Project: Water Plaza
Belinda Cooper discovers a New York parklet that was designed to be floodable
Opened May 2018, First Avenue Water Plaza is a public space and water filtration system designed by SCAPE, a landscape architecture and urban design studio based in New York. Close to the East River waterfront and built above a parking structure, the plaza forms the entrance to the new American Copper Buildings, its long central walkway connecting 36th and 35th Streets. As well as providing a haven for local residents, office workers and commuters from nearby ferry and bus terminals, the plaza is also a water defence system, channelling away excess storm and flood water, and was one of the projects that won the practice the 2019 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Landscape Architecture.
The plaza sits within a floodplain and is designed to be floodable. Its layered water-collection system defends against anticipated future storm and coastal water threats, such as another Hurricane Sandy. In heavy rains, a series of rock-lined swales around the plaza perimeter collect storm water runoff. The bioswale plants are also selected to capture and treat storm water. The swales are coupled with an underground retention system located between the plaza and the parking structure, which captures and holds water before gradually diverting it to the East River.
At the heart of the design is a scrim fountain that muffles the nearby highway and cools the space. Geometric stones and jagged edges combine with custom-made hexagonal limestone pavers – designed by SCAPE on the idea of a fracture pattern – to line the basin. The hexagonal pattern is also picked up in the iron tree grates, custom fabricated by Urban Accessories. Limestone was chosen for both its textural qualities and colour. The slate paving ties in with the building interiors, flowing from the lobby out into the site, and the large raw seating boulders complement the geometric stones in the fountain.
Subconsultants Pine and Swallow designed half a dozen soil mixes across the site, including the large volumes of sand-based structural soil below the paving. The mixed planting is chosen to cope with windy conditions and the shade of a north-facing site beside a tall tower, as well as storm waters. Ginkgo, Metasequoia and Cypress trees were picked for their urban tolerance, durability and ability to withstand brackish water in the event of a flood. Redbuds, Amelanchiers and shrubs provide textural variety, habitat for wildlife and interest throughout the year. The benches were designed by SCAPE in collaboration with manufacturers Streetlife, and are illuminated at night, along with the fountain.