But that’s not quite true. Mr. Riepe, best known today for the bird walks and clearing of the coastline he leads, fully expects that sea level rise in 25 or 30 years will render his home and many others like it unlivable. He’s 82 and don’t expect to be there then. But for the sake of those who will, he and his neighbors are counting on a plan to restore the wetlands and build the islands in the bay, which they hope will soften the blow of future storms. It will also return some of the natural beauty the bay was once known for.
Jamaica Bay is an estuary nearly the size of Manhattan cutting into the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, and it’s by far the largest natural space in New York City. For Native American tribes like the Lenape, the bay was a “hugely important hunting and fishing area,” according to Eric W. Sanderson, who is best known for the Mannahatta Project, which reconstructed Manhattan’s ecological past. He is now conducting a similar study in the other districts.
Mr. Sanderson and a group of city officials recently made an inspection visit to a restored swamp on the Rockaway Peninsula, an area formerly filled with rubble, concrete blocks and construction debris. Almost as if it were a sign, a great blue heron glided silently past the group, barely creating a ripple in the mirror-like water. A small fenced-off shoreline was strewn with the stems of newly-seeded swamp grasses planted by the New York City Parks Department.
Mr. Sanderson, senior conservation ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, gestured to a tidal gully, above which loomed a four-story apartment complex with a “now rented” sign.
“If we were here with the Lenape a few hundred years ago, they would be there in their dug-out canoes in the canal,” he said. “But they would never have built their wigwam there on the edge of the beach, because that’s dangerous. It overflows, it is exposed to the wind.”
The restoration area and the canal adjacent to it lie illogically between a busy avenue and a neighborhood of mostly new low-rise apartments and multi-storey houses, many of which were flooded during Sandy. The strange architectural mix and wild natural features make Rockaway unique. They also provide unique challenges for city planners.
The city today has lost most of its protective sand dunes and nearly 80 percent of the coastal swamps it had in the past. Without these natural barriers, the residents of the Jamaica Bay region are much more vulnerable to rising waters.