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Re-seeing the Waterfront
Alex Steffen, 3 Feb 10
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Seattle is in the midst of a fierce debate about the future of its waterfront. It's aging seawall needs to be replaced, a project the Mayor wants to take to the voters in a $241 million ballot measure. An elevated freeway -- the Viaduct -- that currently runs along the waterfront is structurally unsafe, and Seattle's in the middle a long battle about whether and how to replace it, with the Governor currently favoring a deep-bore tunnel for a bypass freeway and others favoring switching to a model based on transit and the existing street grid instead. Several major upcoming projects at the Port of Seattle will remake the waterfront as well. On top of all this, rising seas are going to demand that extensive protective measures be built all along Seattle's shorelines in order to protect low-lying areas from floods during storms and high tides.

So, Seattle's going to be redefining its connection to the ocean, like many other coastal cities (just more so). Done really wrong, vast amounts of money will be wasted on infrastructure and development not resilient enough to handle the stormy century ahead. Even done "right" though, the sea walls and flood defenses we need could end up cutting the people of Seattle off from the sea on whose shores we live, while worsening the already serious ecological plight of Puget Sound.

One frequently proposed answer is building "soft" coastlines and habitat at today's sea level: building rising beaches and planting sea grass and other restoration efforts. This may not be smart, given what we know about sea level rise and its risks: it may neither provide the long-term protections we need or the climate-adaptive restoration that reality demands.

At the same time, we do want to reconnect with the ocean as maritime people, so we don't want a coastal Berlin Wall either. Whether that connection demands recreated salmon habitat we know is doomed to be submerged in short order, well, I don't think so. But we could get more creative. We could use the entire waterfront as a sort of giant window into the marine world, providing observable flows (rainwater running off through green infrastructure, for instance) tools for making visible the invisible (art projects that illuminate data pulled from sensors, like the work Sabrina Raaf does, or a walking trail that follows the life cycle of salmon, or some sort of urban habitat wildlife encounter project (ala Natalie Jeremijenko) and efforts to flow the ecological reality underfoot into the augmented reality that is becoming urban life (imagine that every time an augmented view screen turned towards the sound, it revealed news about the seasonal life beneath the ocean's surface, or that every sewer drain carried a tag about where its overflow dumped into the Bay). Perhaps, even, residents could in some way "play" the waterfront, helping different visions of our shoreline emerge through their actions and attention.

Some will say that we need that shoreline to be habitat, but I think efforts to make cities behave like nature can be misguided. The vast majority of a city's impact happens outside its city limits, and often far more good can be done by changing a city's footprint than trying to change its physical structure. I think a city full of citizens more deeply connected culturally to the waters of their home place is a much bigger win than a few hundred yards of incredibly expensive artificial habitat. Though perhaps you can have both.

The point being that we may be thinking both too literally about ecological connection and too timidly about climate adaption, and any real answer to both may demand that we change as much in our heads as at the water's edge.

(image: creative commons, Beaster)

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Comments

So why do you create a straw argument about a softer edge solution, assuming it won't be designed to accommodate sea level rise? Why do you presuppose that creating a sloped condition, like the kind that has worked naturally for millions of years, would somehow become submerged or destroyed by higher water? Why do you assume you even know what a people and fish friendly solution looks like in advance of its design?

Sorry to be snarky, but man there is a tremendous creative opportunity here which you seem to be foreclosing for reasons that aren't clear. A read of the project goals of the City's RFQ for the shoreline system, a Q&A session with an urban oceanographer, and an hour spend watching the kids at Olympic Sculpture Park's beach should be enough to inspire even the most committed curmudgeon.

We can't solve all of Puget Sound's problems by rethinking one mile of urban shoreline, no. But we can create an opportunity for people to see and connect with the water, and perhaps feel some kind of stewardship for it via tidepools and critters and conceptual art. We can improve the viability of the salmon migration route along this heavily traveled corridor. We can put in the kind of substrate the fosters intertidal flora and fauna, reestablishing some habitat needed for the critters that feed the rest of the food chain. We can establish a waters edge that invites small craft; wouldn't it be surreal to kayak to lunch at Pike Place Market?

The waters edge and the way we manipulate it is the genius of the place, as the landscape architects say. Figuring out how to reveal its processes, celebrate it, and invite people to a fertile and living and experimental urban /ecological place -- that has to withstand rising sea levels -- is a fascinating design challenge. And unique to Seattle in this time. We'd be better off if you didn't retreat to your bunker just yet, dismissing opportunities before the creative folks have even started to do their work.


Posted by: cary on 3 Feb 10

"We can't solve all of Puget Sound's problems by rethinking one mile of urban shoreline, no. But we can create an opportunity for people to see and connect with the water, and perhaps feel some kind of stewardship for it via tidepools and critters and conceptual art. We can improve the viability of the salmon migration route along this heavily traveled corridor. We can put in the kind of substrate the fosters intertidal flora and fauna, reestablishing some habitat needed for the critters that feed the rest of the food chain. We can establish a waters edge that invites small craft; wouldn't it be surreal to kayak to lunch at Pike Place Market?"

I'm all for all of that, as long as we're being aware of the essential urban character of the space and the extreme temporariness of the sea level. Even a few inches (expected even in best scenarios in the next couple decades) more rise will likely make places like the waterfront park beach extremely prone to erosion and destruction. I have yet to see habitat proposals that don't look like that, but bigger. What happens if we get something closer to the almost foot a decade some scientists fear may be in store for us?

I think the best answer, off the top of my head, would be a giant linear pyramidal structure, with steps for interaction with water (and maybe tidepools, etc), but adaptability to sea level rise.

But people being what they are, a 10-15 foot high shoreline linear pyramid will probably not even be discussed. We'll probably build a concrete wall that costs a quarter billion, cuts us off from the water, and is to low and too narrow to serve as a foundation for sea level rise defenses. In other words, we'll probably waste the money, and then be too broke in the future to do much to repair the damage. That would seem to be in keeping with our current public vision...


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 3 Feb 10

I like the way you are thinking about alternative modes of transportation. Not only does the opening up of a waterfront open up new ways for people to move, i.e. boats, but by transforming the shore artery of transportation into a greener way of travel the entire city opens up for a shift of transportation. Basically my thoughts were bikes. Using the money for a tunnel to promote bike rental systems and other mass implimentation of bike usage will make the city a much greener place.


Posted by: Joe on 3 Feb 10

So many cities will need to walk through similar discussions of how to connect with nature while rebuilding their aging infrastructure, and at the same time, adopt a more defensive posture with regards to potential sea level rise in coming decades. Intense debate, to be sure, as we don't know the answer to how that scenario will play out.


Posted by: Global Patriot on 4 Feb 10

Alex: You may be quite interested in Guy Nordenson's "Palisade Bay" and the collaborative project at MoMA which it has spawned, "Rising Currents"; while it deals with the New York/New Jersey coast, not Seattle, it's absolutely proposing the kinds of alternate waterfront adaptations you're speculating about.

Links to NYTimes articles about Palisade Bay (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/22/arts/design/22currents.html?_r=2&ref=arts) and Rising Currents (http://www.nytimes.com/cwire/2010/01/11/11climatewire-architects-plan-amphibious-landscape-for-new-45297.html).


Posted by: Rob Holmes on 5 Feb 10

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