cally placed ri<es and pools along with abundant plantings help
soak up storm runo= pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorous.
A moratorium on new building in wetlands along with buyouts
like the one in Oakwood Beach are helping to expand the Blue-
belt’s reach. “This is what some people like to call ‘thinking out of
the box,’” says Staten Island borough president James Molinaro.
“Instead of putting down sewers, you use nature to purify and dis-
perse storm water. There’s both beauty and e=ectiveness.”
The Bluebelt costs considerably less than a typical under-
ground sewer system, and it provides the added benefit of foster-
ing community open spaces and wildlife habitat. Neighborhoods
can “adopt” a piece of the Bluebelt, and volunteer groups help
with cleanups. The result is an ecosystem-wide maintenance
program that brings together citizens and government in a crea-
tive way that is winning awards.
ANOTHER UNLIKELY but increasingly sensible partnership
for a livable New York is between humans and a more aquatically sophisticated member of the natural world—oysters.
The city’s waterways were once dense with them. Jamaica Bay
alone, a vast network of wetlands and marshes on the north
side of the Rockaways, used to send 300,000 bushels of oysters
to city markets each year. But by 1921, the impacts of sewage
and industrial e<uent, overharvesting, and dredging had taken
a toll, and the oyster beds perished or, for health reasons, were
no longer harvested.
New York City waters are now cleaner than they’ve been in decades, and spat — the little larvae of oysters — are floating about,
seeking out some substrate to latch on to so they can grow.
“There are oyster larvae,” says landscape architect Kate Or=.
“There’s just no place for them to land. So there are these ba-
bies, but then . . .” She pauses and makes a long downward
whistle indicating failure. “I get depressed about this, as a
mom of two.”
Or= has proposed bringing back New York City’s lost oyster
reefs— which could naturally help shield the city from future
storm surges — in a project called Oyster-tecture. We meet at a
round table in the kitchen of her SCAPE Studio o;ces on Lower
Broadway, with a foggy morning view across Manhattan to the
Her idea is to make a home for the oyster orphans, starting
in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, one of the most polluted water-
ways of the city. Piers are already in place; cages will be lowered
into the water that are filled with fuzzy rope, providing lots of
surface area for spat to land. (The cages are to keep hungry
New Yorkers from prematurely harvesting oysters that won’t be
suitable for human consumption for years to come.) She was
thrilled when she heard Governor Cuomo give a shout-out to
the bivalves after the storm: “It came out of his mouth—‘We
need to be thinking about oyster beds’—and I’m like, yes,
that’s the goal!”
Or= advocates dredging and filling waterways in a way that sup-
ports underwater ecosystems instead of destroying them. “I think
a big part of this is thinking about it holistically,” she says. “You can
use dredging and filling in a cut-and-build concept throughout the
harbor to create a new set of edges and cross-sections that can be-
come armatures for habitat.” As the oysters build upon themselves,
making reefs out of their own shells, they work continually to clean
the waters, acting as natural filtration systems.
To consider the return of oyster reefs to New York is to explore
the bathymetry, or underwater topography, of the waters that sur-
round the city’s islands. Or= explains the mechanics, but it’s as
much a history lesson.
“There was once this historic 3-D mosaic of underwater ba-
thymetry, which included barrier islands and oyster reefs and
shallower shoal areas that make a threshold into the inner har-
bor,” she says, using a marker to show how the stretch of Sandy
Hook on the Jersey Shore wants to reach up and connect with
Coney Island in a series of channels and shoals. If the land
mass was permitted to form again, it would help diminish the
impact of sea surges. One hard passageway could allow a steady
shipping channel. “See this signature?” she taps her marker
on the area between Staten Island, Brooklyn, and New Jersey.
“This whole area was once shallows, back in 1766, fortified
with layers of ecological systems.”
Or= isn’t the only person in the city thinking about oysters.
Marit Larson, the NYC Parks Department’s director of wetlands,
is working on oyster restoration on the north side of the city.
She says that, increasingly, oysters have been showing up on
tires and concrete rubble in the Bronx River. In 2006, the Parks
Department started designing artificial reefs to supplement the
river’s substrate; now they’re working with partners that include
NY/NJ Baykeeper and New York Harbor School, which trains
low-income kids in hands-on maritime stewardship as they
dump 120-ton loads of shells into an area where the East and
Bronx rivers converge. One survey taken just before Sandy
struck found more than eleven thousand oysters along a mile-
wide swath of water. Last summer, students relocated another
100,000 farm-raised spat to the growing reef.
When referencing historical patterns, Kate Or= refers repeatedly to something called the Ratzer Map. In 1766, ten years before the rebellious colonists unshackled their new nation from the
British empire, cartographer Bernard Ratzer was trolling the New
York Harbor, recording its curves and depths. His sepia-toned
map now hangs at the Brooklyn Historical Society, a memory of
the city’s once-flourishing natural infrastructure that, if brought