An Interview with SCAPE on Living Infrastructure and Winning HUD’s Rebuild By Design Contest

Nans Voron, an urban designer at SCAPE Studio, on the work his company is doing in creating complex landscape designs that consider impact to the environment

By: Ilana Malekan and Jiwon Hwang

Image: The Living Breakwaters Project by SCAPE Studio will protect the shores of southern Staten Island

We interviewed Nans Voron from SCAPE Studio, a design firm that “creates positive change in communities by combining regenerative living infrastructure and new forms of public space.” Nans shared with us the work his company does in creating complex landscape designs that consider impact to the environment.

Ilana Malekan: What’s the story behind SCAPE Studio? Why was it founded and what motivates its work?

Nans Voron is a urban designer at SCAPE

Nans Voron: SCAPE Studio was founded ten years ago by Kate Orff and Elena Brescia. SCAPE has always been interested in bringing multiple layers of complexity to landscape design — environment, ecological, social and economic layers — and that is how we approach our projects. We believe landscape architecture can enable positive change in communities through the creation of regenerative living infrastructure and public landscapes.

We work to integrate natural cycles and systems into environments across all scales, from the urban pocket-park to the regional ecological plan.

We believe in a bottom-up approach so we do a lot of public engagement, which is why we have public meetings every two month to discuss updates on our Living Breakwaters project. For example, we discuss risk reduction with the breakwaters themselves, but also ecology and social resilience and we always try to develop interactive activities to better engage the general public. In collaboration with the Billion Oyster Project, our partner on the project, we bring local schools to the shore and teach them about ecological monitoring and how to be stewards of their environment.

At the last meeting, the Billion Oyster Project participated and brought tanks filled with fish and oysters. Kids from St Clare school in Staten Island presented their research and their findings and NY/NJ Baykeeper was also there presenting their work. We always collaborate with people to make sure it’s not just a one-way presentation but an interactive and dynamic participation. We learn a lot by listening to people like local residents, and are very thankful to the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, our client, which supports that effort towards public engagement.

IM: How did you end up at SCAPE and what projects are you currently involved in?

NV: Right now I am working on an array of projects. I’m working here on the Living Breakwaters project, which won the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rebuild by Design Initiative and protects neighborhoods in Southern Staten Island from wave damage and erosion using a necklace of breakwaters as buffers. The Breakwaters are living infrastructure, providing a biodiverse habitat for juvenile fish, oysters and other organisms.

I’m working on a project on the other end of the spectrum in Detroit on social inequities, safety and streetscapes. I’m working on a project in Israel right now in the desert, redesigning an entire boulevard which is the main entrance to the city of Be’er Sheva. I’m also working on a project in Lexington, Kentucky, where we are daylighting a stream that runs through the city, thus reconnecting the city to its natural environment.

Jiwon Hwang: What materials did SCAPE use to construct its breakwaters and how are they eco-friendly?

NV: We are trying to source locally in New York and New Jersey so right now we are looking at local quarries to source stones which are the main component of the reef. Some parts of the reef will made up of units of bio-enhancing concrete called Econcrete [a unique material that encourages biogenic buildup]. This special concrete has been developed by SEARC one of our partner on the project.

The Econcrete units are concrete cubes specially designed and textured to promote biological activity and promote recruitment of marine species. The cubes can also be used as planters for seagrass. We are strategically placing those cubes in the intertidal zone where they would provide a maximum benefit to marine species.

Just seeing one of our reefs with people enjoying the landscape, and being able to help clean up the Gowanus canal, which has been dangerously toxic for a long time, brings us a lot of satisfaction.

We have been conducting extensive surveys in the area to better identify the species that inhabit the Raritan Bay. In collaboration with our marine ecologist, we came up with a list of target species and are making sure that we are actually enhancing habitat for those designated species.

In addition to the main, traditional breakwater segment, the Living Breakwaters are being designed to include “reef ridges” — rocky protrusions on the ocean-facing sides of the breakwaters — and “reef streets”, the narrow spaces between the reef ridges.

These features will create localized modifications to wave behavior and provide a diversity of habitat characteristics to generate opportunities for species recruitment and ecological enhancement.

JH: I noticed that you use a layered resiliency approach in your Living Breakwaters project. What is a layered system and how did SCAPE come up with the idea?

NV: Scape has been focusing on layered resilience approach since its beginning, which combines coastal resiliency infrastructure with habitat enhancement techniques and social resiliency. The idea is to protect our urban environments by looking at distinct landscapes such as maritime forests, dune systems, and wetlands that can provide different levels of risk reduction. We came up with the idea of resiliency layers as one of the strategies to provide a maximum benefit to the environment and the community that lives in it.

JH: How does SCAPE perform hydraulic modeling?

NV: We do not do it in-house; we don’t have the capacity or expertise. For Living Breakwaters, we are working with OCC [Ocean and Coastal Consultants], PB [Parsons Brinckerhoff], Arcadis, Searc, Prudent Engineering, and Silman Structural Engineers. All the hydrodynamic models we’re using are based on thirty years of wave data from Sandy Hook.

We are constantly collaborating with a lot of engineers to help us conceptualize and visualize our design. As designers we also translate engineering drawings into compelling visuals; like for example when we transformed static hydrodynamic model results into a video showing the shoreline response overtime. We always try to make our design accessible and approachable to a wider audience; we basically need to make sure that people can actually understand and visualize what we are talking about.

JH: In addition to Living Breakwaters and other projects, I noticed that you have a project called Oyster-tecture. As you may know, Duro works with the Billion Oyster Project (BOP) through the New York Harbor Foundation. What are your thoughts on using nature to build structures and refortify the shoreline?

NV: That was the very idea of the Oyster-tecture project we developed for the Rising Currents exhibit at the MOMA [Museum of Modern Art]. We’ve been collaborating with BOP on that project and many more since then. We always try to integrate living organisms and life cycles into our projects. For Oyster-tecture, everything started by looking very closely at the life cycle of oysters and by scaling up in space and time this natural process we developed a strategy to clean up the New York Harbor’s waters, build a natural reef that would protect the adjacent neighborhoods from destructive wave action and finally provide public space for recreational use.

Oyster-tecture by SCAPE Studio

IM: How do you measure the success of the work you’ve done?

NV: We are addressing that right now and are trying to make sure we are using the right tools to assess the impact and benefits of the projects we are developing. Oftentimes there is a lack of funding for maintenance and monitoring of projects in general, so we are looking into new ways of monitoring our projects such as crowdsourcing. For the Living Breakwaters project for example, we are considering using the water hub, a multi-use building with labs, classrooms and exhibition space to monitor the breakwaters, the underwater and on-shore habitat and engage students as much as possible. We are looking into developing a monitoring station that the public could interact with and encourage citizen science.

JH: Where do you see environmental engineering going? Do you believe it will play a bigger role in the future of cities?

NV: I am sure it will. At SCAPE, we lead and work with teams of engineers and architects on complex projects, from stormwater streetscapes to large scale coastal infrastructure, translating technical expertise into legible and engaging public space. By sharing a common vision with our collaborators we are convinced that we can produce great projects that have positive impacts on our environment and our cities.

Thank you!

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