The Living Breakwaters at Conference House Park, a Project of Ambitious Regenerative Proportions

Jun 29, 2016 10:00 AM ET

Visualizing The Living Breakwaters at Conference House Park

This piece originally appeared in Capital Institute’s Field Guide to a Regenerative Economy. The Field Guide tells the stories of a new economy—one that supports enterprises and practices that empower individuals, and that regenerate human communities and the natural systems upon which all life depends.  

On the first of June—one of those rare days invoked by the American poet James Russell Lowell—we met our advisor and Patagonia's long-time chief storyteller Vincent Stanley, and boarded the Staten Island Ferry for a visit to Tottenville. The village is 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 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a winner of HUD's Post-Sandy Rebuild by Design Challenge. Now in the conceptual design phase led byScape/Landscape Architecture LLC, and implemented by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, the breakwaters will be located off the coast of Tottenville along the shore of Conference House Park

Living Breakwaters 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 of ambitious regenerative proportions 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 to foster stewardship by reconnecting a community with its rich marine heritage.
  Up until the turn of the 20th century Tottenville was known as "the town the oyster built," boasting a thriving oyster trade and shipbuilding industry. A combination of sewage pollution and toxic effluent from New Jersey industrial parks, overfishing, and disease put an end to it all. Tottenville's once thriving Main Street, like so many others across the country, fell victim in the second half of the century to malls, big box stores, and strip malls.  Many of the architecturally significant homes were bulldozed to make way for new residential construction.   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?”  asks 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.”   ​We look forward to following the course of the Living Breakwaters project over the coming months as it draws the community into the design process. We will be exploring in parallel the larger story of how this challenged community may be inspired by Living Breakwaters to revive and reinvent itself for the 21st Century.   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.