Can oysters save New York City from the next big storm?

On a recent Saturday afternoon, diners at the Brooklyn restaurant Grand Army slurped oysters drizzled in mignonette and lemon juice against a soundtrack of hip-hop classics and funk. Unbeknown to many of them, they were also supporting a new effort to use oyster shells as building blocks for new, living coastal reefs – a transformative use that’s not only restorative, but may also help protect the city from climate change.

Grand Army is one of dozens of restaurants in the city donating its oyster shells to support restoration projects like Living Breakwaters, a $107m effort to shore up the disappearing coastline of New York City’s Staten Island.

The project will consist of nearly a half-mile of partially submerged breakwaters, strategically covered in recycled oyster reefs. As those reefs grow, the project’s designers hope they will help control flooding and coastal erosion while providing new habitat for abundant aquatic life.

In a sense, Living Breakwaters is an attempt to reimagine the relationship between humans and nature in one of the world’s most heavily engineered harbors. It is a departure from so-called gray infrastructure like dikes, seawalls and dams – the tools that largely define New York’s efforts to control flooding.

Instead, the project is designed to protect the city by harnessing the power of the very natural systems that have been all but destroyed by environmental degradation – and reviving them in the process.

For thousands of years, oysters played a special role in the story of New York. Once a staple of the Lenape people’s diet, oysters led European visitors later to write home in wonder of their quality, and colonizers turned them into a major industry – ultimately devastating local oyster populations through pollution and overconsumption.

“We have been living in this world where nature has existed sort of as a backdrop,” said landscape architect Kate Orff, whose design firm Scape conceived of the Living Breakwaters project. “But that background is no longer there, it’s in a state of collapse. We have to foreground the notion of rebuilding natural systems right now otherwise we will not have this bridge to the future.” Read more>>