Oyster-tecture: Mollusk Landscaping A Sustainable Future

Landscape architect Kate Orff proposes building oyster reefs in the harbor of New York City as a way to fight pollution and protect against climate change.

SCAPE concept drawing

Landscape architect Kate Orff has a novel idea to clean up New York City’s polluted Gowanus Canal and protect the city from sea level rise and storm surges by building an artificial oyster reef off of Governor’s Island. Oysters are natural pollutant filters, each capable of cleaning 50 gallons of water a day. Orff envisions by creating an “oyster-tecture” ecosystem cycling through the waterways of New York, the Gowanus Canal could be clean enough to eat from by 2050. The oyster-framing mega-reef structure would also provide natural wave attenuation and new habitats for wildlife, a buttress against climate change. Orff was inspired by the city’s past oyster economy, when the streets were literally paved with shells and oyster carts were as common as hot dog stands are today. Orff sees a return to a mollusk-based economy and culture in which urban canals are lined with floating oyster-nurseries which she calls “flupsies.”

Kate Orff presented Oyster-tecture at MoMA/PS1 as part of Rising Currents, a design-project response to climate change and sea-level rise. Orff is a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and the principal of the SCAPE landscape architecture office.

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