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Community / Public space

Staten Island plans a wall made of oysters to protect it from flooding

In the wake of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which flooded New York’s streets and dangerously eroded parts of its coastline, the city authorities are coming up with all sorts of plans to protect themselves from flooding.

Which is how it is that a group of architects have found themselves in possession of $60m worth of federal funding to construct a wall of oysters around the southern part of Staten Island.

The oysters will be introduced to pre-built concrete breakwater walls, and will form their own reef-style structure on top. These “living breakwaters”, put forward by architecture firm Scape/Landscape, would help break waves before they reach the coastline and thereby lower the risk of flooding (an uneven surface breaks up waves better than a smooth, concrete one). Pippa Brashear, an engineer assigned to the project, told Global Construction Review that the scheme could lower the flood plain by two feet: “That could make the difference of a floor of your house being in or out of the insurance zone.”

Another advantage is that oysters act as a natural filtration system: they take in seawater and produce up to 50 gallons (around 230 litres) of clean water a day. This could help improve the island’s polluted beaches.

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This map shows the location of the proposed breakwaters:

Image: Scape/Landscape.

Strange as it sounds, this isn’t actually a new idea. Oysters naturally form large, reef-like structures, and at one time these covered about a quarter of the New York City’s harbour. Meanwhile, manmade oyster reefs have been installed in San Francisco and the Northern Gulf of Mexico – though these were brought in for ecological reasons, rather than to prevent flooding. 

Kate Orff, one of the architects involved with the Staten Island project, has previously proposed oysters as a flood solution for canals in Brooklyn. If the Staten Island pilot is successful, it could be considered as a possibility for other areas in the city. 

One possible drawback to the plan is the attractiveness of the breakwater’s building materials to locals. Luckily, the architects will be able to keep an eye out for potential poachers using a specially installed “oyster cam”.
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