Living Breakwaters

Designers as Ecological Advocates
A programme of coastal infrastructure in response to the increasing threat of storm surges and flooding, which combines regenerative reefs with community programmes, ecological education, and capacity-building


“Much of the world’s population, economic activities, and critical infrastructure are concentrated near the sea, with nearly 11% of the global population, or 896 million people, already living on low-lying coasts directly exposed to interacting climate and non-climate coastal hazards.”1Bruce Glavovic, ‘IPCC report: Coastal cities are sentinels for climate change. It’s where our focus should be as we prepare for inevitable impacts’, The Conversation, 28 February 2022 <> [accessed 27 September 2022].

Coastal cities and communities live on the frontlines of climate breakdown due to combined threats of rising sea levels, increasing storms and tidal surges, ocean acidification and biodiversity loss, and associated vulnerability, inequality, and loss of employment. From New York to Tokyo, many historical cities are located on coastlines, while new urban developments on artificial islands such as those in Dubai continue this sea-based trend. Property speculation in these places recklessly develops shorelines, further harming coastal ecosystems, changing oceanic currents, and placing more people in harm’s way. The effects of climate breakdown, exposed by recent disasters across the world, demand a radical shift in the way coastlines are designed, occupied, and cared for.  


In 2012, Hurricane Sandy demonstrated New York’s vulnerability to rising tides and storm surges. Homes and lives were lost, and in 2013 the US Department of Housing and Urban Development launched “Rebuild by Design”, a competition that later developed into an organisation supporting city design in the face of climate breakdown. While New York’s wealth gave it exceptional means to develop the competition as part of a wider recovery initiative impossible in other, less affluent parts of the nation and world, one of the competition’s entries went far beyond conventional parameters for proposing a technical fix.  

The proposal came from the landscape architects SCAPE, who designed an “ecological infrastructure” that gradually grows over time.2The proposal developed from SCAPE’s earlier project—‘Oyster-tecture’—for Red Hook and Gowanus in nearby Brooklyn, which was part of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Rising Currents” exhibition in 2010. See ‘Oyster-tecture’, SCAPE <> [accessed 23 August 2022]. Most importantly, the proposal understood the social as part of the ecological, designing spaces for education and community-building alongside ecological structures such as reef beds to reduce the force of storm surges and provide habitats for aquatic wildlife. Generating a form of environmental stewardship, the proposal was titled Living Breakwaters.  

In designing an ecological system, Living Breakwaters could risk being seen as another project for geo-engineering that instrumentalises natural systems for human gain (in this case, to insulate New York from the threat of sea storms).3For more on the danger of instrumentalising natural systems, see Stephanie Wakefield and Bruce Braun, ‘Oysterstructure: Infrastructure, Profanation, and the Sacred Figure of the Human’, in Infrastructure, Environment, and Life in the Anthropocene, ed. by Kregg Hetherington (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019); and Stephanie Wakefield, “Making Nature into Infrastructure: The Construction of Oysters as a Risk Management Solution in New York City”, Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 3.3 (2020), pp. 761-85. <> However, SCAPE are explicit about the need to engage respectfully with more-than-human worlds while understanding that the idea of an untouched wilderness is a myth: human and more-than-human cohabitants of a place depend on each other. Designing cities, therefore, must also be about designing ecological systems with a sense of responsibility that extends beyond human interests. SCAPE’s founder, Kate Orff, emphasises the way Living Breakwaters benefits 

“a diversity of species and fosters a regenerative context that makes room for nonhuman animals, shaping urban spaces to support more biodiversity”.4Kate Orff and SCAPE, Towards and Urban Ecology (New York, NY: Monacelli Press, 2016). See also Eric Klinenberg, ‘The Seas Are Rising. Could Oysters Help?’, The New Yorker, 2 August 2021 <> [accessed 23 August 2022]. 

Because the original competition required engaging multiple stakeholders across New York’s infrastructure, and because SCAPE foregrounded the role of community and educational programmes alongside its technical marine provision, Living Breakwaters achieved a profoundly relational model for how to co-inhabit cities in the face of climate breakdown. It understands urban infrastructures as inter-dependent spatial, social, and ecological relations, and proposes multiple contexts for these relations to come together. The proposal was accepted and construction began in late 2021.5‘Living Breakwaters Construction Updates’, Homes and Community Renewal (New York State) <> [accessed 23 October 2023].


External links

Beyond the Builta New York-based organisation whichengages community through architecture to advocate equitable, reflectively diverse environments