As sea levels rise over the coming decades, for low-lying riverfront towns like Tarrytown, New York, there is little hope of keeping the water out.
So why not let the water in?
“Climate change, sea level rise and flooding and all of that is pretty much unavoidable,” said Vanessa Zapata Dikuyama, a master’s of landscape architecture student whose idea for above-water walkways was among 14 student proposals for Tarrytown’s future. “It’s a reality that we need to deal with and instead of creating barriers that keep the water out, I propose to welcome the water and make it a desired element in a public space.”
Over the course of the semester, Dikuyama and the other students in the Climate-adaptive Design (CaD) studio, a class in the Department of Landscape Architecture in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, conducted research and produced renderings. They presented their proposals to the town at an open house in December.
Taught by Josh Cerra, associate professor of landscape architecture, the studio class has been collaborating since 2015 with Libby Zemaitis, climate resilience program coordinator at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Hudson River Estuary Program.
“We want to safeguard our community and grow in a sustainable way,” said Mayor Karen Brown, at the open house. “We’re grateful for the Cornell-adaptive Design studio for taking this look at our future and we’re excited to see the outcome of their work. And they're going to help us in taking what we learn here, by not just putting it on the shelf, but to bring it to life.”
Currently, the Hudson River communities Kingston, Ossining, Hudson and Piermont have begun second phase of development – from inspired by student ideas in previous years, according to the Zemaitis. This phase is funded through New York state grants, managed by the DEC.
“The Cornell-engaged studios in general are a wonderful thing to have,” said Zemaitis, who is working with those communities to further develop their own waterfront plans. “Communities working with me and the DEC helps tee up the implementation phases and the state’s funding and regulatory aspects.”
By the 2080s, state scientists forecast that the Hudson River will be almost five feet higher than in 2000, under the high-range scenario. Once marsh, much of the current waterfront is built on landfill. Residents fear increased flooding, erosion of protective bulkheads that could prompt sinkholes, housing gentrification and unaffordability.
Early last semester, students toured Tarrytown, explored the waterfront Pierson Park, noted the low Metro-North Railroad commuter line, conducted research using contoured topographic maps and interviewed residents.
Residents, they learned, desire fewer parking lots, more civic space, an accessible and welcoming green waterfront, walkability, connectivity to trails and strolling to amenities – like restaurants. Older residents suggested a youth center.
Cerra noted the students’ different approaches, as some chose levees and walls, others looked to adapt and others drew up plans for building relocation. “At times, you're going to see both complex and competing issues,” he said. “But what they have in common is a strong unifying concept, a big idea that helps a lot of little moves come together.”
In taking an historic look at the waterfront, master’s student Brandon Wilson learned that over the last 200 years, change was nothing new: “It was always in transition,” he said.
In her Tarrytown waterfront vision, Hilary Mulford ‘23 suggested raising the Metro-North rail line, and she drew up a marsh-based ecosystem, surrounded by park-like amenities – punctuated by terraced steps for community gatherings.
“Marshes are known to be very beneficial,” Mulford said. “They offer rich habitat and provide biodiversity.”
Mulford proposes combining a nature-based vegetation approach – with some rocky barriers for protection where needed – to let the marsh grow cattail and arrow arum to attract species like sturgeon, mallard, heron, diamondback terrapin and blue crab.
Rich Slingerland, the Tarrytown administrator, would like to see his village remain involved with Cornell and the DEC. “It’s really been a very educational and eye-opening process for us,” he said. “We’re very interested in next steps. We are aware that the village of Ossining has gone on to the phase two and we would like to pursue that as well.”
In addition to Dikuyama, Mulford and Wilson, master’s degree students are
Sangita Bhatacharjee, Xiaomeng Cai, Gengjiaqi Chang, Ilana Haimes, Joyce Ziyue Hu, Kiki Yunge Hu, Maren Johnson, Xiaoyun Ren, Aishwarya Shankar, Hang Wang, Xue Xia, Ying Zhang, Xinying Zou and undergraduate Hanrui (Freya) Fu ’24.
Student travel funding was furnished by Cornell’s New York Water Resources Institute.