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TEDWomen 2010

Kate Orff: Reviving New York's rivers -- with oysters!

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Views 320,077

Architect Kate Orff sees the oyster as an agent of urban change. Bundled into beds and sunk into city rivers, oysters slurp up pollution and make legendarily dirty waters clean -- thus driving even more innovation in "oyster-tecture." Orff shares her vision for an urban landscape that links nature and humanity for mutual benefit.

- Landscape architect
Kate Orff asks us to rethink “landscape”—to use urban greenspaces and blue spaces in fresh ways to mediate between humankind and nature. Full bio

I am passionate about the American landscape
00:16
and how the physical form of the land,
00:19
from the great Central Valley of California
00:21
to the bedrock of Manhattan,
00:23
has really shaped our history and our character.
00:25
But one thing is clear.
00:28
In the last 100 years alone,
00:30
our country -- and this is a sprawl map of America --
00:32
our country has systematically
00:35
flattened and homogenized the landscape
00:38
to the point where we've forgotten
00:40
our relationship with the plants and animals
00:42
that live alongside us
00:44
and the dirt beneath our feet.
00:46
And so, how I see my work contributing
00:48
is sort of trying to literally re-imagine these connections
00:50
and physically rebuild them.
00:53
This graph represents what we're dealing with now
00:55
in the built environment.
00:58
And it's really a conflux
01:00
of urban population rising,
01:02
biodiversity plummeting
01:04
and also, of course, sea levels rising
01:06
and climate changing.
01:09
So when I also think about design,
01:11
I think about
01:13
trying to rework and re-engage
01:15
the lines on this graph
01:17
in a more productive way.
01:20
And you can see from the arrow here
01:22
indicating "you are here,"
01:24
I'm trying to sort of blend and meld
01:26
these two very divergent fields
01:28
of urbanism and ecology,
01:30
and sort of bring them together in an exciting new way.
01:32
So the era of big infrastructure is over.
01:36
I mean, these sort of top-down,
01:40
mono-functional, capital-intensive solutions
01:42
are really not going to cut it.
01:44
We need new tools and new approaches.
01:46
Similarly, the idea of architecture
01:49
as this sort of object in the field,
01:51
devoid of context,
01:53
is really not the --
01:55
excuse me, it's fairly blatant --
01:57
is really not the approach
01:59
that we need to take.
02:02
So we need new stories,
02:04
new heroes and new tools.
02:06
So now I want to introduce you to my new hero
02:09
in the global climate change war,
02:12
and that is the eastern oyster.
02:14
So, albeit a very small creature
02:16
and very modest,
02:18
this creature is incredible,
02:20
because it can agglomerate
02:22
into these mega-reef structures.
02:24
It can grow; you can grow it;
02:26
and -- did I mention? -- it's quite tasty.
02:28
So the oyster was the basis
02:31
for a manifesto-like urban design project
02:33
that I did about the New York Harbor
02:36
called "oyster-tecture."
02:38
And the core idea of oyster-tecture is to harness the biological power
02:40
of mussels, eelgrass and oysters --
02:43
species that live in the harbor --
02:46
and, at the same time,
02:48
harness the power of people
02:50
who live in the community
02:52
towards making change now.
02:54
Here's a map of my city, New York City,
02:57
showing inundation in red.
03:00
And what's circled is the site that I'm going to talk about,
03:02
the Gowanus Canal and Governors Island.
03:04
If you look here at this map,
03:07
showing everything in blue
03:09
is out in the water,
03:11
and everything in yellow is upland.
03:13
But you can see, even just intuit, from this map,
03:15
that the harbor has dredged and flattened,
03:18
and went from a rich, three-dimensional mosaic to flat muck
03:21
in really a matter of years.
03:24
Another set of views of actually the Gowanus Canal itself.
03:27
Now the Gowanus is particularly smelly -- I will admit it.
03:30
There are problems of sewage overflow
03:33
and contamination,
03:35
but I would also argue that almost every city
03:37
has this exact condition,
03:40
and it's a condition that we're all facing.
03:42
And here's a map of that condition,
03:44
showing the contaminants in yellow and green,
03:46
exacerbated by this new flow of
03:49
storm-surge and sea-level rise.
03:51
So we really had a lot to deal with.
03:53
When we started this project,
03:55
one of the core ideas was to look back in history
03:57
and try to understand what was there.
04:00
And you can see from this map,
04:02
there's this incredible geographical signature
04:04
of a series of islands
04:06
that were out in the harbor
04:08
and a matrix of salt marshes and beaches
04:10
that served as natural wave attenuation
04:13
for the upland settlement.
04:15
We also learned at this time
04:17
that you could eat an oyster about the size of a dinner plate
04:19
in the Gowanus Canal itself.
04:22
So our concept is really this back-to-the-future concept,
04:25
harnessing the intelligence of that land settlement pattern.
04:28
And the idea has two core stages.
04:31
One is to develop a new artificial ecology,
04:33
a reef out in the harbor,
04:36
that would then protect new settlement patterns
04:38
inland and the Gowanus.
04:40
Because if you have cleaner water and slower water,
04:42
you can imagine a new way of living with that water.
04:44
So the project really addresses these three core issues
04:47
in a new and exciting way, I think.
04:50
Here we are, back to our hero, the oyster.
04:53
And again, it's this incredibly exciting animal.
04:56
It accepts algae and detritus in one end,
04:59
and through this beautiful, glamorous
05:01
set of stomach organs,
05:03
out the other end comes cleaner water.
05:05
And one oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day.
05:08
Oyster reefs also covered
05:11
about a quarter of our harbor
05:13
and were capable of filtering water in the harbor in a matter of days.
05:15
They were key in our culture and our economy.
05:18
Basically, New York was built
05:22
on the backs of oystermen,
05:24
and our streets were literally built over oyster shells.
05:26
This image
05:29
is an image of an oyster cart,
05:31
which is now as ubiquitous as the hotdog cart is today.
05:33
So again, we got the short end of the deal there.
05:36
(Laughter)
05:38
Finally, oysters can attenuate
05:40
and agglomerate onto each other
05:42
and form these amazing natural reef structures.
05:44
They really become nature's wave attenuators.
05:47
And they become the bedrock
05:50
of any harbor ecosystem.
05:52
Many, many species depend on them.
05:54
So we were inspired by the oyster,
05:56
but I was also inspired by the life cycle of the oyster.
05:58
It can move from a fertilized egg
06:01
to a spat, which is when they're floating through the water,
06:04
and when they're ready to attach onto another oyster,
06:07
to an adult male oyster or female oyster,
06:10
in a number of weeks.
06:12
We reinterpreted this life cycle
06:15
on the scale of our sight
06:17
and took the Gowanus
06:19
as a giant oyster nursery
06:21
where oysters would be grown up in the Gowanus,
06:23
then paraded down in their spat stage
06:25
and seeded out on the Bayridge Reef.
06:27
And so the core idea here
06:30
was to hit the reset button
06:32
and regenerate an ecology over time
06:34
that was regenerative and cleaning
06:36
and productive.
06:38
How does the reef work? Well, it's very, very simple.
06:40
A core concept here
06:43
is that climate change
06:45
isn't something that --
06:47
the answers won't land down from the Moon.
06:49
And with a $20 billion price tag,
06:52
we should simply start and get to work with what we have now
06:54
and what's in front of us.
06:56
So this image is simply showing --
06:58
it's a field of marine piles
07:00
interconnected with this woven fuzzy rope.
07:02
What is fuzzy rope, you ask?
07:05
It's just that; it's this very inexpensive thing,
07:08
available practically at your hardware store, and it's very cheap.
07:11
So we imagine that we would actually
07:14
potentially even host a bake sale
07:16
to start our new project.
07:18
(Laughter)
07:20
So in the studio, rather than drawing,
07:22
we began to learn how to knit.
07:24
The concept was to really knit this rope together
07:26
and develop this new soft infrastructure
07:29
for the oysters to grow on.
07:31
You can see in the diagram how it grows over time
07:33
from an infrastructural space
07:36
into a new public urban space.
07:38
And that grows over time dynamically
07:41
with the threat of climate change.
07:44
It also creates this incredibly interesting, I think,
07:46
new amphibious public space,
07:49
where you can imagine working,
07:52
you can imagine recreating in a new way.
07:54
In the end, what we realized we were making
07:57
was a new blue-green watery park
07:59
for the next watery century --
08:02
an amphibious park, if you will.
08:04
So get your Tevas on.
08:06
So you can imagine scuba diving here.
08:08
This is an image of high school students,
08:10
scuba divers that we worked with on our team.
08:12
So you can imagine a sort of new manner of living
08:14
with a new relationship with the water,
08:17
and also a hybridizing of recreational and science programs
08:19
in terms of monitoring.
08:22
Another new vocabulary word for the brave new world:
08:24
this is the word "flupsy" --
08:27
it's short for "floating upwelling system."
08:29
And this glorious, readily available device
08:32
is basically a floating raft
08:35
with an oyster nursery below.
08:37
So the water is churned through this raft.
08:39
You can see the eight chambers on the side
08:42
host little baby oysters and essentially force-feed them.
08:44
So rather than having 10 oysters,
08:47
you have 10,000 oysters.
08:50
And then those spat are then seeded.
08:52
Here's the Gowanus future
08:54
with the oyster rafts on the shorelines --
08:56
the flupsification of the Gowanus.
08:58
New word.
09:01
And also showing oyster gardening for the community
09:03
along its edges.
09:06
And finally, how much fun it would be
09:08
to watch the flupsy parade
09:10
and cheer on the oyster spats
09:12
as they go down to the reef.
09:14
I get asked two questions about this project.
09:16
One is: why isn't it happening now?
09:19
And the second one is: when can we eat the oysters?
09:21
And the answer is: not yet, they're working.
09:24
But we imagine, with our calculations,
09:27
that by 2050,
09:29
you might be able to sink your teeth into a Gowanus oyster.
09:31
To conclude, this is just one cross-section
09:34
of one piece of city,
09:36
but my dream is, my hope is,
09:38
that when you all go back to your own cities
09:40
that we can start to work together and collaborate
09:42
on remaking and reforming
09:45
a new urban landscape
09:47
towards a more sustainable, a more livable
09:49
and a more delicious future.
09:52
Thank you.
09:54
(Applause)
09:56

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About the speaker:

Kate Orff - Landscape architect
Kate Orff asks us to rethink “landscape”—to use urban greenspaces and blue spaces in fresh ways to mediate between humankind and nature.

Why you should listen

Kate Orff is a landscape architect who thinks deeply about sustainable development, biodiversity and community-based change—and suggests some surprising and wonderful ways to make change through landscape. She’s a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, where she’s a director of the Urban Landscape Lab. She’s the co-editor of the new bookGateway: Visions for an Urban National Park, about the Gateway National Recreation Area, a vast and underused tract of land spreading across the coastline of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and New Jersey.

She is principal of SCAPE, a landscape architecture and urban design office with projects ranging from a 1,000-square-foot pocket park in Brooklyn to a 100-acre environmental center in Greenville, SC, to a 1000-acre landfill regeneration project in Dublin, Ireland. 

More profile about the speaker
Kate Orff | Speaker | TED.com