With increasingly rising sea levels projected along the East Coast, planners are starting to think of new ways to save cities from flooding. Different ideas have been “floating” around, and the most popular option has been to raise development zones with landfill. The issue with this, though, is that it’s not a longterm option. Developers design new construction sites to meet the future sea level within about a hundred years, and insurance companies for the most part only require an additional foot of land atop of the project sea levels in order for the property to be covered.

One overriding issue touched by John M. Levy in Contemporary Urban Planning is the disadvantage that lower-class families have in environmental planning. The example given is of Hurricane Katrina, where the “poorer people who lived in the lower-lying parts of the city..were thus most vulnerable to the initial event,” as evacuations were mostly carried out by automobile. While those who could afford private vehicles could evacuate with their belongings, the lower class had to wait for alternate methods of transportation. But the issue extends even farther, as the Social “Re”planning of cities after disasters often takes little consideration of the low class. Most redevelopment of storm-resistant buildings and other protective measures against natural disasters are designed with the wealthy in mind. Too many times, the lower-income residents of a city are left without protection against future storms and high sea levels.

Both issues (generating long-term solutions to future flooding and social-class issues) are addressed in one solution to New York City’s sea level problem. In the re-envisioning of the East River, so called “wave attenuators” have been proposed that call for wetlands and barrier islands to be constructed, which will act as buffer zones between the river and the island of Manhattan.

The proposed wetlands, with a view of the public housing complex. Photo from WXY Architecture + Urban Design’s Blueway Plan

These new freshwater wetlands and tidal salt marshes would create an 80 acre park to help “mitigate the impact of a storm rolling in”. Ironically enough, this plan would also include a buffer zone for the infamous Stuyvesant Town–Peter Cooper Village. Public housing is often overlooked in the development of new parks, and especially by long-term environmental plans. Such a project as the East River wetlands would be progressive for this day in age, and would help knock down the social-class barriers. All residents of the East Side would have equal access to the vast network of parks, wading pools, and recreational activities in the new wetlands system.

A vast system of parks would also be included for public recreation, which would help integrate neighborhoods and remove socioeconomic barriers. Rendering seen on Architectural Record Magazine. 

Far more important than recreational activities, however, would be the equality in future disaster protection. Wetlands are a long term solution against rising sea levels that have begun to be examined by other municipalities across the world. London is building their own urban wetland that will even include the construction of 2,000 new homes, and it will help preserve the fragile animal population.

The wetlands of East London’s Upper Lea Valley. (Ron Ellis/Shutterstock.com)

Urban wetlands are a new progressive option; though the costs seem high, the benefits are seen for many generations. Instead of building future framework with temporary solutions such as raising the elevation of our construction, we need to plan for the worst. If sea levels rise even further that projected, will developers simply keep adding more dirt?