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Could Oysters Save Manhattan From Disappearing Underwater?

The current design of Manhattan makes it very easy for residents to forget they live on an island. This past winter the Museum of Modern Art in New York commissioned architects, landscape designers, engineers and artists to address the effects of climate change on New York Harbour in a project called "Rising Currents". The designs are now on view at the museum in an exhibition of the same name.

The idea of these landscape projects is to help reclaim the waterfront as an essential part of the city. Indeed, water threatens to be a greater part of the city's identity whether New Yorkers are prepared for it or not, as current weather predictions put the harbour under water by 2080.

“Oystertecture“, a recent presentation from one of these design teams, represented by Kate Orff of the Manhattan-based SCAPE Studio, gave the audience a sense of how oysters could become New York’s salvation. Oysters, it seems, are no ordinary molluscs. The bivalve offers solutions to sea-level rise, storm surges and water quality. As Orff explained, oysters "agglomerate to make rich reef mosaics, and reefs are the most effective way of attenuating waves, because they go deep into the water column, stopping the velocity low, where it starts to do damage.” One oyster alone can filter 50 gallons of water in a day–ingesting algae, detritus, sediment and pollutants. Oyster reefs also protect coastlines by acting as buffers against erosion.

New York and oysters have a storied past. For centuries the city was considered the oyster capital of the world.  While on a visit to America in 1842, Dickens wrote to a friend, “We and the oysters missed you terribly in New York.” These oyster reefs once protected New York and Brooklyn. At that time much of New York's harbour was incredibly diverse, with salt marshes, sandy beaches and rocky coasts. But oysters have since been in rapid decline, largely because of overfishing.

Orff describes her team's project as a “back to the future" vision of the city's harbour, a design that draws from what was once there,  "but ours of course is a highly engineered, fabricated landscape that supports both new human culture and animal culture." Reintroducing oysters to New York’s ecosystem could transform the harbour within decades, Orff says. By 2050 the oyster could once again become a quintessential New York food.  

"Rising Currents", the exhibition, is on view at P.S 1 now; Barry Bergdoll, the curator, has been tracking the show on MoMA’s Inside/Out blog


Picture credit: FotoosVanRobin (via Flickr)

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