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.
[Related: Listen to our podcast “Saving Coastal Communities” with Jennifer Bolstad]
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.
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.
Jennifer: We’re in the Rockaways. The impact of Hurricane Sandy was really dramatically disproportionate to the impact on the rest of New York City. And that’s because this is a place that faces the ocean, it’s a barrier island, so the force of a three-story ocean wave hit their buildings, their infrastructure, disrupting this community for many years.
TEXT Jennifer Bolstad – CEO + Co-Founder – Local Office Landscape and Urban Design – New York, N.Y.
Jennifer: Local Office was formed with the idea to use landscape architecture to protect communities from the impacts of natural disturbances and to protect the environment from the impacts of development.
TEXT Jennifer grew up on her family’s farm in Wisconsin.
Jennifer: I always have had this very innate connection to the earth and the landscape, whether that be the seasonal process of gardening or kind of the longer cycles of a place that has been my family’s livelihood for over a hundred years.
TEXT At school Jennifer was a self-declared nerd. She loved math and science.
Jennifer: When I applied for colleges, I applied to be an engineering major. And it was at that time really unusual for women to be interested in engineering and have the chops and the test scores and the, you know, the coursework and letters of reference to make that happen.
TEXT Jennifer went to Harvard in 1994, planning to study pre-med.
TEXT But she changed her mind her first year.
Jennifer: I took an elective in a department that was called visual and environmental studies. I found out that design was this perfect marriage of understanding scientific forces and reasoning and logic, but working creatively, which really appealed to me.
TEXT Jennifer graduated in 1998. She got her master’s in landscape architecture in 2002.
Jennifer: I had been in Cambridge for seven years too long. I was, as if fired from a gun, ready to get out of there.
TEXT In 2002 Jennifer moved to New York to work for a landscape architecture company.
Jennifer: It was a wonderful learning experience because I was managing all aspects of the projects that I was running. Managing the design and production, interfacing with the client. And at the end of the day I was responsible to make sure that we came in on budget for the project.
TEXT In 2006 Jennifer married her longtime boyfriend, Walter Meyer.
TEXT And they started Local Office Landscape and Urban Design.
Jennifer: Walter and I did it the way most entrepreneurs do. We bootstrapped it. We’ve had this mission of working in coastal areas to heal the environment and protect those places from disturbances.
TEXT Their first project was a waterfront park in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.
Jennifer: When we got to Mayaguez, we realized that the infrastructure of this place was very broken. All the runoff from the city was exiting directly onto the beach and out to the reef. It basically was a dead part of the Caribbean Sea because of all this impact from the drainage off the city. So the project became about creating a series of manmade dunes and wetlands that could both treat that water coming off the city and also serve as flood storage.
TEXT The company grew steadily.
TEXT Then in 2012 Hurricane Sandy hit the New York region.
Jennifer: 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. 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.
Jennifer: This is a public affordable housing complex. It got hit really hard in Hurricane Sandy. We were brought in by the developer to look at elevators, their exit path lighting, the most basic things that keep people safe in a disturbance. One of the first things we suggested is to use alternative energy sources to power their basic safety features in their buildings. And we’ve done landscapes that help keep that water out of the infrastructure to help relieve chronic flooding.
TEXT The company continues to work around the country – in New York, San Diego, Coral Gables and Miami.
Jennifer: Miami is a place where the governor has said that you cannot use the words climate change in any official documents or any official speech. So that’s about as hostile a climate to the work we’re doing as you can get. And yet there has been an upwelling of developers who understand that regardless of the political climate, for their investments to pay off, they must address the future sea levels. Their livelihood depends on it.
TEXT Local has eight employees and $750,000 in revenues.
Jennifer: The work we’re doing doesn’t depend on climate change, global warning, call it what you will, being real or not. Catastrophic disturbances are a fact of life. What matters is that we understand that it’s all of our responsibility to protect our communities and to protect the environment.