For Kate Orff, founder of the landscape design studio SCAPE (277 Broadway, Suite 1606, Manhattan, 212-462-2628), reshaping the city is not just urban design, but “ecological art on a very large scale.” After receiving her M.S. in landscape architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and working at firms Hargreaves Associates and OMA/AMO, Orff struck out on her own to found the studio in 2007. Her goal, she says, was to give form to her vision of a symbiotic urban ecological coexistence.
Orff says she found landscape architecture compelling “because it is equal parts art and science and community organizing.” Her studio addresses the challenges of climate change with design processes that are responsive to the communities they serve, combining physical infrastructure design with community organizing.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, SCAPE designed “Living Breakwaters,” a proposal to protect the waterfront community of Tottenville, Staten Island, against future storm surges with what Orff calls “oyster-tecture,” leveraging the power of oyster reefs to filter nutrient contaminants and enhance aquatic habitat while also attenuating waves. The project, which won Rebuild by Design, the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery’s waterfront resiliency competition, is expected to be completed by 2019; it will create bays to host finfish, shellfish, and lobsters, and serve as both environmental education site and a buffer against strong wave action.
Orff’s studio challenges designers to meaningfully involve people in what she terms “social infrastructure.” Alongside writing environmental impact statements, SCAPE prepares projects in collaboration with nonprofits focused on resetting New York City’s relationship to its environment, including New York-New Jersey Baykeeper, the New York Harbor School and its Billion Oyster Project, and the Hudson River Foundation. SCAPE also engages community members in creatively thinking about the future of their waterfront, through activities like shoreline tours and events in local hubs like the Staten Island MakerSpace.
This past July, Orff published a new book, entitled Toward an Urban Ecology (Monacelli Press), which explores urban ecology as a form of activism and details SCAPE’S holistic approach to questions about urban nature. The studio intends to keep exploring this new juncture between environmental activism, art, ecology, and infrastructure. “It’s exciting that the projects are not just objects — they are social movements,” Orff says. “At its core, SCAPE as a team is trying to find ways to mesh regenerative ecological systems with methods of community organizing, [and] it’s coming together with the Living Breakwaters project. We have a completely unique chance for our region to set a new agenda for how we want to live with nature in the future.”