The Staten Island Ferry is an anomaly in this era of high-security, high-stress, and often high-cost travel. Anyone can walk right up to the Whitehall Terminal at the southern tip of Manhattan, climb the stairs to the second level (escalators are still out of order from Superstorm Sandy), and board the ferry to Staten Island every half-hour. Security to access the boarding zone is of the friendliest sort; canine sniffers check out any luggage larger than a handbag. And the price? Free.
But beyond the convenience of public transportation, the Staten Island Ferry offers an invaluable perspective: an opportunity to see one of the world's largest cities from the water.
Water is, in many ways, a driving factor of urbanism. It has determined the location of the world's largest and most successful cities, whether at natural harbors, critical points along major waterways, or sources of fresh water. But now, the same access to water that has been a locational advantage in the past makes cities increasingly vulnerable to a dangerous mix of storm impacts, man-made disasters, climate change, and rising sea levels.
These were some of the heavy issues on our minds as we recently made the journey by water to Staten Island. Looking for any small way to help in the wake of Superstorm Sandy's devastation, we had offered to share some of the disaster recovery experience we'd gained in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with the APA New York Metro Chapter and AIA Staten Island. They invited us to lead a workshop for group of local planners, architects, landscape architects, community activists, academics, and students involved in a grassroots public engagement Sandy recovery effort, dubbed SImagines.
As we approached Staten Island, the borough's vulnerability became clear. To the left of the ferry landing is a scattering of wood pilings, remnants of wharves destroyed by Sandy and previous storms. Chain link fences along Bay Street are still piled high with gravel, organic material, and trash that washed ashore and into the working waterfront. Here, just a foot or two above sea level, is a man-made edge that withstood Sandy.
Our hosts and leaders of the SImagines initiative toured us through neighborhoods along Staten Island's southern shore, similarly strewn with storm detritus. Homes are marred with a high-water marks ranging from about 4 to 10 feet, depending on the property's elevation; freshly flattened empty lots have replaced many of the damaged houses. Fingers of phragmites-filled marshland sneak up to property lines and occupy open space at the center of many blocks.
These marshes, more than anything, are a reminder of what this part of Staten Island once was—a physical explanation of why the damage from Sandy was so great in these tight, low-lying, oceanside neighborhoods.
Ian Frazier's evocative New Yorker article paints a more complete picture of the rising waters that killed 20 people in this part of the island. Yet despite the harrowing stories of struggle during and after the storm, there is evidence in these neighborhoods of resiliency: aid stations providing food, clothing and basic needs, houses being rebuilt, and strengthened community advocacy groups.
But the question of, what next? remains, and will be posed to the community in the series of the four regional, all-day SImagines workshops. This volunteer effort is designed to give the public a voice in envisioning the future of Staten Island—a voice that many feel has been underrepresented in Staten Island's governmental plans for Sandy recovery to date.
Staten Island already has some solid precedents for the positive impact of planning for resiliency. The island's Bluebelts—an award-winning system of natural drainage corridors that provides cost-effective stormwater management and a community amenity—unquestionably mitigated some storm damage in low lying areas. The Bluebelts indicate that Staten Islanders understand the need for open space that can do double duty as an "urban sponge" for flooding and storm surge.
Ideally the SImagines process will inspire similarly integrated systems that will enable Staten Island to reconcile with rising waters in the future.
The partnership between AIA Staten Island and APA New York Metro is a model of collaboration in disaster recovery. And we commend the design professionals, community members, and academics who are donating their time to lead the SImagines visioning workshops—committing their nights and weekends to usher their community forward. Their enthusiasm and commitment will hopefully elicit an equally committed public to envision and steward the island's recovery and bright blue future.