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‘Hudson Rising’ Exhibit Features Living Breakwaters Project

When you think of the Hudson River, what do you think of? Perhaps you ride the PATH train under it to get to work. If you like to hike, maybe you remember the view of the river when you reached the top of Bear Mountain. If you’re a fan of art history, maybe you immediately think of the Hudson River School of painters.

View of the Hudson River from the Palisades in New Jersey, with New York City in the background.

The river is not just a river. It’s an aesthetic object, an ecological habitat, a site for water sports, a means of transportation, an obstacle to be bridged, a source of energy, a sewer, and a threat as sea levels rise, along with dozens of other things throughout history.

A new show at the New-York Historical Society explores the many facets of the Hudson River through the lens of environmental conservation and shows how important it was for all these facets to come together in order to protect the river we know and love today.

Hudson Rising follows the environmental history of the Hudson River and the surrounding areas from the early days of the Industrial Revolution to modern times, hitting on important moments in the river’s pollution, conservation, and aesthetic appreciation. The show concludes on an optimistic note, with a forward-looking climate adaptation project called Living Breakwaters by landscape architecture firm SCAPE, which was founded by Earth Institute faculty member Kate Orff. Orff is an associate professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation’s (GSAPP).

The history of the Hudson as told in Hudson Rising and reflected in Living Breakwaters is an important, living example of collaboration in the face of political, natural, and economic challenges. By coming together across disciplines and interests, communities protected and rebuilt a natural resource and changed the course of environmental policy in the United States.

The Industrial Revolution

Hudson Rising begins in the mid-1800s, with displays of maps, paintings and artifacts. This early Industrial era was the height of aesthetic and recreational appreciation of the Hudson River. The Hudson River School, a movement started by artist Thomas Cole in 1825, was brought to prominence after his death in 1848 by painters such as Frederic Edwin Church, Asher Brown Durand, and Sanford Robinson Gifford. The artists of the Hudson River School were also among the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (est. 1870), showing just how prominent and popular their work was at the time.

“We juxtaposed industrial artifacts with Hudson River School paintings,” says Jeanne Haffner, associate curator at the New-York Historical Society. “This shows the  pictorialization of the Hudson that was going on at the same time as industrialization, and it painted a picture of the landscape for people and made them care about the river.”

Haffner says early maps are “where you see some of the first indications that human impacts on the landscape were recognized and questioned.” For instance, this map for the Sanitation Commission by engineer Egbert Vielé from 1865 shows what Vielé called “made land”—piers, embankments, etc.—and sewers. Vielé argued that “made land” would affect tides and commerce in both the East and Hudson Rivers. The map also shows how the sewers were constructed over creeks, blocking waterways and sending sewage straight into the river. By this point, the pollution around Manhattan was so bad that “illness was a fact of life,” says Haffner.

Recreation on the river was also common in the mid-19th century. It was before bridges over the Hudson were constructed, and before the pollution made playing on the Hudson untenable. People were able to connect to and experience the river directly, by boating or swimming at beaches along the banks north of Manhattan.

But with industrial progress came new, bigger businesses and new, bigger threats to the environment. The chemical process of tanning leather required the tannins found in tree bark, leading to heavy deforestation all along the Hudson’s banks. Larger populations in New York City and in towns along the Hudson valley led to an increase in raw sewage being disposed of in the river. Dams were built along the river and its tributaries in order to power mills. According to Haffner, the first time steam power was ever used in a maritime setting was on the Hudson, in a steamboat. “The appearance of the steamboat marks not only the emergence of tourism on the Hudson, but also the beginning of the age of fossil fuels,” she says.


In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the efforts to preserve the natural landscape of the Hudson Valley became issues of national importance. After decades of deforesting, mining, and quarrying, the hills surrounding the Hudson were terribly degraded. George Perkins Marsh published his book Man in Nature in 1864, in which he wrote about the dangers of deforestation to a landscape. When a forest is cut down, the roots of the trees that hold the landscape together die and cease to perform their function. Floods become more torrential because the ground absorbs less water; with nothing holding the earth in place, erosion increases and the land changes rapidly. Rivers and streams fill with mud from this runoff, leading to the destruction of freshwater habitats.

Albany-born topographical engineer Verplanck Colvin applied “the Marsh theory” to the Adirondack area of the Hudson River and advocated for the protection of the Adirondack forests. Through his and others’ efforts, the Adirondack Park and Preserve was created in the late 1880s.

In the 1890s, women from the NJ State Federation of Women’s Clubs got involved in conserving the Palisades Cliffs along the Hudson. Haffner says it was near impossible to find information on the women themselves, but information about their husbands was plentiful.

The conservation of the Palisade Cliffs came next. When an 1895 military park proposal failed, the NJ State Federation of Women’s Clubs came together with the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society from New York and lobbied NY Governor Foster Voorhees to conserve the area. After years of effort, they were eventually successful in part due to new NY Governor Teddy Roosevelt’s support. The Palisades Interstate Park Commission (PIPC) formed with a plan to create a park. “Women continued to advocate for the Palisades, but were not allowed to join the Commission,” says Haffner, “The PIPC was run by businessmen.”

Once again the development of the park paralleled the growing population in and around New York City. Millions of people flocked to the park to learn about nature. Haffner points out that, “That’s a really important part of the emergence of environmental thinking or appreciation, people were out experiencing nature firsthand.”

Power Plants

The American Museum of Natural History established its Trailside Museums near Bear Mountain in 1924, and they’re still active today.

While more and more people were appreciating nature along the banks of the Hudson, the river itself was becoming more and more polluted. Throughout the mid-20th century sewage, oil, PCBs, consumer products, trash, and more were dumped in the river. No one was swimming in it at this point, and more people were driving over and alongside the river than were boating on it (the George Washington Bridge was built in 1927). Without a direct connection to the river, most people’s attention was elsewhere; few noticed the increasingly ill health of the river itself.

That changed in 1962, the same year that Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. That year, ConEd proposed a hydroelectric power plant that would be cut into the rock of Storm King Mountain. In response, Carl Carmer, author of The Hudson, formed Scenic Hudson, an advocacy group to fight the plant.

Scenic Hudson’s primary argument was that the power plant would disturb the scenic and historic value of the land. “At the time, you couldn’t really argue that in court and it was hard to back with quantifiable evidence,” says Haffner. A fish study by writer and Riverkeeper co-founder Robert Boyle (funded, oddly enough, by Sports Illustrated), eventually won the case and blocked the power plant. And in 1965, the court established two new laws: that citizens have a right to sue even without having an economic interest in the land, and that companies must perform an assessment of the impact they might have on the land in question.

While the aesthetics argument didn’t clinch the Storm King case, it came back into play in 1979 when there was a proposal for a nuclear power plant across the Hudson from Olana, Frederic Church’s historical home overlooking the Hudson. Hudson Rising displays one of Church’s many paintings of the Olana viewshed, which became an iconic landscape among the Hudson River School painters. Activists joined forces again to argue that the power plant would disturb the historical viewshed and damage the landscape.

To support the argument, Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Carl Petrich put together a visual survey that consisted of altered images of the viewshed, with varying degrees of disruption from the proposed plant; some had a smokestack with a plume, some had no plume, and some were pristine. Overwhelmingly, the survey respondents preferred the landscape without the plant. Between the Church paintings of the viewshed and the quantifiable, scientific survey results, the nuclear plant was stopped, setting a powerful precedent that had been initially set in motion by the Storm King case’s use of art history.


Fish studies by writer and Riverkeeper co-founder Robert Boyle saved the river from a ConEd hydroelectric power plant in the late 1970s.

In 1979 the US Department of Environmental Protection banned the manufacture of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were shown to be carcinogenic. As a result, General Electric was forced to cease using PCBs in its capacitor manufacturing plants in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, NY. Throughout the 20th century, these two plants dumped over a million pounds of PCBs into the river and surrounding areas. With the new ban, it wasn’t enough for them just to stop using the chemicals, they would have to clean up the mess they made.

The case against General Electric was won by another fish study by Robert Boyle and Riverkeeper, this time showing that fish had absorbed the PCBs. In 1983, it was decided that GE would bear the responsibility of cleaning up the river. Due to stalling by GE, the court-mandated cleanup did not even begin until 2009. While GE claims its work on the Hudson is now complete, Governor Cuomo and organizations like Clearwater and Scenic Hudson have made it clear they disagree.

To Haffner, the GE story indicates a shift in the type of environmental activism surrounding the Hudson and other rivers around the world. In 1972 sewage treatment plants along the river were mandated and the river appeared cleaner than it had since the early 1800s. Rather than removing tires from the river, “cleanup” came to mean large-scale environmental remediation of invisible pollutants. The focus turned to repairing damage, rather than prevention of damage.

Living Breakwaters

A 5-minute video loop in the exhibit shows the aspects of Living Breakwaters in detail, from how they will mitigate waves to how marine life will utilize them.

The culmination of the Hudson Rising exhibition is SCAPE’s Living Breakwaters project. “The project aims to set up an ongoing and holistic relation between shoreline culture and activation, ecological regeneration and risk reduction,” says SCAPE founder Kate Orff. A winner of the 2014 Rebuild by Design Hurricane Sandy design competition, the project is a set of nine breakwaters to be installed off the south shore of Staten Island starting in late 2019 or early 2020. This area was hit hard by wave and wind damage during Sandy, and the breakwaters are designed to mitigate the damage from waves coming in during future storms.

Breakwaters have been used to calm seas near human settlements for centuries; the concept of protecting the shore from damage is not a new one. But Living Breakwaters is different because the structures will not only function to reduce wave destruction, they will also serve as a habitat for marine life and will foster the community’s relationship with the water. “I think it’s impossible to separate climate adaptation from reviving our ecological context,” says Orff. “We can’t survive without robust, healthy, interconnected ecosystems.”

This map from 1905-6 shows shellfish beds, like oysters and clams, and sewer outlets.

To that end, the Billion Oyster Project, a non-profit associated with the Harbor School and located on Governor’s Island, has signed on to partner with Living Breakwaters by growing oysters to populate the breakwaters. New York Harbor was once home to hundreds of thousands of acres of oyster beds, but by the late 1800s that population had been pretty much eradicated due to overfishing, pollution, and dredging. The Billion Oyster Project has been working to repopulate the harbor for the past decade and they hope to get to a billion oysters by 2035.

On Staten Island, right near where the breakwaters will be built, the town of Tottenville was founded around a thriving commercial oyster fishery of the same name. The area is also home to Sandy Ground, one of the first communities of freed slaves, whose founders came up from the Chesapeake Bay area in the early 1800s and established oyster fisheries.

The oyster beds that will soon inhabit the breakwaters off the coast of Staten Island will not only provide a connection to history and community for the area, but will filter the water and, as the beds grow, will make the breakwaters even more effective at protecting the shore.

Brashear and Voron explained that the Living Breakwaters project all started with the design they submitted for the Rebuild by Design competition. Although it was just an initial rendering, it served as a blueprint off of which the designers could base their engineering and planning.

SCAPE’s consideration of marine life was important for the community support that kept the Living Breakwaters project going. SCAPE designer Pippa Brashear explains that over the five years it took to complete the design, there were a lot of stakeholders who wanted to remove certain aspects from the design because they thought they were unnecessary or too difficult to permit.

But the educational programming and teaching tools promised by the Billion Oyster Project, as well as the connections to local history, were the reasons for a lot of the support the project received from schools early on. “We can’t value-engineer everything, because we need to keep the ecological benefits and social resilience parts of the project. Otherwise the project is not the project,” says Nans Voron, Brashear’s colleague at SCAPE.

Graphic by SCAPE that shows the priorities of the Living Breakwaters project.

One simple graphic associated with the project looks a bit like a recycling symbol. The three points are “culture” “risk reduction” and “ecology,” with double-ended arrows between each. This was a quick sketch made during the competition that has become like a brand for the project and an informal litmus test to make sure SCAPE continued to design with all three factors in mind. “The iconic imagery, the aesthetics and visuals, have actually informed that design and frankly helped us keep [the project] on track,” says Brashear.

At a recent Q&A event, Brashear and Voron (a GSAPP alum) emphasized that these breakwaters will not keep water out; they are meant for short-term mitigation so that we can figure out what comes next. They are also meant to give the community safe access to the water’s edge, allowing people to connect to the water and see firsthand as sea levels rise. When it comes to understanding the concrete effects of climate change, those who live next to water have a front-row seat and tend to take it more seriously.

Looking to the future

This model on display at NYHS is a 3D visualization of potential sea level rise. It was created by Guy Nordenson, Catherine Seavitt and their collaborators as part of a research project called On the Water: Palisade Bay.

“It’s exciting for us that [Living Breakwaters] closes the show,” says Orff. “In a way it points toward a future form of ecological activism that’s maybe different in nature from the 1960s era work.” Haffner agrees, saying the project shows “a different environmental consciousness than we’ve seen before,” one that has evolved to include adaptation for the future. Orff says that’s SCAPE’s goal; they are aiming for an “educated and aware stewardship model,” something Orff herself delves into in detail in her book, Toward an Urban Ecology.

Ultimately, NYHS wanted Living Breakwaters as the finale of the Hudson Rising exhibition because it’s hopeful. Just because things are changing doesn’t mean we’re in an untenable situation. “There’s hope for regenerating and finding new approaches. We have great people working on these problems,” says Haffner.

In the same vein of looking forward, researchers from the Earth Institute have paired with Partners Restoring the Hudson to assess the state of the Hudson River and plan for its future. The Hudson River Comprehensive Restoration Plan was released in August of 2018, and includes recommendations for enhancements, issues around climate change, and plans for restoration projects along the river’s banks. The Earth Institute centers and affiliates involved include the Center for Earth Science Information Network, the Department of Environmental and Earth Sciences, the Educational Programming team at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and more. Similarly, GSAPP has a program called the Hudson Valley Initiative, of which Orff is also a part.

Andy Juhl of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Greg O’Mullan (pictured) of Queens College test the water quality in Lake Tear of the Clouds, the source of the Hudson River high in the Adirondacks of New York. Photo by Andy Juhl (Click to view 360 photo).

The history of the Hudson River has shaped environmental policy and advocacy across the country. The river’s story has shown by example that the way to a safer and healthier future for all is through a holistic viewpoint, collaboration, and interdisciplinary work. Living Breakwaters and Hudson Rising are great examples of this. Bringing together scientific research, engineering, design, art, education, and activism is an impactful way to tell stories about climate change, and allows all kinds of voices to participate in determining how we adapt to face approaching climate challenges. If we are going to make the best of an uncertain future, we have to work together.

Photos by Phebe Pierson unless otherwise noted.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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