Clearing Vision

Clearing Vision

Revisions to WRP make way for larger ever-larger cargo vessels on New York’s waterways.
Courtesy NYC Planning

Last year, the city launched Vision2020, New York’s comprehensive waterfront plan. To describe the plan’s scale and importance, the city’s 520 mile waterfront is referred to as “Sixth Borough.” Today in Los Angeles, the American Planning Association will bestow the Daniel Burnham Award to the city for the proposal. Meanwhile, back in New York, the proposed changes continue to work their way through legal channels to become law.

“We are now planning for our waterfront and waterways with the same intensity and passion that we have traditionally planned for our land,” City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden said in a statement. By its very nature the waterfront is a tangle of city, state, and federal jurisdictions. At the city level, the Waterfront Revitalization Program (

SCAPE’s concept for Rising Currents included natural pollution mitigation by farming oysters.
Courtesy SCAPE

Oyster-tecture, a concept developed by SCAPE Landscape Architecture for MoMA’s 2010 Rising Currents exhibition, showed how farming oysters in New York Harbor could help naturally mitigate pollution. Likewise, a text amendment encourages users to “seek opportunities to create a mosaic of habitats with high ecological value.” The text calls out the oysters in particular, though mussels, eelgrass, fish, and crabs get their due.

SCAPE’s Kate Orff noticed the influence of current architectural conversations in the amendments. “It’s incredibly exciting to see a reciprocity, to see ideas that are out in the world become integrated,” she said. Orff recently worked on the National Park System produced Gateway, a book about preserving the ecological habitat at Gateway National Park, with Orff’s particular focus on Jamaica Bay. The previous WRP vaguely lumped fragmented ecologically sensitive areas like the bay under the broad heading Recognized Ecological Complexes, but now the document specifically cites regionally focused plans developed by the city, state, and federal governments, including the Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan.

Henry Hudson Bridge connecting Northern Manhattan and the Bronx.
Tom Stoelker / AN

The plan encompasses much more than sustainability. There are policies for industrial and commercial development, including deeper dredging for ever larger shipping vessels. On land, the plan encourages building design to address rising sea levels. There are flooding and erosion policies. Public access, recreational use, scenic and historic resources are all dealt with. Water quality and waste management are organized by separate policies, but each integrates with the other.  

The teeth of the WRP are in the approval process. “The plan doesn’t have a funding mechanism, it’s a review process,” said Michael Marrella, Planning’s director of waterfront planning. “We’re establishing a protocol for sea level rise, we’re not mandating that all risks be resolved.”

But perhaps nowhere is integration more important to the plan than interagency cooperation at all levels of government. The revisions clearly outline where city, state, and federal jurisdiction meet, but also define the city’s waterfront zoning goals for commerce, recreation, and conservation. “Water is different in that it requires collaboration and coordination and this plan recognizes that,” said Orff. “It’s not a piece of property that can be fenced off.”