‘The waters are coming, the heat is coming, have a plan’

SCAPE founder Kate Orff presents


It speaks volumes when a landscape architect who is passionate about green infrastructure attracts nearly 150 residents into Bellport’s Community Center on an early Saturday night, including several village trustees and members of the village’s newly formed Environmental Committee. But that’s what happened this past weekend when Kate Orff, founding principal of the design firm SCAPE and the first landscape architect to be awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, took the mic after being introduced by Thomas Schultz, Friends of Bellport Bay co-founder. FoBB sponsored the event, “Undersea on the Edge.”

Orff talked extensively about her Oyster-Tecture initiative.

Orff’s philosophy is simple: “We can’t stop our thinking at the water’s edge,” she told the crowd. “There’s a vibrant landscape beneath the surface. I see this landscape as messy, muddy, and working.”

That includes utilizing reefs, wetlands, dunes, mangrove forests, and trees in creative ways as hedges and quite literally sopper-upper shields against nature’s disastrous flooding events.

What FoBB co-founders Katia Read and Schultz, director of their Restoration Program, have implemented by planting almost 2 million shellfish—mostly oysters—in the Bellport Bay Sanctuary, is right in line with Orff’s philosophy.

(Schultz got a couple of “woo-woos!” when he mentioned their efforts since 2015.)

Orff’s SCAPE takes on master plans for the Mississippi Delta to city plazas and small parks.

One of her early projects in the early 2000s, which she volunteered for with the National Audubon Society while conducting graduate work, was the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. The refuge encompasses 12,000 acres of wetlands, dunes, salt marshes, forests and beaches. Her approach included planting oysters, marsh grass, and other natural methods.

But how to do that?

“Jamaica Bay used to be called Grassy Bay,” she said. “But it had changed.”

A big fishing area at one time, European settlers recognized its alluring beaches, but also began utilizing them as a dumping ground for all kinds of waste.

“You have to work within the watershed, the sewershed, also federal, state, municipal entities,” Orff said of that project. She conferred with ecologists and environmentalists and eventually got everyone, including the government agencies, on the same page. The Army Corps of Engineers did a dredge project. A local group with young people planted grasses.

“I wrote about all of this and hit the reset for what I wanted to do,” she said. “How do you build regenerative landscapes?” In 2005, she started SCAPE.

Her Oyster-Tecture concept, envisioning a regenerative cycle and imagining an off-shore reef that cleaned the water for the Gowanus Canal, was submitted to the E.P.A. when the canal was designated a Superfund site in 2010.

The Army Corps of Engineers asked for a meeting.

After Superstorm Sandy hit, she was tapped to work on Lower Manhattan’s Coastal Resiliency Project to scale it down for neighborhoods.

“I know you live in Bellport, the most beautiful place in the world. But the waters are coming, the heat is coming, and having a plan is important,” she emphasized.

Orff spoke about hanging oyster baskets in Sunset Park and their rocky understructure (oysters create rocky substructures), and working with the Nantucket Land Bank to manage a regional coastal stormwater plan. She mentioned the ecologist Rachel Carson and her beautiful book, “The Sea Around Us,” pointing out the ecological interdependency of its inhabitants. Carson would later become famous for sounding the alarm on the effects of pesticides.

When it came to questions, one member of the audience mentioned the breach that helped to rejuvenate the bay after Superstorm Sandy. It was closing.

“How can we maintain its health?” the woman asked.

“There is a choreograph of sand and sediment happening,” Orff said. “What are your landscape goals? You could have a conversation with the Army Corps of Engineers.”

There was a question about lifting shorelines.

You had to be careful with that, Orff commented, mentioning the Gowanus Canal and property behind a particular area where that was utilized had flooded. It could be accomplished, but in gradual declines.

“All of these projects have multiple owners and partners,” she explained. “I found over time, I do not feel we have a government or agency context of understanding these issues and tiptoe around them. Everyone in the Army Corps is the best person, but collectively, they have set goals. [For me] by having something clearly defined, you get your goal.”

Orff was asked if it was difficult to get funding. In Louisiana, one project was funded by BP oil spill money, but funding is also out there via small grants, she said.

Does a municipality engage you when you come up with ideas?

Orff got a candid laugh when she admitted for the first 10 years, that wasn’t the case.

“It’s a mixture,” she said, adding a developer paid for one project.

Schultz commented that the village is looking at building a breakwater and asked Orff to speak on her Living Breakwaters initiative and its advantages.

“Breakwaters are as old as the sea,” she said. “They found one off the coast of Rome. We had to prove the Living Breakwaters function of reducing waves.” (It was subject to a three-dimensional test trial in Canada in 2017 and is being implemented now off the coast of Tottenville. Spat-on-shell oysters are placed on ecologically enhanced concrete units.)

“Oysters are like the biological glue that helps the structure, adds surface roughness, and cleans the water,” she said.

Another question. “We keep rebuilding seawalls. Is there a menu for small municipalities?” Orff responded, “You can get seawall panels.”

Later on, several young FoBB interns and staffers would gather around Orff for a photo. “The thing I’m most excited about,” she said, “are the inquiries from young people and students in high school.”


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