Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

If you’re standing on the sidewalk in the New York Financial District, in the shadows of glass skyscrapers, you definitely don’t feel like you’re at the seaside.

Emmett F: But head a few blocks south and suddenly you’re at the edge of the continent, looking out at the water.

Roman Mars: That’s producer Emmett Fitzgerald.

Emmett F: There are docks and seagulls, and ferry boats ready to take you island hopping.
Writer Paul Greenberg moved into an apartment down here over a decade ago.

Paul Greenberg: And up until that point, like a lot of New Yorkers, I didn’t really pay that much attention to the sea. If I wanted to go to the ocean, I would go to Martha’s Vineyard or Long Island.

Emmett F: But then he started noticing all these maritime buildings, like the Old Fulton Fish Market, where fishermen used to sell their catch to restaurants.

Paul Greenberg: I suddenly was sort of confronted with the fact that New York, Manhattan is really a very ocean-y kind of place.

Emmett F: Greenberg actually writes about the ocean for a living. His most recent book is called American Catch. And he started to research the relationship between New York City and the sea. But then in 2012, something happened that made that relationship impossible to ignore.

(Reporter): Hurricane Sandy crashing onshore. Winds now at 90 miles per hour. And this storm is so big, so vast, 60 million Americans will feel its power.

(Reporter): Just south of the South Street Seaport, take a look out here. That is the Brooklyn Bridge, and look at how those winds are whipping the river around.

Roman Mars: Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge inundated neighborhoods throughout New York City. Seawater poured into the streets, flooding out apartment buildings, and filling the subway tunnels.

Emmett F: Greenberg and his family waited out the storm in their 10th-floor apartment.

Paul Greenberg: We sat there and the storm hit, and things started to rock and roll, and then everything went black.

Emmett F: Sandy knocked out power across lower Manhattan.

Paul Greenberg: The day after, I immediately wanted to get a sense of what it was like.

Emmett F: So he walked down to the waterfront, past a bunch of bars and restaurants.

Paul Greenberg: And when you peered in the windows, it looked as if there had been a horrible bar fight because the water had come in, flooded up to eight or nine feet, and thrown all the chairs and tables up in the air.

Emmett F: But as he surveyed the damage, Greenberg also started to notice things about his neighborhood that he never had before.

Paul Greenberg: Turns out that Broadway, and I live on Broadway, is a ridgeline. It’s the high point between east and west. And when Hurricane Sandy hit Lower Manhattan, it got safer and safer, and dryer and dryer, the closer you were up to Broadway.

Emmett F: He says the storm forced New Yorkers to see the relationship between their city and the ocean in a much more intimate way.

Paul Greenberg: Nothing acquaints you with your city’s topography like living in the eye of a hurricane, and feeling that water flow up and rise up, and literally start to swallow the city.

Roman Mars: Sandy took the lives of over 100 people in the United States, and caused upwards of 50 billion dollars in damage. It was the second most expensive storm in U.S. history. And part of the reason why the storm was so destructive has to do with climate change.

Emmett F: Scientists have calculated that because of sea level rise driven by climate change, Sandy flooded an additional 27 square miles, and affected 83,000 more people than it would have otherwise.

Andrew Cuomo: There is a wake-up call here, and there is a lesson to be learned.

Roman Mars: This is Governor Andrew Cuomo speaking in the storm’s aftermath.

Andrew Cuomo: There is a reality that has existed for a long time that we have been blind to. And that is climate change, extreme weather, call it what you will, and our vulnerability to it.
It’s undeniable, but that the frequency of extreme weather conditions is up. So it’s going to be a rethinking, redesign of how we protect this metropolitan area from this increased frequency.

Emmett F: Architects and engineers are looking at different ways that cities like New York can redesign their infrastructure to prepare for more extreme storm surges. There is talk of floodgates and massive seawalls that would stretch across the entire harbor. But Paul Greenberg says that one of the solutions for New York’s future might lie in its past.

Paul Greenberg: Well so, New York in its natural state, was set up to deal with big storms.

Roman Mars: New York was built at the mouth of the Hudson River, and that fertile estuary environment was filled with all kinds of marine life. But one majestic creature, in particular, shaped the landscape.

Paul Greenberg: It’s estimated probably in the trillions of oysters surrounded New York City.

Roman Mars: Before European colonization, what we now think of as the New York City Harbor, was a veritable oyster kingdom. Some scientists think it contained nearly half the world’s oysters. And they were an important part of the ecosystem. Oysters are filter feeders, and they help keep bacteria levels in check. And …

Paul Greenberg: In addition to their ability to filter the water, oysters did a huge amount to
buffer the city against storm surges.

Emmett F: Because oysters are kind of special.

Paul Greenberg: They are unique among mollusks, in that they build in three dimensions. So they’re really architects in a sense.

Emmett F: Oysters like to grow on top of other oysters.

Paul Greenberg: They actually sense the chemical basic-ness of oyster shell, and they will seed directly on top of other oysters. So you get these aggregations, these clumps that build, build, build, and build.

Roman Mars: And eventually they build up into massive complex reef structures, kind of like coral reefs.

Paul Greenberg: Well oysters really are the coral reefs of temperate zones.

Emmett F: Oyster reefs covered over 220,000 acres in the Hudson River Estuary, and sometimes they grew as high as 20 feet tall. Like coral reefs, they cut down on coastal erosion and were home to all different kinds of fish.

Roman Mars: And just as coral reefs help protect many tropical islands from hurricanes, oysters protected New York City. They broke up large waves before they could crash onto the shore. And below the surface, their rough texture would increase friction and slow down the water.

Paul Greenberg: And so an oyster reef spread out over many miles will actually sap the wave energy of waves passing over it.

Roman Mars: Most people don’t associate New York City with oysters today. But back in the 1700s, they were what New York was known for.

Mark Kurlansky: Oysters were absolutely central to the identity of New York. You know, if somebody were to say, “I’m going to New York.” They would say, “Enjoy the oysters.”

Emmett F: This is Mark Kurlansky, author of many books including an environmental history of New York City called, The Big Oyster. Kurlansky says that before colonization, the indigenous Lenape people ate lots of oysters. And when the Dutch arrived in the area, they found an oyster paradise.

Mark Kurlansky: You know, you could just walk down to the shore anywhere, certainly in Lower Manhattan where everybody was living, anywhere, and break off a few oysters to eat.

Roman Mars: And that’s exactly what they did. Everybody in New York ate oysters.

Mark Kurlansky: We said that the only thing that poor people got to eat was oysters and bread. But it was also something that rich people ate. Kind of unusual in food history to have a rich people food and a poor people food be the same at the same time.

Emmett F: Oysters were sold in street carts and bars, but also fancy restaurants. And they were served in all different kinds of ways.

Mark Kurlansky: Oh well, there were lots of things. There were oyster loaves and oysters with different kinds of sauces, and there were oyster stews.

Roman Mars: Discarded oyster shells piled up in huge mounds outside of shucking houses and restaurants. They were so plentiful that builders began using oysters as construction material. Shells were burned to create lime, ground up for mortar, or used to pave streets.

Mark Kurlansky: For instance, Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan is called Pearl Street ’cause it was originally paved with crushed oyster shells.

Emmett F: The demand for oysters was so great that it eventually outstripped New York’s bountiful supply. The Erie Canal and the railroad opened up new markets.

Mark Kurlansky: Well nature could not produce enough oysters for all the places, once they were shipping them to a lot of places, it was more than the natural beds could provide.

Roman Mars: By the mid-1800s, New York’s natural oyster population had been depleted. Humans had nearly eaten the city’s protective shellfish barrier out of existence.

Emmett F: But that wasn’t the end of oysters in New York.

Mark Kurlansky: When they started to run out of oysters in New York City, they went and got seed from the Chesapeake Bay.

Emmett F: And they planted these baby oysters on long ropes, strung in rows throughout the shallows of the harbor.

Mark Kurlansky: Farming oysters works quite well. And it is kind of the next logical step, you know, if you need more oysters than grow there with nature, you just grow some yourself.

Roman Mars: Oyster farming continued through the 19th century, and by the 1880s, the city was producing over 700 million oysters per year. But there was a problem lurking in the water. For years, the city had been dumping industrial pollutants and sewage straight into the harbor, without a second thought.

Mark Kurlansky: It didn’t seem to register with people that dumping raw sewage on a food supply would be unhealthy. It seemed sort of intuitive to me, but they didn’t really worry about that.

Roman Mars: That is, until the early 1900s, when New York was hit with deadly outbreaks of cholera and typhoid.

Emmett F: Public health officials were able to track the diseases back to the source.

Mark Kurlansky: Turned out that most of these epidemics were coming from oyster beds.

Roman Mars: And so, one by one, the city started shutting down the oyster beds.

Emmett F: Which was really upsetting for New Yorkers.

Mark Kurlansky: It was huge front page news every time they closed an oyster bed. And there’d be all these articles about how we have to do something about this. We’re losing our heritage. We’re losing our oysters. And we have to stop this. But they somehow didn’t get it stopped.

Roman Mars: New York closed its last remaining oyster bed off the south coast of Staten Island in 1927. Water quality continued to deteriorate until oysters could no longer survive.

Mark Kurlansky: The water was so acidic, it would actually etch through the shells.

Emmett F: By the middle of the 20th century, New York’s world-famous oysters were all but gone, leaving the sea bottom barren, and the city exposed.

Roman Mars: Pollution continues to be a problem in New York, but in 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which regulated the waste being dumped into waterways. And little by little, water quality in the harbor has improved.

Paul Greenberg: Now oxygen levels are high enough to support shellfish, so theoretically we could have shellfish again throughout the bay.

Emmett F: This is Paul Greenberg again. In his book American Catch, he documents several different groups who are working really hard to try and bring back the New York oyster. There are a lot of obstacles in their way, including FDA rules, which make it really hard to plant oysters, and the fact that there just isn’t enough wild oyster larvae in the water anymore. But one of the biggest challenges is actually an architectural one because the physical landscape of the harbor has totally changed.

Paul Greenberg: We’ve been dredging the harbor for over 150 years now. It went from an average depth of 20 feet to places where now it’s more than 50 feet.

Emmett F: And the bottom looks very different.

Kate Orff: Right now our harbor has a flat, muddy bottom. But you know, if we were to look at say 1850, 1880, this would have been an extremely kind of, rougher three-dimensional mosaic.

Emmett F: This is Kate Orff. She is a landscape architect and founder of the firm SCAPE, based in Manhattan. And she is the author of the new book, Towards an Urban Ecology.

Roman Mars: She also just became the first landscape architect to win a MacArthur Genius award.

Emmett F: And Orff says that a flat, muddy bottom just does not work well for oysters.

Kate Orff: There are no places, or very few places for oysters to grab onto, and to attach.

Roman Mars: Right now there are some oyster larvae floating around out there, but they don’t really stand a chance.

Kate Orff: Any oyster that lands on the bottom of the bay’s bed will then immediately be covered with silt. So we need to lift those oysters off of the bay floor and we need to provide a substrate for these creatures to attach onto.

Roman Mars: That challenge gave Orff an idea that spawned one of my favorite portmanteaus, Oyster-Tecture. The concept was to build giant nets made of fuzzy marine rope and elevate them off the seafloor. They would then seed the nets with oyster larvae and let the oysters grow from there.

Kate Orff: So it agglomerates in a sense of becoming a mega structure that scales up out of very small organisms.

Emmett F: With a relatively small architectural intervention, you could have a new piece of protective infrastructure, an artificial oyster reef.

Kate Orff: Which in turn would filter the water, slow the water, and create a safer relationship with that water.

Emmett F: Kate Orff debuted her Oyster-Tecture proposal in 2010, as part of an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art called Rising Currents. And it was a speculative project that sparked a ton of conversation, but it was never actually built.

Roman Mars: But Hurricane Sandy brought new attention to the sea level rise and opened new funding avenues for coastal resilience projects. In 2013, the federal government launched its Hurricane Sandy rebuilding task force and staged an architectural competition called, Rebuild By Design. SCAPE, that’s Kate Orff’s architecture firm, submitted an oyster-centric proposal called, Living Breakwaters. The project received 60 million dollars of funding and will be carried out by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery. Now SCAPE is in the process of designing artificial oyster reef breakwaters off the south coast of Staten Island.

Gena Wirth: Staten Island was particularly hard hit by Hurricane Sandy.

Emmett F: This is Gena Wirth, another one of the architects from SCAPE, explaining the choice of location.

Gena Wirth: And the wave action from the surge landed right on Staten Island, and really dramatically impacted this landmass.

Emmett F: Staten Island was also one of the epicenters of New York’s historic oyster economy.

Gena Wirth: So, it’s not the first time that people have been trying to cultivate and expand oysters within the bay. You know, hundreds of years ago they were doing it for food production and today we’re trying to do it for a more robust and resilient shoreline.

Emmett F: The design has evolved a lot from the original Oyster-Tecture proposal with the marine rope. The plan now is to build a necklace of offshore breakwaters out of large rocks and a special material called eco-concrete, which shellfish like to grow on. They will then seed the breakwaters with oysters, so they grow into reefs. Much like a natural oyster reef, the Living Breakwaters are designed to slow down the water and break up dangerous waves before they reach the shore.

Gena Wirth: As the oysters grow, they really help add friction to the water column and break waves.

Emmett F: The Living Breakwaters should reduce coastal erosion, build up beaches, and make storms less dangerous. Modeling by scientists at the Stevens Institute has shown that the breakwaters could have reduced the height of waves during Sandy by three to six feet, but they won’t keep flood water out of Staten Island altogether. And they’re not meant to.

Gena Wirth: Breakwaters let the water through. We can reduce the wave action. We can reduce the intensity and the velocity of that water. But we live in a coastal edge.

Roman Mars: And Wirth wants to design a way to make that coastal edge safer and healthier, both for humans and for marine life. In addition to reducing waves and filtering the water, the Living Breakwaters will provide some of the habitats that oyster reefs once did. Staten Island’s historic oyster reefs were filled with all these nooks and crannies, where juvenile fish like to hide.

Emmett F: With the help of marine biologists, the architects designed pockets within the breakwater structure. They call them reef streets.

Gena Wirth: So within the reef streets, a juvenile fish are able to come into these kinds of underwater canons and feed in the street, and shelter and hide from predators in the structure.

Roman Mars: Wirth says that as a landscape architect, your clients are usually people.

Gena Wirth: But we’re also trying to think about who are our underwater clients, who are the fish species that might use this system. Like, if you were a fish swimming in the water, what would look like a safe place? It’s like a totally different mentality to have when designing then what a person looks for.

Roman Mars: Construction hasn’t begun yet on the physical structure of the breakwater, but some of the oysters are already growing.

Ashia Salgado: A lot of nice oysters growing over here.

Roman Mars: This is Ashia Salgado, a recent graduate of the New York Harbor School on Governors Island.

Ashia Salgado: All these guys right here.

Emmett F: The Harbor School runs a program called the Billion Oyster Project, which aims to restore oysters throughout the harbor, and in the process, teach New Yorkers all about the marine ecosystem. Ashia is standing next to a tank filled with white shells, soaking in harbor water. They’re actually leftover shells from restaurants.

Ashia Salgado: So we’ll go around and we’ll collect shell from different restaurants around the city.

Emmett F: And on the surface of every shell, there are little oysters growing.

Ashia Salgado: You see all these big brown dots over here, those are all oysters.

Emmett F: They look like little blobs of brown jelly, but if you get really close, you could see the beginnings of an oyster.

Ashia Salgado: You can kind of tell on this one, this one has stripes on it. That’s how you know that’s like its own shell slowly growing. Once it gets bigger, obviously it will look like one of these shells. But it’s getting there, slowly.

Emmett F: The Billion Oyster Project is an official partner on the Living Breakwaters, meaning that millions of little brown balls of goo grown by young New Yorkers like Ashia, will soon be protecting Staten Island.

Roman Mars: The Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery is scheduled to begin construction of the Living Breakwaters in 2018. The Billion Oyster Project will work with local high schools on Staten Island to monitor oyster growth over time.

Kate Orff: A healthy reef can grow very quickly, so we’re very optimistic that by say 2025, we would have a pretty robust reef system going.

Emmett F: Kate Orff says that even if they’re successful, they aren’t going to return the coastal environment to the way it was before. No architect can do that. They’re creating something totally new, part ecosystem, part infrastructure. And Orff hopes that they inspire other living infrastructure projects, but she doesn’t think that oysters are going to save New York from climate change. There isn’t any one solution to a problem so immense and complex.

Roman Mars: Researchers at the organization, Climate Central recently rank New York as the most vulnerable city in the United States to sea level rise with over 426,000 people living in zones that could face serious flooding by 2050. When you start projecting out further than 2050, the scale of the problem becomes hard to fathom.

Kate Orff: I mean it’s really hard, frankly, to be optimistic. We’re on track for a pretty rapid sea level rise, and can we come together and proactively see this as an urban design opportunity, and not a force that just displaces thousands of people with less economic means and who are less fortunate? I don’t know. I think it’s gonna be a real challenge.

Emmett F: Orff sees the Living Breakwaters project as a step toward a healthier relationship between the city and the sea. But to project New York and other coastal cities in the long term, there are going to be a lot of other interventions that will need to be considered, ending new development on coasts, lifting existing buildings up, and eventually in some places …

Kate Orff: … retreating literally from flood-prone areas. And can we have those hard conversations? I certainly hope so.

Roman Mars: I hope so too because New York is a city by the ocean. And the water is only getting higher. Oysters aren’t the only non-human architects. Emmett gives us a tour through the extraordinary builders of the animal kingdom after this.

Okay, so I’m in the studio with Emmett Fitzgerald, who just did that piece. And in the piece, you talk with Paul Greenberg, and he talks about oysters behaving like architects because they build these massive structures in the shoreline. And it got us thinking about other types of architecture that are not made by humans.

Emmett F: I mean I think, I feel like architecture and the building of structures and buildings is sometimes thought about as something that separates humans from the beasts, but a lot of my favorite architects are animals.

Roman Mars: Okay, well lay it on us. Tell me about some.

Emmett F: All right. So there’s a lot of different examples of animal architecture. But we’ll try to do a couple from different animal kingdoms. So to start with the mammals, we’ve got to go with beavers, which are sort … Yeah, maybe the most obvious example, but they really are pretty special architects. First of all, they build these incredible houses, these lodges out of sticks and mud, and they’ve got these cool underwater entrances. But more amazingly, they completely re-engineer the landscape by cutting down trees with their teeth and building these big dams that essentially will turn … It’s a river system into a peaceful pond for them to live in.

And I was sort of looking into this, and I found this one, scientists think that they’ve discovered the largest beaver dam in the world in northern Alberta, in Canada. And it’s 2,790 feet long. Which is … Yeah, it’s really big. That’s like larger than human dams. That’s larger than the Hoover Dam. And yeah, they think that this was built over multiple generations of beavers, different families contributing to this massive dam to create sort of a little beaver paradise up there in Alberta.

Roman Mars: Well I would think it would take generations to do that. That’s remarkable. All right, so what’s next?

Emmett F: All right, so moving on to insects. There are tons of great examples of insect architects. You know bees, ants, but I’m gonna go with termites for this one. Termites build these giant mounds out of mud. You can find them all over the world really, in a lot of dry climates in Africa, and Australia, and South America. And these can get huge. They can be upwards of like 30 feet tall, and really wide too. They’re like these really, really, really large structures. And if you think about that relative to the size of a termite’s body, it’s even more impressive. I mean a three foot tall structure for a termite. That’s … If you sort of scale that up to our size, it would be something close to a mile high. So they really are building incredible buildings.

Roman Mars: Skyscrapers.

Emmett F: Skyscrapers. Yeah. My favorite thing about termite mounds really though is that they exist really to provide ventilation to the termite colony. So the colony exists even underground and spreads out beneath over a greater distance than just the termite mound, but it can get really, really hot underground, especially in these dry climates. And so they’ll build this structure upwards and it’s super porous. And so cool breezes will catch the termite mound and it’s built in such a way that it ventilates the entire colony, and keeps them … It helps them regulate their temperature. Which is just a pretty amazing level of innovation for a tiny insect.

Roman Mars: Right. I mean you can’t … So you shouldn’t think about these things as just being a mound of dirt that they then dig in and just live in. It really is a purpose-built solution to solve a certain problem.

Emmett F: Right, exactly. Yeah.

Roman Mars: That’s remarkable.

Emmett F: Yeah.

Roman Mars: It’s so cool.

Emmett F: And you know, the same could be said about lots of different animals. And obviously, it’s a little different because it’s not like a single person who has an idea, it’s like a solution to a problem. It’s like an evolutionary solution, like an adaptation that they’ve developed over a long period of time. But that doesn’t make it any less remarkable to me.

Roman Mars: Totally. Oh no, me either. That’s amazing. Okay, so what’s our last one?

Emmett F: All right. So our last one is my personal favorite, really just for the artistry of it. But there’s this bird that lives in the forest of New Guinea called the Vogelkop Bowerbird. There’s a few different Bowerbirds, but the Vogelkop is my personal favorite. And it’s this totally unassuming looking bird. It’s like a little brown, looks kind of like a sparrow. So it’s this unassuming bird, but the male bower bird, in order to get female’s attention, they will spend several years building these elaborate structures called Bowers. And there really are, they’re so beautiful. They’re like these beautiful, thatched tents that they construct using little twigs and sticks, but they’re so carefully done if you came across one in the forest, you wouldn’t even consider that a bird made that. It looks like it was designed by little fairy architects or something.

And yeah, and then often they’ll be carpeted with a mossy carpet. The front is propped up with two sticks at the entrance. And then, they are decorated in these crazy ways. They’ll go and get flowers, and build little piles of flowers. They’ll get berries. All kinds of … especially things that are colorful to add color to the bower. And then all of this, this year of building work is all just for this one moment when they’re attempting to catch the eye of female bowerbirds who are looking to mate. And so the female will come in and there might be more than one of these Bowers in a given part of the forest, and she’ll decide who her favorite architect is, and mate with that Bowerbird.

Roman Mars: Well thanks for giving us a guide through animal architects.

Emmett F: Yeah, my pleasure.

Roman Mars: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Emmett Fitzgerald. Mix and tech production by Sharif Youssef. Music by Sean Real. Katie Mingle is the Senior Producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the Digital Director. The rest of the team includes Delaney Hall, Avery Trufelman, Taryn Mazza and me, Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

99% Invisible is a member of Radiotopia from PRX, an independent collective of the most innovative shows in all of podcasting. Find them all at radiotopia.fm. We are supported by the Knight Foundation and listener donors, who pitch in whatever they can to keep us making the best audio in the world.



Producer Emmett FitzGerarld spoke with Paul Greenberg, author of American CatchMark Kurlansky, author of The Big Oyster; landscape architect, author of Toward an Urban Ecology and founder of SCAPE Kate Orff; Gena Wirth, also of SCAPE; and Ashia Salgado, a recent graduate of the New York Harbor School on Governors Island.


Original music by Sean Real

  1. Noelle Sawatzky

    What’s the song at the end of this piece before the ads? This has been one of my favourite 99pi episodes and so much of that has to do with the amazing emotional musci at the very end, beautiful eeiry and ominous.

  2. String Larsson

    I love the piece. A slice of history that I did not know (big surprise). I love the ‘living breakwater’ project idea. However, I have a feeling that it could be a giant bust given the rising acidity of ocean water due to CO2 absorption – https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/Ocean+Acidification. Sorry, I can piss on just about every bio-sustainable/biomimicry idea I’ve heard over the past 10+ yrs. Sadly, we’ve breached the carrying capacity of the planet as a species. Without a major shift in energy consumption and population growth, we’re looking at the abyss as a species. All of this has been researched and written about for over 50 yrs. (more really if you take into account Marx et. al.). The book https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Limits_to_Growth and subsequent works have painted a clear picture. I do, however, applaud the people who are working on these types of projects; better than building more military hardware.

  3. Shalome

    Hi! I’m interested in the bauerbirds in the coda. Does anyone know where I can find pictures of these little strucutres? Thanks!

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