will be no need for seeding them.

It won’t be "oyster-tecture," strictly speaking, but it will be a crucial real-world test of the ideas that so far have been confined to renderings. The pilot is "definitely big enough," says Orff, to provide meaningful results – "whether it works or it doesn’t."

Orff emphasizes the simplicity of the concept underlying Oyster-tecture. The harbor, she says, has been so altered by human intervention – all of its rough edges made straight, its bottom flattened, its natural features dredged away – that even when oyster larvae are introduced, as they are being by students at the New York Harbor School, they can’t easily find anywhere to settle and grow. "The larvae are floating around the harbor, but they die because there’s no place for them to go," she says. "That’s landscape architecture’s role. To create edges in the harbor where oyster spat can catch and thrive."

Testing the effect the fuzzy-rope reefs would have on storm surge is trickier, but Orff's team is working with the Stevens Institute of Technology to see how the infrastructure affects computer models of the harbor being developed there.

"This is an ecosystem project," she says. "Everything is interconnected. Oysters are one part of the system, one link in this bigger system. We are trying to build that up."

And she cautions against trying to pass off responsibility for environmental stewardship to a bunch of mollusks. Oyster-tecture, if it becomes a large-scale reality, will not be a passive process.

"Oysters are not cleaning the harbor," says Orff. "People are cleaning the harbor. Oysters are being oysters."

Top image: Jane Rix / Shutterstock.com

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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