But that’s not entirely true. Mr Riepe, who today is best known for the birding walks and shoreline cleanups he leads, expects that in 25 or 30 years rising sea levels will make his home and well others like her unlivable. He is 82 years old and he does not expect to be here at that time. But for the sake of those who will be, he and his neighbors are banking on a plan to restore wetlands and build islands in the bay, which they hope will soften the blow from future storms. It will also restore some of the natural beauty the bay was once known for.
Jamaica Bay is an estuary almost the size of Manhattan which divides the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, and it is by far the largest natural area in New York. For Native American tribes like the Lenape, the bay was an “extremely important hunting and fishing area,” according to Eric W. Sanderson, who is best known for the Mannahatta Project, which pieced together Manhattan’s ecological past. It is currently conducting a similar survey in the other boroughs.
Mr. Sanderson and a group of city officials recently made an inspection tour of a restored swamp on the Rockaway Peninsula, an area once filled with rubble, concrete blocks and construction debris. Almost as if on cue, a great blue heron glided past the group noiselessly, barely creating a ripple in the waters like a mirror. A small fenced patch on the shore was bristling with stems of newly seeded marsh grasses planted by the New York City Parks Department.
Mr Sanderson, who is a senior conservation ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, gestured towards a tidal channel, above which stood a four-storey apartment complex with a ‘now for rent’ sign .
“If we were here with the Lenape a few hundred years ago, they would be out there in the channel in their canoes,” he said. “But they would never have built their wigwam right there, by the beach, because it’s dangerous. It is flooded, it is exposed to the winds.
The restaurant area and the canal adjoining it sit incongruously between a busy avenue and a neighborhood made up mostly of new low-rise apartment buildings and multi-story houses, many of which were flooded during Sandy. The bizarre architectural mix and wild natural features make Rockaway unique. They also present unique challenges for urban planners.
Today, the city has lost most of its protective sand dunes and nearly 80% of the coastal marshes it historically possessed. Without these natural barriers, residents of the Jamaica Bay area are much more vulnerable to rising waters.