Kate Orff: Reviving New York’s rivers — with oysters!

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I am passionate about the American landscape and how the physical form of the land, from the great Central Valley of California to the bedrock of Manhattan, has really shaped our history and our character. But one thing is clear. In the last 100 years alone, our country — and this is a sprawl map of America — our country has systematically flattened and homogenized the landscape to the point where we’ve forgotten our relationship with the plants and animals that live alongside us and the dirt beneath our feet. And so, how I see my work contributing is sort of trying to literally re-imagine these connections and physically rebuild them. This graph represents what we’re dealing with now in the built environment. And it’s really a conflux of urban population rising, biodiversity plummeting and also, of course, sea levels rising and climate changing. So when I also think about design, I think about trying to rework and re-engage the lines on this graph in a more productive way. And you can see from the arrow here indicating “you are here,” I’m trying to sort of blend and meld these two very divergent fields of urbanism and ecology, and sort of bring them together in an exciting new way. So the era of big infrastructure is over. I mean, these sort of top-down, mono-functional, capital-intensive solutions are really not going to cut it. We need new tools and new approaches. Similarly, the idea of architecture as this sort of object in the field, devoid of context, is really not the — excuse me, it’s fairly blatant — is really not the approach that we need to take. So we need new stories, new heroes and new tools. So now I want to introduce you to my new hero in the global climate change war, and that is the eastern oyster. So, albeit a very small creature and very modest, this creature is incredible, because it can agglomerate into these mega-reef structures. It can grow; you can grow it; and — did I mention? — it’s quite tasty. So the oyster was the basis for a manifesto-like urban design project that I did about the New York Harbor called “oyster-tecture.” And the core idea of oyster-tecture is to harness the biological power of mussels, eelgrass and oysters — species that live in the harbor — and, at the same time, harness the power of people who live in the community towards making change now. Here’s a map of my city, New York City, showing inundation in red. And what’s circled is the site that I’m going to talk about, the Gowanus Canal and Governors Island. If you look here at this map, showing everything in blue is out in the water, and everything in yellow is upland. But you can see, even just intuit, from this map, that the harbor has dredged and flattened, and went from a rich, three-dimensional mosaic to flat muck in really a matter of years. Another set of views of actually the Gowanus Canal itself. Now the Gowanus is particularly smelly — I will admit it. There are problems of sewage overflow and contamination, but I would also argue that almost every city has this exact condition, and it’s a condition that we’re all facing. And here’s a map of that condition, showing the contaminants in yellow and green, exacerbated by this new flow of storm-surge and sea-level rise. So we really had a lot to deal with. When we started this project, one of the core ideas was to look back in history and try to understand what was there. And you can see from this map, there’s this incredible geographical signature of a series of islands that were out in the harbor and a matrix of salt marshes and beaches that served as natural wave attenuation for the upland settlement. We also learned at this time that you could eat an oyster about the size of a dinner plate in the Gowanus Canal itself. So our concept is really this back-to-the-future concept, harnessing the intelligence of that land settlement pattern. And the idea has two core stages. One is to develop a new artificial ecology, a reef out in the harbor, that would then protect new settlement patterns inland and the Gowanus. Because if you have cleaner water and slower water, you can imagine a new way of living with that water. So the project really addresses these three core issues in a new and exciting way, I think. Here we are, back to our hero, the oyster. And again, it’s this incredibly exciting animal. It accepts algae and detritus in one end, and through this beautiful, glamorous set of stomach organs, out the other end comes cleaner water. And one oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. Oyster reefs also covered about a quarter of our harbor and were capable of filtering water in the harbor in a matter of days. They were key in our culture and our economy. Basically, New York was built on the backs of oystermen, and our streets were literally built over oyster shells. This image is an image of an oyster cart, which is now as ubiquitous as the hotdog cart is today. So again, we got the short end of the deal there. (Laughter) Finally, oysters can attenuate and agglomerate onto each other and form these amazing natural reef structures. They really become nature’s wave attenuators. And they become the bedrock of any harbor ecosystem. Many, many species depend on them. So we were inspired by the oyster, but I was also inspired by the life cycle of the oyster. It can move from a fertilized egg to a spat, which is when they’re floating through the water, and when they’re ready to attach onto another oyster, to an adult male oyster or female oyster, in a number of weeks. We reinterpreted this life cycle on the scale of our sight and took the Gowanus as a giant oyster nursery where oysters would be grown up in the Gowanus, then paraded down in their spat stage and seeded out on the Bayridge Reef. And so the core idea here was to hit the reset button and regenerate an ecology over time that was regenerative and cleaning and productive. How does the reef work? Well, it’s very, very simple. A core concept here is that climate change isn’t something that — the answers won’t land down from the Moon. And with a $20 billion price tag, we should simply start and get to work with what we have now and what’s in front of us. So this image is simply showing — it’s a field of marine piles interconnected with this woven fuzzy rope. What is fuzzy rope, you ask? It’s just that; it’s this very inexpensive thing, available practically at your hardware store, and it’s very cheap. So we imagine that we would actually potentially even host a bake sale to start our new project. (Laughter) So in the studio, rather than drawing, we began to learn how to knit. The concept was to really knit this rope together and develop this new soft infrastructure for the oysters to grow on. You can see in the diagram how it grows over time from an infrastructural space into a new public urban space. And that grows over time dynamically with the threat of climate change. It also creates this incredibly interesting, I think, new amphibious public space, where you can imagine working, you can imagine recreating in a new way. In the end, what we realized we were making was a new blue-green watery park for the next watery century — an amphibious park, if you will. So get your Tevas on. So you can imagine scuba diving here. This is an image of high school students, scuba divers that we worked with on our team. So you can imagine a sort of new manner of living with a new relationship with the water, and also a hybridizing of recreational and science programs in terms of monitoring. Another new vocabulary word for the brave new world: this is the word “flupsy” — it’s short for “floating upwelling system.” And this glorious, readily available device is basically a floating raft with an oyster nursery below. So the water is churned through this raft. You can see the eight chambers on the side host little baby oysters and essentially force-feed them. So rather than having 10 oysters, you have 10,000 oysters. And then those spat are then seeded. Here’s the Gowanus future with the oyster rafts on the shorelines — the flupsification of the Gowanus. New word. And also showing oyster gardening for the community along its edges. And finally, how much fun it would be to watch the flupsy parade and cheer on the oyster spats as they go down to the reef. I get asked two questions about this project. One is: why isn’t it happening now? And the second one is: when can we eat the oysters? And the answer is: not yet, they’re working. But we imagine, with our calculations, that by 2050, you might be able to sink your teeth into a Gowanus oyster. To conclude, this is just one cross-section of one piece of city, but my dream is, my hope is, that when you all go back to your own cities that we can start to work together and collaborate on remaking and reforming a new urban landscape towards a more sustainable, a more livable and a more delicious future. Thank you. (Applause)

84 comments

  1. "In this sorta global climate change war" after talking about the lay-out of the landscape.

    Yep, definitely TEDWomen.

    Such consistent quality throughout the series, bravo.

  2. @ZarlanTheGreen i know. that's why it should be just TED, otherwise it looks like it's a "special" version of it for those who aren't good enough. TED-women gives of an either sexist or handicapped image. i'm not bustin on women tho, but they should be against gender based separation themselves…

  3. no commercial at the end?
    and I much rather have hot dogs then oysters, though i do see the benefits of oysters because of their amazing cleaning power.

  4. This is why there should never have been a TEDwomen.

    Women have interesting ideas, because intelligence doesn't have a gender. They don't need their own little kiddy table forum. They can just be presented at the normal TED conference.

    Separating them, just bred sexism from the women, and from men watching.

    Also – Yay for a TED talk about an idea for 'D'esign!!

  5. cant stand watching another brain washed juppi buying in to the hype of global warming fraud created by al gore and maurice strong.

  6. In my entire life I haven't truly faced any real form of sexism, or it was so subtle one could go about and ignore it, until TED Women came across my screen.

  7. I don't think this is thought through very well. Oysters and sewage equals food poisoning. These oysters won't be safely edible.

  8. @adolthitler Oh sorry at the end she gives a timeline, of 2050 to start getting edible oysters, that could make sense.

  9. @Brandonduboff the dead zones are just the worst times algae blooms happen. the blooms happen in all around (but mostly in the south ill grant you) and i was trying to make the point that to much algae is a bad thing

  10. My only question is whether or not oysters can post any threat to any current species. Do oysters fit into a food chain or take the place of other species in a food chain whereby killing other locals species that are still productive and surviving? I cannot imagine it, but I am also not a marine biologist; therefore unqualified to make raise any arguments. I think it's a question worth asking though.

  11. Great idea, okay presentation, bad reasoning behind the motivations but still a great idea. My question is… if there was a "TEDmen" to be opposite of TEDwomen, what would the reaction be?

  12. @Brandonduboff i'm not that person, but i'm against it because women have equal intellects to men. 'they' don't need a special kiddy pool (as another said). such a practice is condescending and sexist. by having a group supporting the concept of a minority's existence by preferential treatment leads to the occurrence of more social imbalancing and injustice. likewise, there is a growing number of people who dislike the concept of maintaining false dichotomies for personal profit.

  13. they should have a TEDmen. and the guys could talk about awesome stuff like guns, and boobs, and football. not fucking oysters

  14. Is there no way to stay subscribed to TED but unsub myself from this TEDWomen garbage? I'm all for women and all but most of these have some flavor of anti-men sentiment in them, and i'd prefer to watch something smart without feeling insulted and excluded from the topic for not having a uterus. Any help would be appreciated, i'm so tired of this TED Women crap!

  15. @Brandonduboff Several women have been great speakers at regular TED talks.
    Less women? Maybe there are injustices at lower levels that prevents them from getting to that level, which would need to be addressed.
    You don't make a crap TEDWomen, telling them there no good and giving them a bad name.

    There aren't many women firefighters, but that's not sexism. They simply don't manage the physical tests to become a firefighter.
    That doesn't mean that we should lower the standards for becoming one.

  16. @Brandonduboff "@t3tsuyaguy1 are you against organizations by and for women?"

    Whilst I am not t3tsuyaguy1, to whom you asked the question, I shall give you my answer anyway:
    If they are sexist in nature: Yes.
    If they are created, for reasons that are degrading towards women: Yes.
    If they often voice opinions and make claims, that are sexist towards men: Yes.
    Are those things true of TEDWomen? Yes.

    (that said, this talk was actually good, and I've favourited it)

  17. @dabanhfreak No. The audience did not notice and laugh, and no one watching it on youtube noticed.
    Especially not you.

  18. @Brandonduboff i find no practical fault with the generalities and demarcations of science. however the earliest presumption of feminism was that women deserve to be treated fairly; equally. things like this only reverse the gender bias; rather than male only golf clubs, it is female only speakers. similar to the outrage of a male CEO of a makeup company a while back. the concept of 'them' obstructs the best person from being rewarded for their work and rewards novelty along anatomical prejudice

  19. @Brandonduboff we souldn't go fucking with the ecology of an area. thats why i like this becuase its fixing the ecology and giving economic growth for an area

  20. @dabanhfreak you know what I don't think that was the intention of the tower , any tower is going to look a little phallic ,that tower i think is designed to look organic .
    Her bias saw it as a cock ,lol, and hence an oppressive symbol of male dominance ,she also associates large grandiose projects with men ? lol , whatever ?!
    shame she started like that because she seemed quite normal ,well more normal than most of the horrendous sexiest harpies that TED has given a voice to as of late .

  21. @Brandonduboff Yes. Very much so. I am also against organizations by and for men. I support organizations by and for humans. Gender is just as silly a reason to separate ourselves as race.

  22. @ZarlanTheGreen I am t3tsuyaguy1.

    1. I agree with you completely. Nice breakdown.

    2. I also liked this talk, which was my point. As far as I could tell, this talk isn't TEDwomen, it's just the normal conference in DC. I saw it as proof that women can just be included in the mainstream and don't need a special conference. 🙂

  23. @Brandonduboff On these issues, we don't need to talk in hazy hypothetical constructs. We have real data on the differing strengths of men and women. They are negligible. In no area, does either gender have a significant enough advantage to merit the outright exclusion of the other. Equality of opportunity is what the data demands. Gender simply shouldn't play a role at all. Speakers at TED should be chosen based on the merit of their idea. So should merit determine all of our endeavors.

  24. @Brandonduboff Not all algae is equal. Some kinds support our food chain. Others can disrupt it. She is advocating the use of organism like oysters to re-balance the ecosystem around cities. The kinds of questions you ask here, are the kind that scientists and policies makes would need to find answers too, in response to her idea. It is a great idea, because it merits asking those questions. Other ideas merit only derision or dismissal.

  25. @t3tsuyaguy1

    I totally agree. I noticed that the women in the audience didn't seem very excited about this topic. TEDWomen should be ended.

    I noticed that they went from TEDxWomen to TEDWomen. How sad.

  26. @brokenseeker I think she stated in her talk, that oysters once covered 25% of the New York harbor. That would make her idea species restoring, rather than supplanting.

  27. @LightWthoutTheStatic I think that is a question worth asking too. Cheers for the intellectual honesty too. I'm not a marine biologist either, but she did say in her talk that oysters were once a heavily populated species in the harbor. I don't know she is right, but that would suggest that it would be more of a restoration thing.

  28. @LokiClock I know you don't realize it, but you just insulted the hundreds of brilliant women speakers who spoke at TED before TEDwomen. Look through the cue. You do them a disservice.

    TEDwomen reminds me of one group of so-called feminists who successfully got physical standards lowered, at a local fire department, "to be fair to women". They outright declared women weaker and in need of special treatment. Real feminists successfully campaigned to get the demeaning standards re-set.

  29. @ZarlanTheGreen Not at all, sir, you are ignorant. I'm not sexist, and live in a western country.

    Scientists are aware of my statement.

  30. @Kebabsoup It's one of the really interesting aspects of biology in my opinion. Oysters are one of many species that thrive on things which are toxic to others. The species found in swamps are similar. They act as natural filters, producing the clean water that other species near them require. It's kind of beautiful really.

    Depending on which toxins, you might be ok eating the oysters, but I think she said something about needing to wait a few years for the toxins to become more dilute. 🙂

  31. @t3tsuyaguy1 I'm sure you guys have found your answers already, but for other viewers, see 9:22; she says we could eat them around 2050, and the wait is simply because "they're working", so I guess there wouldn't be a sustainable population until then.

  32. @LokiClock I see. I withdraw my comment about insult then. I must still disagree though. The topics of TEDwomen don't differ significantly from TED. Except, 2/3 of the presenters seem to feel obligated to recast their topic as a gender issue, when it is not.

    Worse, is the number of speakers engaging in blatant sexism. If their were a TEDmen with speakers talking about how the increase of women in the workplace is to blame for the increase of instability in our economy, it would be hell.

  33. @LokiClock Two good (or bad) examples are 1) "Hana Rosin: New data on the rise of woman" & 2) Halla Tomasdottir: A feminine response to Iceland's financial crash.

    1) is a just one long sexism fest. It is as the whole purpose of her talk was to say "It's our turn now!". Her data is inaccurate and poorly interpreted. She shows a disturbing clip with her own children, where the message seems to be "It's ok for girls to say whatever they want about men, because they are smarter."

  34. @LokiClock 2) Is one of the best examples of re-casting. She presents some genuinely good ideas, mostly centered around long term thinking, but she insists that they are "feminine ideas", when they are not gender specific. Many men come up with the same ideas, and have throughout history. She has good ideas, and yet, because of the setting, she presents them in a pointlessly sexist way. At a normal TED talk she would have just presented her ideas as ideas, without the gender bashing.

  35. @LokiClock With both 1 & 2 there is the issue of crushing hypocrisy. If a man stood in front of room full of other men and gave a talk about the rise of men, about how we are moving on from a time of female sensitivity, to a time of male practicality, people would rightly call foul. If a man stood up and suggested that if there were fewer woman at Lehman Brothers, if it had really be Lehman BROTHERS, then we wouldn't have experienced the financial crisis; then again, rightful outrage.

  36. It is new tool and we have new aproch and many more colected in one the Venus projekt, check out first what is already done andthen joy with your Ideas

  37. It is new tool and we have new aproch and many more colected in one the Venus projekt, check out first what is already done and then joy with your Ideas

    reason for joy if you whant o make it hapens we must work all togther

  38. @LokiClock Interesting. I'll have to consider you point about # 2. I'll re-watch it and do a little focused research about Iceland's history, in regards to feminism. Thanks.

  39. @LokiClock I get it. I did some looking around. I think it's a safe thing to say, that gender equality is a different issue in Iceland, than say America. I don't consider myself an expert on anything. I just like finding a new angle to look at things from. 🙂

  40. @t3tsuyaguy1 it is a non native species of oyster. There are always problems when your introduce a species into an ecosystem (Toads, Rabits and Dogs in Australia, Pigs in many Polynesian islands) That doesn't mean it's not the right answer, the ecosystem will probably stabilize eventualy, and it will clean the bays before it's too late. It's just sad because there is no way to recover the ecosystem to it's unique pre-industrial state.

  41. @brokenseeker She does name the species of oyster as the eastern oyster, which is native to the eastern seaboard and the gulf of Mexico. Did I miss something? Did she switch species partway through?

  42. @t3tsuyaguy1 Oh, shit! My bad, it is native; this is all awesome. I was confusing the Eastern Oyster with the Asian Oyster which they are talking about introducing to the Chesapeak Bay where I live. The native oysters have trouble surviving because it's so dirty, so they can't clean up the bay either. So they were considering introducing a hardier oyster. Thanks.

  43. For some reason i can see this woman going off the deep end. It might be that her passion about oysters is so bizare that it reminds me of old time super-villans from comics, you know like 'stilt man' 'owl man' etc. she would be oyster woman.

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