Jennifer Bolstad is trying to prevent Rockaway Beach in Queens, N.Y., from sinking into the Atlantic Ocean. She’s a landscape architect whose firm, Local Office Landscape and Urban Design, helps coastal communities cope with rising sea levels. Rockaway Beach — a peninsula of land reachable by subway from downtown Manhattan — was devastated by Hurricane Sandy 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.” In a time when climate change is a controversial political issue, people need to understand 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.” Listen to hear more of the story.
SUE: (as music plays lightly in the background) You’re listening to Good on the Ground...
VARIOUS VOICES: ...Good on the Ground...
COLLEEN: ...You’re listening to Good on the Ground from The Story Exchange.
COLLEEN: I'm Colleen DeBaise.
SUE: And I'm Sue Williams.
COLLEEN: Sue, you learned recently that when you're on beach trying to interview someone...
COLLEEN: That a lot of airplanes can go by.
SUE: That's exactly right.
JENNIFER SOT: So we're here on the Rockaways and the impact of Hurricane Sandy on this place --
SOT: (plane flies by)
SUE SOT: So it's all right, it's just distracting to me. Okay thanks, okay.
JENNIFER: Fly faster little jet.
COLLEEN: For this podcast we headed to Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York...
SUE: ...which on most days is situated directly under a flight path into John F. Kennedy Airport...
COLLEEN: ...to talk with a landscape architect who's trying to protect this populated peninsula...
SUE: ...about an hour-long subway commute from downtown Manhattan...
COLLEEN: ...from basically sinking into the Atlantic Ocean. And I’m not being flip here -- that’s actually what she’s trying to prevent.
JENNIFER: I’m Jennifer Bolstad. I’m co-founder of Local Office Landscape and Urban Design.
SUE: Jennifer’s an expert on how to protect coastal cities from hurricanes, tsunamis and even things like...
JENNIFER: ...cloudburst flooding.
COLLEEN: All of which are happening more frequently...
SUE: ...as we've seen just this past year with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
COLLEEN: We'll spend this episode delving into the issue of rising sea levels...
SUE: ...and talking with someone trying to tackle it, starting in her New York City community.
COLLEEN: She’s doing “Good on the Ground,” using the power of business...
SUE: ...to solve one of today’s most urgent social issues.
COLLEEN: Keep on listening.
SOT: (beach noises)
JENNIFER: This is a place that faces the ocean, it's a barrier island.
COLLEEN: When a superstorm hit in 2012...
JENNIFER: ...the impact of Hurricane Sandy on this place was really dramatically disproportionate to the impact on the rest of the five boroughs.
SUE: Rockaway bore the brunt of the storm surge.
JENNIFER: So the force of a three-story ocean wave hitting their buildings, their infrastructure, and disrupting this community for many years.
COLLEEN: But our story actually begins several years before Hurricane Sandy...
SUE: ...in 2006. That’s when Jennifer and her husband, Walter Meyer, founded their landscape architecture firm.
COLLEEN: They were classmates at Harvard.
JENNIFER: So I met Walter actually my last semester at the graduate school of design.
COLLEEN: The two worked together on a paper...
JENNIFER: And that paper was called “Sustainability is Un-American.” And the title is provocatively tongue-in-cheek, but really it became the foundation of our practice.
COLLEEN: Their thinking was that you can get people -- politicians, real estate speculators, ordinary citizens -- to support eco-friendly development...
SUE: ...as long as there’s an economic benefit.
COLLEEN: She calls it “putting the green with the green.”
JENNIFER: It’s probably the only way, until we dismantle capitalism, to make ideas go as far as they should if they’re good ideas.
COLLEEN: So Jennifer is a licensed landscape architect...
SUE: ...and she likes to joke that she does more than diagnose mildew on petunias.
COLLEEN: That's right. She designs and plans outdoor spaces -- often big, public outdoor spaces, at the center of a community -- and makes decisions...
JENNIFER: ...about how water is going to move on a site, certifying which plants go in, making sure things are up to code in terms of accessibility standards.
SUE: Her husband is an urban designer.
JENNIFER: I would say that, you know, Walter has more of a strength in the kind of big-picture conceptual thinking.
COLLEEN: The two moved to New York after school and...
SUE: ...pooling their resources...
COLLEEN: ...opened Local Office Landscape and Urban Design.
JENNIFER: We've always had this mission of working in coastal areas to heal the environment and protect those places from disturbances.
COLLEEN: Their first big project was a waterfront park in Mayagϋez, Puerto Rico -- the industrial center of the island.
JENNIFER: When we got to the first site visit, we realized that the infrastructure of this place was very broken. The storm water, which is really all the runoff from the city, was exiting directly onto the beach and out to the reef.
SUE: It was basically killing that part of the Caribbean.
JENNIFER: So the project became about creating a series of manmade dunes and wetlands that could both treat that drainage coming off the city and also serve as flood storage in the event of tsunamis.
COLLEEN: After that, Local Office grew steadily.
SUE: The couple bootstrapped the firm, with Jennifer supplementing their income by working in construction consulting.
COLLEEN: They picked up projects in Florida, a political red state where you can't actually use the term "climate change" in official documents...
JENNIFER: And yet there has been an upwelling of developers who understand that, regardless of the political climate, for their work to be successful in the long term and for their investments to pay off, they must address the future sea levels. Their livelihood depends on it.
COLLEEN: And this takes us to 2012, which, of course, is the year that Hurricane Sandy tore through New York City. Here’s a news clip from The Daily.
SOT: I’m not sure if you can actually fathom what's going on here in Far Rockaway -- I mean we have thousands of people without power, without food, without water, and it's cold.
JENNIFER: We had a lot of built work in Florida and the Caribbean and places that 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.
COLLEEN: We're sharing the story of Jennifer Bolstad, who is helping coastal communities cope with dramatically rising sea levels.
SUE: There's something we want to emphasize here.
SUE: When we hear the word "coastline" we often think of luxury...
COLLEEN: ...a 5-star vacation resort next to a turquoise sea.
SUE: That's not what we're talking about.
COLLEEN: No, in fact, when I think of Rockaway the term "gritty" springs to mind.
SUE: It's known for its public housing projects.
JENNIFER: Unfortunately we see this in every place that we work. That the people who are most economically vulnerable live in the most ecologically vulnerable places.
COLLEEN: We wanted to bring someone in who could speak to the situation in Rockaway...and we didn't have to look too far.
RIVA: I'm Riva Richmond. I'm the director of digital media for The Story Exchange.
COLLEEN: And Riva, where do you live?
RIVA: I live in Rockaway Beach, Queens.
COLLEEN: That's right -- Riva, one of our editors, is a former Brooklynite who started spending time in Rockaway before the hurricane.
RIVA: I'm a surfer, and Rockaway Beach is home to the city's only dedicated surfing beaches.
SUE: Riva, explain a little bit about the history of Rockaway.
RIVA: Well, it used to be a popular summer resort for middle-class New Yorkers. There were amusement parks and beach bungalows and seaside hotels.
COLLEEN: That’s before cars and and even air travel made other beach destinations more accessible.
RIVA: Right. By the 1950s, Rockaway had started to wane in popularity, and then it fell on hard times.
COLLEEN: Around that time, Robert Moses --
SUE: -- the infamous Robert Moses --
COLLEEN: -- yeah, that Robert Moses, builder of New York City infrastructure -- he started creating these expressways all over New York City...
SUE: ...displacing many poor families.
COLLEEN: He sent many to the Rockaways, where the city could pick up land on the cheap or just seize it all together.
RIVA: So what you have now is a series of public housing towers that are literally right next to the ocean. These are not people who actually chose to live at the beach or in an environmentally sensitive area.
COLLEEN: So, Riva, what was Rockaway like after Hurricane Sandy?
RIVA: It's always been an isolated community -- that was part of the appeal, at least for Robert Moses, of putting poor families or minorities or troubled individuals there. When Sandy hit, so much was destroyed -- huge stretches of the boardwalk, homes, businesses. Soaked belongings lined street after street. The power was out for months. Many people in the high rises were trapped there. The elevators weren’t working, there were no heat or lights. And because it's on the edge of the city, out beyond Jamaica Bay, at first it was unclear how soon anything would be repaired or rebuilt again.
COLLEEN: And you could argue that one really shouldn't rebuild in these ecologically vulnerable areas.
SUE: That's actually a question we asked Jennifer, about whether Rockaway or any area hit by a massive hurricane like this should be rebuilt.
JENNIFER: That's a really tough and poignant question for me.
COLLEEN: Especially when you have disadvantaged communities living there.
JENNIFER: That's a social and environmental justice issue that is at the core of my practice and my belief system. That said, the way to retreat from those places has to be very carefully thought through so it can be accomplished in an equitable way. So by building protective infrastructure that allows the people who are already in those places to have the time to make those decisions on their own terms, rather than being forced out by the next catastrophe, is the larger aim of all of my work.
SUE: Jennifer took us on a tour of a project that she's been working on in the Rockaways. The day we were there, contractors were laying underground drainage pipes between the buildings. And one of the nicest things they’ve done are these strategic plantings -- building lawns, planting flower beds and shrubs -- putting nature back into the site so it can absorb excess water. And of course it looks really nice as well.
JENNIFER SOT: This is a former public affordable housing complex. It got hit really hard in Hurricane Sandy. We were brought in by the developer to take a look. So 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.
COLLEEN: And there's one more big project that Jennifer and her firm are working on that really bears mentioning...
JENNIFER: We're also planning an 85-acre community here on the Rockaways that is meant to be resilient within its boundaries.
COLLEEN: It's called Arverne East.
SUE: It's the biggest undeveloped parcel in all of New York City.
COLLEEN: And Riva, I'm going to ask you to describe it -- it's really a remarkable site.
RIVA: It's basically an enormous stretch of oceanfront property that's been abandoned for 40 years.
COLLEEN: If you do a Google Image search for Arverne East, you can see exactly what we're talking about.
RIVA: Yeah. There's crumbling streets, broken glass, litter and wild beach-plant growth. But if you stumble past that, you’ll find a gleaming new boardwalk, built with FEMA money, and a wide sandy beach.
COLLEEN: In 2013, Jennifer and Walter won a contract to join engineers, scientists and alternative energy experts developing a master plan for affordable housing on the site.
SUE: The project was big enough for Jennifer to quit her side job.
COLLEEN: But there was a catch.
SUE: Jennifer and Walter didn’t want to work on it, unless they could make it an example of how to build resiliently in coastal places.
COLLEEN: They wanted to make sure everyone on board was...
JENNIFER: ...quite invested in looking at a resilient future and understanding how New York City and New York State can be a future proof against global climate change and sea level rise.
COLLEEN: So they pitched a plan that included a whole bunch of environmental protections for Arverne East...
SUE: ...like a system to capture stormwater runoff...
COLLEEN: ...and an anaerobic digester fueled by waste to produce irrigation water.
SUE: And most radically, a proposal to elevate 1,200 units of new housing above the 100-year floodplain.
COLLEEN: Much to their surprise...
SUE: ...they convinced the developer and city agencies to get behind these ideas.
JENNIFER: I guess the silver lining in a big catastrophic event like Sandy is that there is this heightened awareness of how important it is to develop responsibly and to build systems that protect us from these kinds of disturbances.
COLLEEN: Some construction has begun, although the project is still in the design phase.
RIVA: Hopefully it will help restore Rockaway to some of its old glory, and hopefully we won't have another hurricane anytime soon.
COLLEEN: Let’s hope not. Thanks, Riva, for the local perspective.
RIVA: My pleasure.
JENNIFER: I hope that our work raises the bar for design work everywhere. I hope that, you know, some of the most gripping issues that we’re dealing with, that there’s been some progress toward them.
COLLEEN: When we spoke to Jennifer, she said she’s an unlikely entrepreneur.
JENNIFER: I couldn’t even sell girl scout cookies as a kid.
SUE: But she and Walter are doing quite well -- their firm, Local Office, now employs eight people and makes about $750,000 a year in revenue.
JENNIFER: We're out of startup mode officially. This thing is real. I almost believe it when I tell people I have my own business now.
COLLEEN: In the fall of 2017, they were very pleased that a streetscape that they designed in Coral Gables, Florida...
SUE: ...called the Miracle Mile --it’s a pedestrian street with lots of designer shops, art galleries and restaurants.
COLLEEN: Yeah. This Miracle Mile survived Hurricane Irma.
JENNIFER: We had designed that street for seven inches of rain per hour. Our engineers thought we were crazy going to that level of protection. But in Irma they got about six inches of rain per hour, and it was one of the few streets in the area that did not flood.
SUE: There’s no shortage of work now for Jennifer and Walter with all the natural disasters that hit us in 2017. They’re working in Puerto Rico, which is still trying to rebuild after Hurricane Maria.
COLLEEN: And they’re setting up solar-powered hubs that they hope will replace some of the island’s electricity infrastructure.
JENNIFER: Disturbances are a fact of life, and especially in coastal places. It’s all of our responsibility to protect our communities and to protect the environment.
COLLEEN: It's a big job, and as a landscape architect, she is committed to getting it done.
SUE: We thank Jennifer for spending time on the beach with us, sharing her story.
COLLEEN: You've been listening to "Good on the Ground" from The Story Exchange.
SUE SOT: So I think that we’re done.
JENNIFER SOT: Great.
SUE SOT: Fantastic. Thank you so much.
JENNIFER SOT: Wonderful. And now it’s silent.
SUE SOT: And now it’s perfectly silent, yes.
COLLEEN: You’ve been listening to Good on the Ground from The Story Exchange. If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Interview recorded by Kevin Cloutier. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.