BIGHT: COASTAL URBANISM
by Susannah Drake & Rafi Segal
May 26, 2018
This interview with Susannah Drake & Rafi Segal was conducted and condensed by frank news. Bight’s project team is Rafi Segal & DLANDstudio (Susannah Drake), Sarah Williams, Greg Lindsay, Brent Ryan, Benjamin Albrecht.
Susannah: My name is Susannah Drake, I'm an architect and landscape architect, and I'm the principal of DLANDstudio. Also, I've taught at various schools including the Cooper Union, which is where Rafi and I met, teaching an Urban Design Studio.
Rafi: I’m Rafi. I’m an architect. I run a practice under my name and I teach at MIT, primarily around the questions of the city, or the future city. I guess you can say I’m an urbanist. The courses bring architects and planners together, which hasn’t been the case in this country since the 1960’s.
How has it been working together?
Rafi: We know where to come together and where to split. This is how we cover ground: we converge and then split.
Susannah: It's respectful but not conciliatory.
Rafi: My work concentrates on urban architecture: the reading, or understanding of the city. How context informs project. Susannah has a broader scope of of dealing with landscape and the environment.
Susannah: The fabric of the city, but also the ecological systems that impact it. Infrastructure acknowledging geology, hydrology, or ecology - to integrate architectural and engineered systems with natural systems.
What is BIGHT?
Rafi: Have you ever heard the term “BIGHT” before?
Rafi: No one has!
Susannah: It could be quite provocative! We should step back and talk about the Regional Plan Association (RPA) and the origins of all of this. The BIGHT project is a component of the Fourth Regional Plan for the future of the metropolitan region: Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. The first plan was about concentric circles of development around Manhattan.
Rafi: This is in 1929.
Susannah: The fourth plan is a dramatic shift: from circles to corridors.
Rafi: The Bight is the waterfronts of Long Island, New York and New Jersey. The barrier islands, harbors, constructed and naturalized landscapes. It comes with a set of issues: climate change, sea level rise, flooding...
How long is it?
Rafi: 600 Miles or so. It’s very big. Let's backtrack for a second to give you a bigger picture. I mean, why do we need such an institution? Why does the RPA exist? The premise back then was, ok, NYC is growing and designing itself, but who's looking at the region? So RPA initially came in to fill the gap with research in urban planning.
Susannah: It’s a national competition, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Rafi: The prompt was, how do you approach urban design of the future? What are the main issues? Who do you engage? What’s the narrative?
Bight City, Jamaica Bay 2067, view across lagoon: ‘wet city’ housing along the lagoon’s edges protects the ‘dry city’ behind it.
Susannah: They wanted to look at different scales of of issues happening in the region. So we looked at a little barrier island, a small community. The we looked at a second area, Jamaica Bay, which is very complex: multi-jurisdictional, also a national park, you know, just about as complex as you can get. And the third area is a post-war suburban community, on a waterfront, but not the same as affluent waterfront areas in Long Island.
THE SITES TODAY
Existing elevated rail, Rockaways, 2017 Sea Bright, New Jersey, 2017: a barrier island flooded from both ocean- and bay sides. The sea wall and elevated beach clubs will remain as the island disappears under water.
PROJECTED VULNERABILITY AND ADAPTATION PLAN
New Mastic, 2050: projected flooding (left), proposed plan for future development (right), densifying high, dry ground while permitting some homes to remain in wet areas as they evolve into a new elevated neighborhood built along docks.
What are the primary climate related issues happening to all of these areas?
Susannah: Sea level rise. They're all in vulnerable areas. Some of them are built on barrier islands, where there really should never have been any development.
A barrier island is not a static landscape.
It's a dynamic landscape that changes. That is influenced by winds, and currents, and the cycles in the environment, the shifting tides changing the water table. No one should ever build a house there that's permanent, but we have, for recreational purposes or for pleasure. Initially there was a more realistic relationship to the environment in these places. A summerhouse might have been a cottage. It wouldn't be used in the winter. A much lighter touch on the environment. But over time we've changed our relationship to the environment. As people we feel like we're much more invincible. We built hardened structures. But the nature of climate has gotten stronger as our architecture has gotten stronger. And nature's winning now.
Rafi: So we identify a pattern here: that we're building more and more along the coastline, in an area increasingly prone to risk.
And you know, in this fight, nature is going to win. What can we do. But that's not the problem. The problem is that we are creatures of our habits and we insist on staying there.
How do we work with that and begin a process that requires change? Change is difficult for people to grasp. This was, in a sense, the challenge: not the planning itself, coming up with a smart plan is one thing, but finding a way to communicate and frame an issue is another.
Susannah: We tried to valorize or make positive the idea of retreat. The whole notion of retreat is seen as a pejorative term. It's seen as being fearful, or weak. But look at military strategy. There are times when you need to retreat so you can go back and fight again. You can look at it as poker, sometimes you fold to save resources. So you can keep playing and win.
We came up with a term for a project, a different RPA: receive, protect, adapt. To change the idea of retreat we say received. It’s a proactive development approach to attract people away from the water's edge.
Rafi: To identify areas that can grow, and then use them as anchors.
Sending and receiving blocks: a strategy of switching people and densities over time from high risk areas to dry ground.
Jamaica Bay: projected flooding proposed plan for future development. Flooded ground becomes parks and open water, while dry areas such as JFK are protected and intensified. The result: a new square-toothed “Bight City” comprised of waterside neighborhoods.
There are a lot of maps in the project...
The design came out of in-depth mapping, exploration, drawing and redrawing.
One of the critical discoveries we made along the way happened through mapping. And a recognition of the things we draw and how we draw them.
For instance, Sarah Williams did a tremendous amount of GIS [geographic information system]. She overlaid these maps, and we discovered these development corridors on higher ground. Places with existing right of ways that we could build upon. That didn't get flooded. They were an existing strength... potentially expandable and valuable.
Densifying high ground for New Mastic.
We also mapped infrastructure systems. They were completely disconnected, highlighting the vulnerability of waterfront areas to periodic storm surge, or even longer-term issues like sea level rise. To show a vulnerability but also this opportunity we conceived receive, protect, adapt.
Rafi: There were areas that required protection in terms of the economy or jobs. It’s a very rational approach, also with many strategies.
Of course the communities are considered, but are they directly involved?
Rafi: On various scales. You wouldn’t bring in a community to do large-scale mapping. But you come to that point, and the plan strategies for that.
Susannah: The RPA reached out and engaged with the communities in advance. We had information but limited contact...we did end up giving presentations to some of the mayors.
At a talk I said “the former Rockaways,” it just slipped out... I said it. Because the Rockaways, you know, it's a barrier island. It will be underwater. It was to the Municipal Art Society, and there was a collective gasp.
Who can afford to leave a place like the Rockaways? Some people can’t afford it, and other people might not want to. Their homes are fairly valuable, but they might lose money if they leave. We mapped vulnerability social vulnerability to think about the true definition of afford. To locate housing projects, older people, and those who can’t escape another big storm.
Rafi: And there's only so much one can do on the community scale. Resolution is really at the scale of the city, or the region. When you have risk coming from the ocean, there must be lessons to learn from one town to another.
Who is to bringing all these voices, considerations, and issues together to project a path forward?
You asked what planners and architects do. The urban project is a very difficult one. What will be can really change the city without changing ourselves. We resist change. We are attached to our city our home in an irrational way. Even when risk is evident. It's right in front of our doorstep. You walk out and there’s water instead of land. Even at that point.
So a change in the narrative is key. This country developed from strong narratives. We work on the story now as we go to the future. Whether you believe in climate change or not, the ways we communicate, energy, transportation -- are all changing, and all impact how cities take shape.
Susannah: RPA prompted that Kennedy airport would be strengthened. Elevated and reinforced. An economic hub for the region. And our work should support that.
Rafi: It's a gateway to the country, it’s huge.
View of proposed Gateway Station from the ocean side.
Susannah: The nature and economics of being in the urban center or on the water’s edge have changed. Historically this region depended on trade by water, but the dynamics of trade shifted, and shipping and exchange moved from Lower Manhattan to the periphery.
We transform that line of the water’s edge-- which used to support a physical exchange of goods-- into a zone. Ecological exchange can’t operate along lines, they require these zones.
Gateway Station, Jamaica Bay 2050: a series of plazas and beaches form an intermodal station and recreation center built along the existing elevated rail of the Rockaways.
Rafi: History puts things in perspective. The city is in a constant crisis of change. Are we going to be smarter today then we were in the past? I don’t know.
Why does the average person who doesn’t deal with this every day need to know?
Rafi: That's a great question. You can say that people don't need to know, and government will decide. But that’s not going to happen. Knowing is our strongest ally in a way.
Susannah: It’s important to understand vulnerability but also a way out. To find opportunity in the complexity of retreat.
Is it the government's job to incentivize retreat?
Susannah: Not necessarily with buyouts. We designed an economic development zone. It's upland from of the waterfront zone. You rezone and start development there now, so that in the future city planning and government create incentive just through zoning and shifting development patterns.
“Elevation-Based Zoning” proposes different zoning- and building regulations based on grade elevation to address the risks of storm surges and flooding.
Rafi: In the end it’s our money. You say government, but it’s our money being spent to address issues of flooding.
Susannah: My feeling is that FEMA should be eliminated. FEMA was not intended to be a flood insurance program initially.
Rafi: It will continue like this until they go bankrupt. More hurricanes, more flooding.
It is what it is. But we shouldn’t accept all of these rules. How it always was, isn’t how it has to be.
Rafi: The systems are in place why change.
Susannah: Some of the systems shaped our country in positive ways, some not.
Look at the waterfront in 1982, when Reagan got the Coastal Waters Act signed. If you developed a greenfield on the waterfront, you would not be insured. But if you redevelop land that already has property on it, you got insured. The tax areas were already there.
The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, both signed by Nixon, have been fundamental to the work I do on water quality and climate resilience. Go back further to 1965, when Lyndon B Johnson signed the Highway Beautification Act. It was meant to create more beautiful plantings, but also created better ecologies along those highways.
So this evolution in thinking and perception has actually been positive. But sometimes not particularly altruistic.
The Land Ordinance Grid was a big development scheme to run the country. Gridding completely transformed the American landscape in perpetuity.
The Interstate Highway System was cast as a national defense, you know, Eisenhower, military general. But it was also a tremendous development scheme that coincided with the brainwashing of women.
To get them to go live in suburban developments. Look at the amount of money made in developing suburbs. They are political decisions that fueled engineering and construction companies.
It’s a big real estate scheme. You want the population to start producing children again, so you get women out of the way. And by the way you can make a shitload of money at the same time. And then...the antidepressant industry.
Bight is currently featured at the Venice Architecture Biennale in the exhibit “Time, Space, Existence,” at the Palazzo Mora.