SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters project begins in-water construction off of Staten Island

Catching a Break

SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters project begins in-water construction off of Staten Island

Section view of a wave-taming, biodiversity-fostering breakwater structure developed as part of the Living Breakwaters project for Lower New York Bay. (Courtesy SCAPE)

Earlier this week, the New York State Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR) announced that Living Breakwaters, the $107 million coastal resiliency-slash-marine biodiversity project was now taking shape off the South Shore area of Staten Island; an area pummeled by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Alongside swaths of Lower Manhattan and low-lying waterfront communities in Brooklyn and Queens such as Red Hook, the Rockaways, and Howard Beach, Staten Island’s Tottenville neighborhood on the far southern end of the borough suffered some of the most significant damage within New York City during the historic storm.

Developed by a large and multidisciplinary project team led by New York- and New Orleans-based landscape architecture and urban design studio SCAPE, Living Breakwaters, when complete, will take the form of a series of near-shore breakwaters built from stone and “ecologically enhanced concrete units” that will break waves and reduce beach erosion while also providing a new habitat for oysters and other marine life.

people gathered on a beach for an event with a crane in the background
The Living Breakwaters construction kick-off event on September 13 in Tottenville, Staten Island. (Courtesy SCAPE)

In total, Living Breakwaters, which was a winning proposal for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s post-Sandy Rebuild by Design competition, will stretch 2,400 linear feet along Tottenville’s surge-vulnerable shoreline on Raritan Bay, a body of water within the southernmost stretches of Lower New York Bay.

“Living Breakwaters represents years of teamwork—research, shore walks, oyster pilots, hydrodynamic modeling and community planning meetings. So many people over so many years have provided valuable input,” said Kate Orff, founding principal of SCAPE in a statement. “It’s inspiring to see this model of coastal blue-green infrastructure and community protection now being realized in Raritan Bay.”

As detailed in a press release, in addition to providing Tottenville with an additional layer of robust protection against climate change-exacerbated storms, Living Breakwaters, a major work of natural infrastructure informed by “hydrodynamic modeling, iterative testing, environmental review, and extensive public engagement,” will feature “reef ridges” and “reef streets” meant to foster marine biodiversity. The installation of live oysters, a bivalve once found in abundance within New York Harbor and renowned for its water-filtering capabilities, will come after the completion of the breakwaters and be deployed as a key tool in removing pollutants—nitrogen and phosphorus, chief among them—from the rebounding marine ecosystem.

section view of a breakwaters
(Courtesy SCAPE)

Construction of Living Breakwaters is expected to wrap up in the fall of 2024. The design process first began in the summer of 2015 and concluded in fall 2019.

“GOSR is proud to begin construction on Living Breakwaters, which embraces Tottenville’s history as the ‘Town the Oyster Built’ while protecting and preserving its future in the face of climate change and rising sea levels,” added Emily Thompson, GOSR General Counsel and Chief External Affairs Officer.

In addition to the multi-tasking breakwaters themselves, SCAPE, in partnership with the Governors Island-based Billion Oyster Project (BOP) has developed a Living Breakwaters Curriculum that is at the core of a HUD-funded educational programming-based social resilience initiative introduced to the Tottenville community through local schools.

Joining SCAPE and BOP on the larger project design team are: LOT-EK, Cowi, Arcadis, WSP, MFS Engineers, Prudent Engineering, and SeArc Ecological Marine Consulting. Weeks Marine is serving as head contractor.