Q&A with Gena Wirth from SCAPE Studio, New York. Gena will be a guest speaker at the Sustaining the Seas conference (11th-13th Dec).

Q: What’s the most exciting project you are working on now and why?

A: We have a number of exciting projects in the works at SCAPE, but a project that has captured my attention recently has been a new community park project along the waterfront of Perth Amboy, New Jersey. This site is contaminated with PCBs, a legacy of its former industrial use, but has been identified by Perth Amboy residents as a space with potential for transformation and cleanup. We are working with the city and the remediation engineers to integrate remediation and design into a new topography – one that caps contamination while creating more unique and diverse park experiences. There are number of opportunities in this project to remove contaminated materials from the flood zone and catalyze the expansion of a dynamic coastal ecosystem. We’re proposing to move the contaminated material upland, out of the floodable area, and cap it with an impermeable cap that also acts as a skate park for teens. It’s an urban project that will unlock a variety of new park experiences for neighbors of all ages – but it’s also a performative park that stabilizes and cleans a contaminated site, improves water quality, and introduces new coastal ecosystems.

Gena Wirth, Design Principal SCAPE.

Q: You are a landscape architect but many of your projects at Scape now focus on seascapes/ harbours, can you tell us about how you got to this point?

A: One of the first projects I worked on at SCAPE was a museum proposal called Oyster-tecture. Since then I’ve been hooked on the coastal and underwater landscape – it’s a huge part of our ecosystem but design analysis often stops at the waterline, which is an arbitrary delineation. The underwater environment is challenging – the more projects we advance that truly engage with the subtidal world, the clearer the regulatory and technical challenges become. Over my time at SCAPE I’ve worked on projects that advocate for regulatory change, better policy and planning around the waterfront, and enhanced design for ecosystem performance in the water. One of the largest projects we have right now that examines coastal issues and ecological design in the 21st century is called Living Breakwaters, a funded project for the South Shore of Staten Island that mitigates erosion and wave action in coastal neighborhoods, while planning for oyster reef restoration and juvenile fish habitat creation.

Q: Perhaps there should be a new degree: seascape architecture?

A: I’m not sure about this! You certainly need to build a whole new vocabulary and understanding of the underwater world to even begin to engage or design in these areas, however I think this capacity is there with designers and landscape architects to address these spaces. What we need are better partnership and better bridges to other disciplines – ecologists, marine biologists, artists, coastal engineers – to think creatively and holistically about these environments.

Q: How do you typically approach a design challenge?  And what skills in addition to being a landscape architect do you need?

A: I think one of the most important skill sets that designers bring is the process of critical thinking early on in a project. So much of our landscape – underwater and above water – is defined by default. By regulation, by routine. There is so much opportunity to advance change when you bring a group of committed and talented professionals from diverse disciplines together at the beginning of a project and ask provocative questions, and develop creative pathways to implementation. All of our most progressive projects start like this – with creative and interdisciplinary brainstorming sessions with other disciplines and community members. But this type of collaboration can’t simply stop there – that communication and intense collaboration needs to extend through the design process. Often this makes these project exhausting, more complex, and sometimes more expensive up front – but lead to vastly better (and often more economical) results in the long term.

Q: Could you expand on Scape’s “ultimate goal of connecting people to their immediate environment and creating dynamic and adaptive landscapes of the future”, in relation to the Live Breakwater project or the conceptual Oyster-tecture design?

A: Both of our projects, Living Breakwaters and Oyster-tecture, aim to positively transform the underwater ecological environment of NY harbor and build infrastructure that reduces risk in waterfront neighborhoods. Designing for future sea level rise and storm surge is an inherently unpredictable exercise. Science is informing this process, and while the trends are clear, many typical coastal protection projects put a great deal of faith in designing to a particular elevation or a particular flood control level that might change over time depending on the pace of climate change. Infrastructure also tends to stick around– so what the best available science states in 2017 might not be as accurate in 2050 or 2100. Because of this, Living Breakwaters and Oyster-tecture both aim to create living infrastructure, infrastructure that can grow along with the threats of sea level rise and intensifying storms. We also aim to create living infrastructure that won’t fail catastrophically – both projects propose systems that don’t keep the water out, rather they reduce risk and water threats without eliminating them completely. For example – Living Breakwaters attenuate waves whether sea level rises 2” or 60” inches in the next 50 years – if sea levels rise 60” they will just attenuate waves to a lesser degree. Unlike a levee system, which draws a line between land and water and has the potential of catastrophic breakage or failure, our projects propose to blur the lines between land and water, and invest in systems that improve everyday recreational and ecological performance while also reducing risk in a major storm.

Q: How can we care better for marine environments?

A: In urban environments one of the biggest challenges is remembering that our waterways are ecosystems and should be designed and considered as such! In New York City there are so many hurdles to engaging the ecology of the water. For centuries we’ve treated the water and the harbor as a site of dumping, of waste disposal, of shipping and logistics, and of commerce- which has really reduced ecosystem diversity and compromised maritime habitat. Even today, our combined sewer system overflows into the harbor after major rain events and dredging and shipping activity disturb the seafloor constantly. We need to deal with these urban realities, but also recognize that urban underwater habitat is also highly valuable, and in many cases, has the potential to co-exist with our urban processes of shipping and navigation and industrial activity. This requires clever design thinking and interdisciplinary thinking. Major harbor dredgers and shippers should be brainstorming with ecologists on how to avoid disrupting critical fish migration routes and breeding seasons. Waterfront landowners should be reconstructing water edges not to simply retain or floodproof their parcels, but to improve transitional habitat along the edge. Regulators need to get more creative to incentive and allow new forms of edge modification that improve ecological function and build habitat and allow more access to the waterfront. We need to consider our city’s underwater residents (shellfish, finfish, invertebrates) in our ecological planning and policies to design and improve urban ecosystems of the future. All of these things can only happen with creative conversation and interdisciplinary exchange.

See SCAPE studio for more information on projects and Gena Wirth.