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Architect looks at alternative ways to rebuild urban parks

Superstorm Sandy changed how New York City thinks about the design of city parks.  

When Sandy swept through the region in October 2012, its storm surge flooded subway lines and overcame parks near the water’s edge, said Laura Starr, a landscape architect and planner at Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners PLLC in New York City.

She discussed future alternatives in landscape design yesterday at the Cook/Douglass Lecture Hall for her lecture “Wild for the City: Creating & Sustaining Urban Nature.”

The landscapes themselves are resilient to floods and generally recover quickly, but damaged parks with expensive playground equipment and a shortage of green space, like Hudson River Park, will take longer to redesign and rebuild, she said.

Starr said Hudson River Park should be redesigned and rebuilt on higher grounds away from the river so it can protect the city behind it from future storm surges.

“Ideally I think the whole thing would get rebuilt, but it won’t get rebuilt,” she said.

New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office is rushing to find an affordable solution to protect the city from future storm surges, and the Army Corps of Engineers has plans to rebuild the beaches around New York City, such as the Rockaways and Coney Island, she said.

Although officials talk about offshore fixes, floodgates and redesigning waterside parks, nothing has been decided so far, she said.

The need to add wetlands to protect New York City from high-power storms poses an additional problem, yet the city must also consider the needs of a growing population that demands leisure space, she said.

The storm surge was not the only problem New York City faced during Sandy, Starr said.  During heavy rainstorms, the city’s water treatment plants overflow into rivers, leaving polluted water in the water supply or flowing into the city with the storm surge.

Federal, state and city parks take up a third of the city’s shoreline, but not many are currently used to absorb rainwater runoff before it hits the storm sewers, she said.

New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection is its only revenue-generating agency because it supplies water. It has a vested interest in keeping harbor water from becoming dirty during a storm surge, she said.

People in the city are also beginning to pay more attention to ecological methods to prevent surge protection following Sandy, she said.

The city is planning a remedy using green infrastructure such as green roofs, bioswales and small rain gardens that capture water before it can enter storm sewers and back up, she said.

Meanwhile, parks with a softer, resilient shoreline and a topography that protects the city behind it from storm surge are the future of park planning, she said.

“I think we’re kind of on the verge of a change in our social structure to address climate change,” she said.

Starr’s talk is a part of a weekly event within the Department of Landscape Architecture, said Laura Lawson, the department chair.

Lawson said the series, which draws in professors and architects lecturers to cover the history of planning and architecture, also brings together undergraduate and graduate students within the department.

Having all of the students under one roof allows professors to make announcements about upcoming exhibits and to keep people working in different areas of the field abreast on what others are doing, she said.

Holly Nelson, a professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, said landscape architecture is important because parks serve a greater purpose than being a place for leisure activity.

Green space can work for people in urban areas by cleaning polluted water before it enters the waterway and by improving biodiversity, she said.

In the end, protective rain gardens, rooftop gardens and swales could be supported by private funding, a technique that has worked before in New York City parks such as The Highline Park and Central Park, Starr said.

Central Park is a public park owned by New York City, but a conservancy group gathered money from businesses and residents around the park to restore it during the ‘70s and ‘80s, she said.

Since then, the park has transformed, she said.

“All the beauty of Central Park is privately funded,” she said.

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