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Staten Island Living Breakwaters project wins international adaptation award

Multiple breakwaters were constructed just below Staten Island's coast.

Posted on September 25, 2023

Staten Island’s “Living Breakwaters” project received international acclaim this month as the winner of the 2023 Obel award, which recognizes outstanding architectural contributions in service of both people and the planet.

The $107 million resiliency effort, located off the South Shore of Staten Island, spans 2,400 linear feet across eight separate breakwaters. They are designed to blunt the force of powerful waves churned up by storms while promoting habitat for marine life living in New York’s waters.

An innovative infrastructure project, the breakwaters have fostered nearly a decade of educational engagement with Staten Island schools — bringing citizen science to the borough, leveraging ongoing work with the Billion Oyster Project and offering an up-close example of environmental engineering.

“Winning an architecture prize is important for a project like this, which involved so many different people working together with a shared purpose,” said Kate Orff, founder of SCAPE, the New York-based multi-disciplinary team that designed and led the project, in a statement. “It is a true encouragement for community members, elected officials, landscape architects, ecologists, and engineers, to come together and develop coastal adaptation projects wherever they are.”

Orff said the award also serves as an acknowledgment of the importance of approaching design in a holistic way that considers wider, planetary implications.

“Our protective natural systems are in various stages of decline globally, and in order to repair them, we have to think and design systemically to tie the pieces back together,” Orff said. “It’s an incredibly bold, creative act. Hopefully, this award can emphasize this point: that nature is a matter of design now and that we have to work fast, and to work together.”

An excavator constructs a breakwater off Staten Island’s coast.

The project was born out of the Rebuild by Design competition launched by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) after Superstorm Sandy, which brought devastating, deadly storm surge that hit Staten Island with such force that it dislodged houses from their foundations.

Its design utilizes massive stones and ecological concrete on top of marine mattresses — rectangular-shaped baskets made of high-strength mesh that sit against the ocean floor and distribute the breakwaters’ weight. The smallest of the eight breakwaters is 11 feet from floor to crest; the largest is about double that size.

Multiple reef ridges then extend outward from each breakwater to invite marine life, including seals, to the waters off Staten Island. Conceptually utilizing nature, experts said oysters latching on to the structures will strengthen its ability to protect Staten Island’s shore in the coming years.

A total of 800 pre-cast tide pools and 500 armor blocks will have been placed when the project, long-delayed in its initial planning stages, marches toward the finish line next year. Afterwards, temporary resiliency measures on Tottenville’s coast — sandbags that line the shoreline — will be removed and replaced by the placement of tons of new sand.

The effort was slated to be completed by the end of 2024, but was proceeding ahead of schedule when the Advance/ visited the project’s barge earlier this year, according to Kevin Robinson, the project manager for Weeks Marine, the company responsible for construction.

Borough President Vito Fossella, who also visited the site, congratulated the team on its Obel award and said the accomplishment “reflects the tremendous innovation in design and engineering behind the Living Breakwaters project.”

“We applaud the design team and Governor Hochul’s office for a project that combines the best of human engineering and nature’s engineering to protect our shore communities in Tottenville from any future storm surges and beach erosion,” Fossella said.

An excavator constructs a breakwater off Staten Island’s coast.

“Breakwaters is an ancient idea for how to protect shorelines – and the people who live close to them – by building underwater seawalls to defend a harbor or a beach from the force of waves,” Martha Schwartz, chair of the OBEL award jury, said in a release. “Kate has designed an extraordinary, modern-day interpretation, the Living Breakwaters, which will not only protect humans and revitalize the coastline of New York City, but also restore lost marine biodiversity.”

“This is a visionary project that tackles the full task of adaptation, and which has the capacity to inspire and to positively impact vulnerable shorelines worldwide,” Schwartz said.

Orff, who was named as the first-ever architect to be put on the TIME100 Most Influential People in the world list in 2023, was previously elevated to the American Society of Landscape Architects Council of Fellows, considered one of the highest honors given to landscape architects in the U.S. She is a member of the Commission on Accelerating Climate Action for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and accepted a design award from Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, on behalf of SCAPE, in 2019.

“We are proud that Living Breakwaters, which came out of H.U.D.’s Rebuild By Design competition, is now being recognized by the Obel Awards for its groundbreaking plan to combine green infrastructure with ecological improvements,” New York State Homes and Community Renewal Commissioner Ruthanne Visnauskas said in a statement.

“The landmark project – rebuilding the Staten Island shoreline while also enhancing marine habitat – exemplifies New York’s leadership on climate adaptation and resiliency,” Visnauskas said. “We thank SCAPE, H.U.D., and all our Living Breakwaters partners and look forward to continuing to work together building resilient communities.”

SEE IT: These 30 photos show progress on Staten Island ‘Living Breakwater’ resiliency project

Workers are shown alongside a barge holding material for the Living Breakwaters project.


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