The View from Conference House Park

 

On the first of June 2016—one of those rare days invoked by the American poet James Russell Lowell (who just happened to be a friend of the Tottenville portrait artist, William Page)—I and my colleague Nora Bouhaddada met our friend and Patagonia's long-time chief storyteller Vincent Stanley, and boarded the Staten Island Ferry for a visit to a village on the last stop on the Staten Island Rapid Transit line, at New York City's and New York State's southernmost tip.  We were eager to see with our own eyes the planned site of the Living Breakwaters, a $60 million project funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and a winner of HUD's Post-Sandy Rebuild by Design Challenge. Now in the finall design phase and led by Scape/Landscape Architecture LLC, and implemented by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, the breakwaters will be located off the coast of the town of Tottenville along the shore of Conference House Park. 

Living Breakwaters—which won the prestigious Buckminster Fuller and Rebuild by Design awards—is intended to be much more than a defense against the inevitable superstorms to come in the age of climate change. It is a project that holds promise for broad adaptation in other shoreline communities.  Its aims are threefold and mutually reinforcing: to adapt the vulnerable south shore of Staten Island to withstand the worst ravages of likely future superstorms, to restore and enhance shoreline biodiversity, and, most critically, to foster stewardship by reconnecting a community with its rich maritime heritage. 

Living Breakwaters is now catalyzing a lot of rethinking about what it means to rebuild in locales like Tottenville, where a thriving place-based economy was hobbled and natural systems degraded by the “march of progress.” “How do we think about the next 50 years, not just the next year?” asked Lauren Elachi, of Scape/Landscape Architecture LLC, the lead design firm for Living Breakwaters. “It is interesting to pull people out of putting one foot in front of the other and to think imaginatively about how we strengthen our communities as part of these kinds of projects.

Our Tour of Conference House Park


John Kilcullen, director of the 267-acre Conference House Park, took us on a guided tour of its grounds and the proposed Living Breakwaters site. As we made our way along the winding paths, John, an arborist by training, and a former Senior Forester with the New York City Parks Department, pointed out the abundance of fauna and flora, including the Northern Hackberry tree, which thrives on the calcium-rich, shell-strewn soils near the shoreline, attracting a wide variety of bird species. We walked a trail along the little-known Lenape Indian burial ground (the largest in the city), and took in the shoreline vistas that make the site unique among the city's parks. 

John is overseeing a capital improvement program for the park that includes the preservation and (hopefully) restoration of its historic built structures and their adaptive re-use. He fervently hopes that The Living Breakwaters project will draw the residents of Tottenville into a more active engagement with the park that sits in their own backyard. He also envisions the project-related infrastructure investments will raise the park's visibility as a destination for residents citywide. “Sandy is making everyone rethink the waterfront," John explained.  

 John Kilcullen points out the proposed site of Living Breakwaters.  The project will create a system of breakwaters constructed of recycled glass composite and concrete, seeded with the very same oysters that put Tottenville on the city’s culinary map over a century ago.  As the oysters propagate, they are expected to strengthen the breakwaters and create conditions for new marine life to flourish.

John Kilcullen points out the proposed site of Living Breakwaters.  The project will create a system of breakwaters constructed of recycled glass composite and concrete, seeded with the very same oysters that put Tottenville on the city’s culinary map over a century ago.  As the oysters propagate, they are expected to strengthen the breakwaters and create conditions for new marine life to flourish.

A new Water Hub—still in the early planning stages—will create waterfront access for recreation, including kayaking and fishing, waterside dining, and ongoing environmental stewardship and education in collaboration with New York Harbor School and the city's Billion Oyster project. 

Read our March 2018 update about the Living Breakwaters here. 

We look forward to following the course of the Living Breakwaters project over the coming months as it attempts to draw the community into the design process. We will be exploring in parallel the larger story of how this challenged community can break out of its isolation, reinvent itself, and thrive in the 21st century as its local leaders discover connectivity with synergistic, regenerative projects on Staten Island, New York City, and beyond.

 
SUSAN ARTERIAN