Construction underway on a flood resiliency project in East River Park in Manhattan in October 2022.

Construction underway on a flood resiliency project in East River Park in Manhattan in October 2022. Mary Altaffer / AP Photo

After a Decade of Planning, New York City Is Raising Its Shoreline

Inspired by the Dutch model of living with water, New York’s coastal defenses are on the rise. The city — like others around the country — is combining infrastructure like floodwalls with nature-based features, as it moves ahead with the largest resiliency project in the U.S.

On a recent morning in Asser Levy Playground, on Manhattan’s East Side, a group of retirees traded serves on a handball court adjacent to a recently completed 10-foot-high floodwall. Had a sudden storm caused the East River to start overtopping this barrier, a 79-foot-long floodgate would have begun gliding along a track, closing off the playground and keeping the handball players dry. In its small way, this 2.4-acre waterfront park is a major proof of concept for a city at the forefront of flood resilience planning — a city working toward living with, and not against, water.

The Asser Levy renovation, completed in 2022, is part of East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR), the largest urban resiliency project currently underway in the United States. Over the next three years, at a total cost of $1.8 billion, ESCR will reshape two-and-a-half miles of Lower Manhattan’s shoreline. But ESCR is just one link in a much larger, $2.7 billion initiative called the BIG U — a series of contiguous flood resilience projects that runs from Asser Levy, near 25th Street, around the southern tip of Manhattan, and up to Battery Park City, along the Hudson River. When finished, the BIG U will amount to 5.5 miles of new park space specifically designed to protect over 60,000 residents and billions of dollars in real estate against sea level rise and storm surges.

Residents of public housing count on a narrow park to buffer their homes from a river that has already risen 8 inches.

The BIG U was conceived in the aftermath of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, which flooded 17 percent of New York City and caused $19 billion in damage. Like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Sandy helped push New York and other flood-prone coastal U.S. cities — among them Boston, Norfolk, Charleston, Miami, and San Francisco — toward embracing the Dutch concept of “living with water,” which emphasizes building infrastructure that can both repel and absorb water while also providing recreational and open space.

In New York, ESCR, like any large infrastructure project slated for a densely populated place, has moved in fits and starts. Still, New York is making significant progress. “Anything that’s on the scale of Manhattan is always going to be so much bigger and more complicated,” says Amy Chester, director of Rebuild by Design, the post-Sandy design competition from which ESCR was born. “And yet a lot has been done.”

The ESCR project area encompasses a flood-prone wedge of Manhattan’s natural topography — a “pinch point” between two higher stretches of shoreline. Some 400 years ago, when the island was inhabited by the Lenni-Lenape, this shoreline was woods and marsh that never rose more than a few feet above sea level. Tidal creeks drained from uplands dense with American chestnut, aster, and goldenrod, winding through spartina meadows to the river. Today, that landscape is lost beneath four separate public housing complexes, whose roughly 10,000 residents count on East River Park to buffer their homes from a waterway that has risen 8 inches since the mid-20th century.

A retractable flood gate is open at the entrance to Asser Levy Playground.

A retractable flood gate is open at the entrance to Asser Levy Playground. Robert K. Chin / Alamy Stock Photo

Because ESCR is the first segment of the BIG U to get underway, its path has been rocky, from debates about its final design, to budget cuts, to new concerns about the evolving risks of climate change, including the extreme rain events that New York experienced this year. Its original design, released in 2014, called for East River Park’s running track, tennis courts, and other sports fields to be preserved, along with its shady groves of mature pin oak and cherry. But in 2018, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio quietly revamped the design: it would be faster and cheaper, the mayor’s team said, to wipe the park clean, elevate the landscape with more than a million tons of fill, then build anew on top.

Unlike the kind of permeable buffers championed by the Dutch, the raised park would function more like a hard barrier. Citing the urgency of the climate crisis, de Blasio wrote in 2019, “We’re going to build it because we have no choice.” Opposition to the redesign remains, but many residents of the public housing complexes, which are at high risk of flooding, support it. In the fall of 2021, demolition crews got to work.

A new park landscaped with pathways and vegetation beds will function as a berm, keeping water from city streets.

Currently, a fence divides East River Park in half. In the southern portion, a swath of new steel sheet pile stands at the water’s edge, rising about 8 feet above the park’s original grade — a height that can protect the adjacent city streets against a once-in-100-years storm event, like Sandy. Massive excavators scoop fill, gouged from quarries in upstate New York, from barges, slowly raising the park’s elevation. When that is completed, the park will be landscaped with pathways and vegetation beds that snake around and through sports fields, an amphitheater, and playgrounds to form a terraced topography that will function as a berm to keep water from city streets. More floodwalls and retractable gates will run the park’s length and extend into surrounding streets, where archaic infrastructure will be overhauled so stormwater is less likely to mix with wastewater during flooding.

North of the fence, construction is nearly complete at Stuyvesant Cove Park, which occupies a narrow, quarter-mile strip of land just south of Asser Levy Playground. And while the park may lack the raingardens and other water-absorbent features of the original ESCR design, Stuyvesant Cove does remain true to another Dutch principle: allowing hard infrastructure to creatively fade into the landscape. Here, walking and biking paths undulate through stepped garden beds planted with viburnum, wild cherry, milkweed, and other salt-tolerant natives. The park’s concrete floodwall and its two retractable steel floodgates — one 42 feet long and the other 77 feet long — feel of a piece with the gradually rising topography.

Workers complete a floodwall at Stuyvesant Cove Park in 2021 as part of the East Side Coastal Resiliency project.

Workers complete a floodwall at Stuyvesant Cove Park in 2021 as part of the East Side Coastal Resiliency project. NYC Department of Design and Construction

Other segments of the BIG U are also underway. In the Battery, at the city’s southern tip, the waterfront is being elevated with fill. Next, floodwalls, higher-capacity drainage, and new park space will be installed. Similar projects to protect the historic South Street Seaport area and the Financial District remain in the planning and design phase.

When completed, the BIG U will protect both the beating heart of the global economy in the Financial District and tens of thousands of New York’s most vulnerable residents. “Building a level of resilience capacity across society is critically important,” says Henk Ovink, the former Netherlands Special Envoy for International Water Affairs and one of the creators of Rebuild by Design. “If you don’t invest in the most vulnerable links, the chain breaks.”

In other New York City boroughs, even more progress has been made. On Staten Island, another winner of the Rebuild by Design competition, Living Breakwaters, is on track for completion next year. The project involves a network of breakwaters off the southern tip of Staten Island that will dampen destructive wave action and provide habitat for oysters and other marine life. On Staten Island’s shore, the state has bought out and removed homes to make way for periodic flooding. At Rockaway Beach, in Queens, a steel-reinforced concrete boardwalk has replaced the wooden one that was lost during Sandy; running underneath it, a concrete retaining wall helps keep sand and a new dune system from washing away during large storm surges.

The Dutch-inspired approach to resiliency planning is finding receptive audiences in other U.S. cities as well. Across the Hudson River, in New Jersey, one of the most innovative flood protection projects in the U.S. is underway in Hoboken, a city that once was, like East River and Stuyvesant Cove parks, a salt marsh. Unlike East River Park, however, Hoboken has been able to implement not just floodwalls and sewer upgrades but also park spaces that can hold and absorb excess water. The result is a city far better prepared to handle not just the kind of storm surge that caused $100 million in damages during Sandy but also the “rain bombs” that are becoming increasingly common with climate change.

In Charleston, South Carolina, the economically critical historic and medical districts rest on a low-lying peninsula that has seen 13 inches of sea level rise over the last century: 7 of those inches occurred in the last two decades. In 2021, the city hired as chief resilience officer Dale Morris, a former senior economist for the Royal Netherlands Embassy. “We in the United States, but also in places around the world, think of flood risk infrastructure as single purpose — we build a pump, or a culvert, or a seawall,” says Morris. “But the Dutch have learned that you need to do more than that, and you can do more than that.”

When it comes to living with water, the knowledge gap between governments, businesses, and communities is narrowing.

In 2019, Morris helped create a “Dutch Dialogues” symposium that brought together city officials, planners, and community members to conceptualize a “living with water” flood resilience plan for Charleston. The largest initiative to come from the event is a plan, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to design an eight-mile flood barrier around the Charleston peninsula that, like the BIG U, melds hard infrastructure, such as tidal gates and pumps, with nature-based features, such as living shorelines. In the meantime, a series of drainage tunnels beneath the streets are nearing completion, along with an upgraded seawall. The city has also bought out 32 flood-prone homes to make way for a stormwater park. “For most of the year, it’ll be a normal park,” Morris says. “But when it rains hard and our drainage system is challenged, water will fill up this park, acting as a diversion.”

Every six weeks, Morris has a call with other flood-vulnerable cities across the country — including New York, Boston, Miami, and San Francisco — that are planning and constructing projects using the Dutch approach. “The chief resilience officers are learning and sharing information,” Morris says, “seeing what’s working, expressing hope or frustration with a particular policy.”

A park path runs along a floodwall on the east side of Manhattan.

A park path runs along a floodwall on the east side of Manhattan. New York Department of Design and Construction

Out of such talks came inspiration for Norfolk, Virginia’s comprehensive flood-management plan, dubbed “Resilient Norfolk.” In 2018, an Army Corps analysis concluded that, by 2075, nearly all of the city, which has a population of 235,000, will be at risk of flooding. The $2.6 billion Resilient Norfolk plan will address the city’s persistent high-tide flooding and extreme rain events through a combination of floodwalls, levees, tide gates, and pump stations, as well as nature-based features. The project, says Kyle Spencer, Norfolk’s chief resilience officer, is 65 percent designed. The construction phase is slated to last 10 years, with priority given to the city’s historic, predominately Black neighborhoods of Kindred and Old Huntersville. “We don’t have the millions of people that New York has, but we’re the largest Navy base in the world, the third largest port on the East Coast, a regional trauma center,” Spencer says. “There’s a lot of need to solve here.”

Norfolk, along with New York and 24 other U.S. cities, is a member of the Resilient Cities Network, a global collective of 100 cities that were identified, in 2013, as already having advanced resilience strategies that take into account the physical, social, and economic challenges of climate change. Under the 100 Resilient Cities program, funding was made available for cities to appoint chief resilience officers who then worked together to develop a holistic, global resiliency strategy based on community dialogue, protecting vulnerable residents first, and incorporating nature-based infrastructure. At COP28 this month, there was even an emphasis on “nature-positive cities” — an indication, says Henk Ovink, that when it comes to the concept of living with water, the knowledge gap between governments, businesses, and local communities is gradually narrowing. “Adaptation is still lagging behind massively, and so is mitigation,” Ovink says. “But there is a tilt happening, because no one escapes climate change impacts and, at the same time, preparedness pays.”

That said, Ovink, Morris, and Spencer agree that despite all the planning underway in many of the world’s biggest cities, much of it remains just that: planning. “It’s not as if we have a lot of time to make these adaptations,” Morris says. “We are doing a lot, but the question is are we doing enough? Because I see flood risk increasing all the time.”