Newtown Creek: Reconstructing the Water’s Edge – A Student Project

by Daniel Horn on

Newtown Creek is a tributary of the East River and is part of the New York/New Jersey harbor estuary system. It forms the northern border of Brooklyn and the southern border of Queens. In the mid-1800s, the 3.5-mile creek became one of the busiest hubs of industrial activity in the country. More than fifty industries emerged along the water’s edge, including refineries, petrochemical plants, glue factories and coal plants. Massive industrial pollution resulted from this heavy activity. What’s worse, NYC began dumping raw sewage into the creek in 1856 – something that continues to this day via combined sewer outflows. (source) Currently, factories and facilities still operate along the creek and it was registered as a national superfund site in September 2010.

If that wasn’t enough, a coast guard helicopter in 1978 discovered an oil spill that had been leaking since the 1950s. An estimated 17-30 million gallons of oil spread into the water, settling on the creek bed and seeping into the soil underneath local communities. To this day, the spill exists underground and is estimated to course underneath 55 acres of Greenpoint residential, commercial and industrial properties, affecting hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses. (source) Residents have been living quietly in the aftermath of the discovery of the plume. They live in apprehensive fear that the plume, if not addressed appropriately, will have dire consequences on their health and well-being. These numerous contaminations over the years have contributed to the creeks overall failure as a natural ecosystem.


© 2013 Daniel Horn. Newtown Creek Bulkhead. Used with permission.

My Recommended Architectural Intervention
As an architecture student, my initial research has focused on these issues which affect the livable quality of adjacent communities surrounding the creek and its neglected ecology. The existing post-industrial sites along the water’s edge have created sporadic pockets of terrain vague, areas of land that are under-utilized and undeveloped. Deteriorating bulkhead types in this fragile zone act as barriers against the water and its dynamic natural cycles. This led me to look at a similar issue–the increase in the frequency of strong storms, much like last year’s devastating storm, Hurricane Sandy. For my research, I examined opportunities in this extremely vulnerable zone for a series of building interventions that would work with the land and water in new ways.

New zoning patterns, community based programs, and natural wetlands have been my primary focus of research thus far. My proposed building would act to embrace both regular tide cycles and more severe flooding events with the secondary purpose of revealing and educating the adjacent residential population to the dangers of storm surges and sea level rise. The building would implement a system of passive canal locks that control water flow into the spaces within the building during regular tide cycles and storm events. The entire project centers on the acceptance of water infiltration into our lives. We cannot shut out nature whilst living with it on a daily basis.

The building would also aim to be a beacon during storm events, becoming a source for information and supplies to adjacent communities in Brooklyn and Queens. It will also act as a community center and research laboratory with two goals: To conduct daily tide cycle reports and climate based research, and to give residents recreational spaces to connect with the water. This project brings people to the water’s edge when most people would avoid going near the water during a storm. In theory the design of the building protects the adjacent community from storm surge. It would solidify the community’s connection with its surrounding environment.

Operation Resilient Long Island (ORLI)
Along with my academic research, I am also co-chair of Operation Resilient Long Island, a student led and organized team of architecture students from New York Institute of Technology. With campuses in Manhattan and Long Island, some of the students were directly affected by Hurricane Sandy, including myself. We were formed right after Sandy with the mission to bring new resilient coastal typologies to communities in dire need.

As part of our efforts, we have organized and are hosting a global design ideas competition that looks at the problem that rising home elevations will have on the unique character of these coastal towns. The amalgamation of homes risen 10 feet or more, homes that remain on the ground and new modular-built homes will all disrupt the unique character these coastal towns have. Our goal is to take submissions from this competition and create a publication to present to local towns in the hopes that they might adopt newer and more resilient zoning and building codes. The competition is open to all and submission deadline is July 25, 2013. More info can be found on the Comprehensive Coastal Communities website.

ORLI is hosting a free event, Raise Or Stay?: Reports From The Field on April 25, 2013. “The event will showcase student-led post sandy initiatives from Pratt, New Jersey Institute of Technology and New York Institute of Technology. Speakers from NYC, New Jersey and American Institute of Architects New York will speak on how their local communities and organizations are dealing with Sandy. For more details, visit the Facebook Raise Or Stay? event page.

Daniel Horn

Daniel Horn

Daniel Horn is an architecture student currently in his last semester at NYIT. His current thesis project is located on the Newtown Creek in Brooklyn, NY and deals with reconstructing the water’s edge in relationship to existing zoning and inevitable sea level rise. Dan currently lives in the coastal Long Island town of Lindenhurst and was directly affected by Hurricane Sandy. In his future architectural career Dan hopes to address issues of climate change and rising sea levels through architecture. In his spare time he enjoys playing music, traveling, and art. Dan is graduating this May with a Bachelor of Architecture degree. He currently serves as co-chair and o-organizer of the ORLI Initiative and 3C Competition. You can see Dan's work here.