shape of New York’s native coastlines. Cultivate sand dunes
and beach forests. If Richard George and the Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association could save a bit of coastline with
thirty-five volunteers and a neighborhood cook, imagine what a
whole country could do if it acted with nature in mind.
The U.S. has over twelve thousand miles of coastline, home
to 53 percent of Americans. What can the rest of us learn about
coastal infrastructure from the shorelines of America’s largest
city? I’d come to the Big Apple to find out.
IT IS SPRINGTIME when I visit the western end of the Road to
Nowhere, where the legendary NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, a ruthless mid-twentieth-century urban planner who
favored parkways over parks, left his indelible mark on the
Rockaways in Queens. Of the five-and-a-half-mile-long boardwalk that ran along the Rockaways beachfront, more than half
was destroyed by Sandy, and afterward, the city spent over $140
million to rebuild beaches. The work continues today. I see one
man scrape his shovel across a basketball court, fill his wheelbarrow with sand, and walk a half dozen steps away to dump
the contents on the beach; nearby, bulldozers move between the
skeletal remains of the boardwalk’s concrete stanchions. Annually, dredges and o=shore rigs vacuum up sand that is hauled
onto the beach, where heavy machinery sculpts it into a shoreline in a continuous process called “nourishment.”
I turn my back to the men and take in the two-mile length of
Moses’s Shore Front Parkway. In 1939, Moses orchestrated the
divided, four-lane parkway along the southern shore that was
supposed to become part of a ninety-mile road system along
Long Island, linking the Hamptons in the east to Brooklyn in
the west. (The project never came to fruition, hence the local
nickname, Road to Nowhere.) But while Moses razed neighborhoods and built highways, a new generation of thinkers hopes
to reshape the city with a gentler hand than the one he wielded.
The Shore Front Parkway could be where it begins.
Watching the bulldozers do their work, I envision the space
transformed into a system of forested beach dunes — it would be
reclamation of the grandest sort. This is the idea of Walter Meyer
and Jennifer Bolstad, the husband-and-wife team of Local O;ce
Landscape & Urban Design, on-and-o= Rockaway residents, and
avid surfers. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Meyer
worked with others to form Power Rockaways Resilience, which
delivered hand-built, shopping-cart-sized solar generators to
the hardest-hit parts of the Rockaways so storm survivors could
charge cell phones, laptops, and small power tools. The White
House recognized him as a Champion of Change.
Now, Local O;ce is looking long-term. They have set their
sights on transforming the lingering Moses legacy of the Shore
Front Parkway into a double-dune forest system, similar to
what Richard George showed me on a small scale on the Rockaways’ eastern end. They propose downsizing the parkway from
its current eighty-foot width to a reasonable thirty-foot road and
using the new space to develop dunes planted with trees and
shrubs that provide beachfront storm surge protection. The
boardwalk would continue to exist, nestled between the primary and secondary dunes. They imagine a system like this
stretching across the entire fifteen-mile length of the sea-facing
Rockaways, a natural double-duty sea wall of sorts.
“This is a story about trees,” Meyer tells me. “It’s less about
the dunes than what the dunes support, this coastal forest. It’s
a living armor.” Globally, Meyer says that more and more nations are turning to softer approaches to dealing with sea level
rise. “The Dutch don’t build dykes anymore, they’re building
sand bars and sand dunes,” he says. “The Japanese are building
forests. The Australians are building reefs.”
Volunteers from retreet america, an organization that replants
trees in disaster-struck areas, are readying new York city’s coastline for the next storm.