Between Two Shells: Are Oysters the Key to a Healthy Ecosystem?

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By Ilene Dube

New York was once the oyster capital of the world. Oyster carts were as ubiquitous as hot dog stands, and our very streets were built over crushed oyster shells. But at the turn of the century, over-harvesting, poor water quality and habitat loss resulted
in the plummeting population of the prized bivalve. The ecosystem the oyster
was a part of played a critical role in protecting inland settlements from waves and flooding; its loss has resulted in increased vulnerability to rising sea levels.

Kate Orff, 44, a landscape architect and professor at Columbia University, is bringing these mothers of pearls back to the city. With her firm, SCAPE, she is working on a remedy that addresses both water quality issues and rising tides by using oyster beds.

“The Eastern oyster is my new hero,” Orff said in a TED talk about harnessing the power of oysters, mussels, eelgrass and other harbor species. “A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day… Many other species depend on them.”

Polluted water enters one of end of the oyster and, after traveling through the oyster’s intricate digestive system, emerges at the other end as clean water. By “agglomerating into reef structures” the oysters “attenuate waves and address storm surges, and can also address sea level rise through cleaner and slower water,” Orff says.

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In 2014 SCAPE won the Buckminster Fuller Challenge for Living Breakwaters, a plan to improve coastal resiliency around Staten Island by developing oyster habitats in Raritan Bay, located between New York and New Jersey. The project is part of the post-Sandy Rebuild by Design initiative and uses Orff’s creation, “oyster-tecture,” to protect Staten Island from future storms, revive maritime ecosystems, and better connect residents to the waterfront. Oysters become environmental partners and serve as a lens through which scientists, students and community members learn about the harbor. The project was awarded $60 million for implementation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

When Superstorm Sandy hit Staten Island, it destroyed lives, homes and parks, Orff reminds us. “There’s nothing like waves lapping at 14th Street to get people’s minds to shift about how you’re living in a city that is part of a larger environmental context.”

Orff designs for the Anthropocene era—the epoch that began when human activities started to have a significant global impact on geology and ecosystems. Instead of a single levy, which can fail, oyster-tecture offers a layered system of dunes, tidal flats and living breakwaters with multiple levels of protection. It can be replicated throughout the region, but is especially suited to south shore of Staten Island where, in the early 1900s, beaches were a popular recreation destination and fishermen harvested oysters and clams.

Breakwaters—rocky-sloped walls that can dissipate destructive wave energy—protect the shoreline, reducing flooding before it gets to the sea wall. Oyster-tecture offers an opportunity for environmentally-conscious high school students to get their hands wet with real science, analyzing water samples, and enhancing the quality of life for Staten Islanders.

“The big lesson for me has been in how the land and water have formed and mutually interact,” says Orff. “Oyster-tecture brings back some of the key species that were once part of our harbor.” The shoals provide nesting areas for migratory birds and horseshoe crabs whose endangered population leaves effects down the food chain—red knots, in turn, feed on horseshoe crab eggs.

“The relationship of water to the cities is going to be a primary challenge in the next 50-300 years,” Orff continues. “Designing for climate change demands community participation. In our work on harbor resiliency we’ve collaborated with everyone from brain biologists to engineers, and what we’ve learned can be extrapolated to many places throughout the U.S.” And there is a social component to Rebuild by Design’s ecological regeneration—artists and community members will knit and weave the ropes onto which the bivalves agglomerate.


Oyster-tecture garnered public recognition in 2010, when the Museum of Modern Art selected the project for its exhibition “Rising Currents.” Orff and her team looked at nurturing an active oyster culture around Brooklyn’s Red Hook. “A watery regional park for the New York Harbor emerges that prefigures the city’s return to the waterfront in the next century,” the MOMA proposal stated. An armature for the growth of native oysters and marine life was designed for the shallow waters of the Bay Ridge Flats just south of Red Hook. This living reef was constructed from a field of piles and a woven web of “fuzzy rope” that supported oyster and mussel growth and built a three-dimensional landscape mosaic.

Orff holds up a thick black fuzzy rope made of a durable fiber, like the battle ropes used at the gym. Baby oysters glom on to the rope, she explains.

Her watery future also included a flupsy (for “flowing upweller system”), or parade of oyster-filled boats along the Gowanus Bay. Flupsy—like an oyster nursery and a raft—can grow oysters underneath, and can be occupied by humans. Nutrient-rich water is drawn through the system, and chambers in the flupsy protect baby oysters from predators.

Since the MOMA exhibit, Orff has been working to take oyster-tecture off the museum walls and into the Jamaica and Raritan Bays. Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, as well as climate projections, made the need dire. The project is now in a preconstruction phase, slated to be built by June 2019. Working with the New York Harbor School, the project is bringing together community and water, and involving the next generation of harbor stewards. Oyster restoration has become part of the state-based curriculum and high school students are seeding oyster beds.

“All of the pieces are now coming together, including the permitting and funding,” says Orff. “It’s exciting that this incredibly complex project involving social life on shore, science, engineering and climate adaptation is coalescing and we can test the concept.”

Although lobsters are also good at filtering water, lobsters have migrated northward as climate change has resulted in warmer New York waters.


Orff has migrated northward as well. The Croftown, Maryland, native developed a passion for landscape and the environment while growing up near the Chesapeake Bay. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Political and Social Thought from the University of Virginia in 1993 and a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University in 1997, when she joined a small research group led by architect Rem Koolhaas focusing on the urbanization of Pearl River Delta. Orff now lives in Forest Hills, Queens, with her husband and two children.

At Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation Orff founded the Urban Landscape Lab, which went on to win an American Society of Landscape Architects award in 2010 for Safari 7, a self-guided tour of urban animal life along New York City’s No. 7 subway line, and was installed at Studio X and Grand Central Terminal.

SCAPE’s projects range from a 1,000-square-foot pocket park in Brooklyn to a 100-acre environmental center in Greenville, S.C., and a 1,000-acre land fill regeneration project in Dublin, Ireland. Orff was listed by Elle magazine in 2011 as one of nine women “fixers” for mankind. She was named a Dwell Magazine Design Leader, and one of H&G’s 50 For the Future of Design. In 2014, she was recognized for her work designing the 103rd Street Community Garden, a winning site of Built by Women New York City, a competition launched by the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation to identify outstanding and diverse sites and spaces designed, engineered and built by women. In 2015, she received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Architecture, which recognizes an American architect whose work is characterized by a strong personal direction.

Co-editor of the book Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park, about the Gateway National Recreation Area, a vast and underused tract of land spreading across the coastline of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and New Jersey, Orff’s new book, Toward an Urban Ecology (Monacelli Press), is due out in July. Toward an Urban Ecology re-conceives urban landscape design as a form of activism, demonstrating how to move beyond familiar and increasingly outmoded ways of thinking about environmental, urban, and social issues, and advocating for a truly urban ecology.

But don’t start salivating about Blue Points, Wellfleets and Kumamotos just yet—it could be another several decades before New York will once again produce oysters for eating. “Just as you need clean soil in which to farm, the harbor water has to be certified as clean for us to safely consume seafood from it,” Orff points out. “It’s an emotionally charged and touchy issue—federal regulations prohibit oyster restoration because of fear of people eating (contaminated) oysters. But I’m an optimist and would love to think that by 2050, Raritan Bay could be recertified. Until then, this is about the ecological benefits.”