This Landscape Architect Is Committed to Saving Coastal Communities

Jennifer Bolstad of Local Office Landscape and Urban Design is taking on the challenge of rising sea levels.

Colleen DeBaise By Colleen DeBaise

Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling entrepreneurial women who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways.

From her vantage point in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., Jennifer Bolstad can see the future coming. Or more precisely, she can see the sea coming.

In less than 25 years, this peninsula of land — about an hour-long subway commute from downtown Manhattan — will be sinking into the Atlantic Ocean, something that almost happened after Hurricane Sandy’s ferocious flooding in 2012. Now, due to rising sea levels, “the Sandy flood height is going to be the regular high tide mark in less than a century,” she says. “So there’s not a lot of time here.”

Bolstad, co-founder of Local Office Landscape and Urban Design, is working to protect the vulnerable-but-populated area from sea surges. She is a landscape architect — a career that some might not immediately equate with saving coastlines. “People think I can diagnose the mildew on the petunias or something,” she says. While horticulture is part of the job, her role is to design and plan outdoor spaces and find practical solutions to ecological problems. “It’s a profession that’s widely misunderstood,” she says.

Building Resiliently

In 2013, the Harvard-educated Bolstad and her classmate-turned-husband, Walter Meyer, won a contract to join engineers, scientists and alternative energy experts developing a master plan for affordable housing in the long-vacant Arverne East, a 45-acre site in the Rockaways, part of New York City borough of Queens. A victim of a failed 1970s urban renewal plan, “it’s the biggest undeveloped parcel in all five boroughs,” she says.

Arverne East, Rockaway, N.Y.

Arverne East, a long-vacant 45-acre site in the Rockaways section of New York City, is slated for development. (Credit: Local Office Landscape and Urban Design)

The tract, currently an abandoned wasteland with crumbling streets and wild plant growth, sits directly on the ocean. For that reason alone, “it was a moral dilemma for Walter and [me],” she says. “Ultimately, we shouldn’t be putting people in areas that are so vulnerable.” The problem? There are already scores of low-income residents in the Rockaways, and they need places to live — especially since many lost homes after Sandy.

Historians say Robert Moses, infamous builder of New York City infrastructure, displaced many poor families when he created expressways in the mid-20th-century. He sent many to the Rockaways, where the city could either buy land cheaply or seize it for public housing projects. As a result, “you have the most economically vulnerable people living in the most ecologically vulnerable place,” Bolstad says. “These aren’t people who self-selected to live near the ocean.” Managing to move that population away from the coastline “in a way that’s equitable and just” is difficult to accomplish, she says.

When the opportunity arose for Bolstad and Meyer to work on Arverne East — a project so big that it would allow Bolstad to finally quit her side job — “we said, ‘the only way we can take this project on is if it is an example of how to build resiliently in these coastal places,'” she says.

The couple, who live in Brooklyn but have a house in Rockaway, have a vested interest in seeing the neighborhood thrive. They recommended a slew of protections for Arverne East: a connected network of bioswales to capture stormwater; an anaerobic digester fueled by waste to produce irrigation water; and fill to elevate 1,200 units of housing (and proposed retail shops) above the 100-year floodplain. “Against all odds, we managed to convince the developer and city agencies to get behind this,” she says. Some construction has begun, although the project is still in the design phase.

Protecting Coastal Communities

Part of the reason Bolstad and Meyer were selected for the Rockaways project is expertise they have developed working in coastal areas. They founded Local Office in 2006 with a mission to protect those places from disturbances. Their first big project — won through Meyer’s keen networking abilities — was a waterfront park in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.

“When we got to Mayaguez, we realized that the infrastructure of this place was very broken,” Bolstad says. “All the runoff from the city was exiting directly onto the beach and out to the reef.” They created a series of manmade dunes and wetlands that could treat that water coming off the city, and also serve as flood storage in the event of tsunamis.

After that, Local Office grew steadily. The couple bootstrapped the firm, with Bolstad supplementing their income by working for Hill International, a construction consulting firm. And then, in 2012, Sandy hit. “We had a lot of built work in Florida and the Caribbean and places that sort of understood themselves to be in the hurricane zone,” Bolstad says. “So for better or worse, we were in a great position after Sandy to be able to address the challenges of right here in our backyard in New York City.”

Today, Bolstad and Meyer have an eight-person staff, and Local Office makes about $750,000 in revenue. They have most recently been working in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, setting up solar-powered hubs that may help replace the island’s conventional electricity infrastructure. The scale of the project is significant for the company, Bolstad says. “We’re out of startup mode officially. This thing is real.”

What’s also real? Climate change — although that’s not always the widely held belief in places where the firm works, like Florida, Bolstad says. What’s most important is for people to realize that “catastrophic disturbances are a fact of life,” she says. “It’s all of our responsibility to protect our communities and to protect the environment.” And as a landscape architect, she is doing exactly that.

Posted: December 20, 2017

Colleen DeBaiseThis Landscape Architect Is Committed to Saving Coastal Communities