Today — exactly two years to the date when I shoved half of my closet into an oversized duffel bag and left my home on the Brooklyn waterfront for an unknown amount of time — I’m pleased to announce that Living Breakwaters, a community-centric coastal resiliency scheme devised by SCAPE Landscape Architecture, has won the 2014 Buckminster Fuller Challenge.

While the six other finalists in the running for the seventh edition of “socially responsible design’s highest reward” were an impressively do-gooding bunch, news of Living Breakwaters' win late last week couldn’t come at a more appropriate time as residents of Superstorm Sandy-battered communities reflect on the events of two years ago and contemplate means of protection against future coastal storms. (The other finalists included a floating health clinic for East Africa’s Lake Tanganyika, a net-zero energy housing development for South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and a “connected network of community-managed and protected forests” for the Congo Basin.)

SCAPE will be awarded $100,000 at a ceremony hosted by the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI) next month in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The prize money will enable the New York-based firm to further develop and, eventually, implement its “oyster-tecture”-based flood mitigation concept, a concept that was initially conceived for the Sandy-ravaged South Shore of Staten Island but can be easily replicated in vulnerable, low-lying communities up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

The multifaceted project in a nutshell:

The Living Breakwaters project integrates components ranging from ecologically engineered "Oyster-tecture," to transformational education around coastal resiliency and the restoration of livelihoods traditional to the community of Tottenville in Staten Island, while also spurring systemic change in regulatory pathways at the State level.

Revolving around the three key tenets of risk reduction, culture and ecology, Living Breakwaters was also one of six projects that won federal funding earlier this year through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rebuild by Design competition.

Of the winning Rebuild by Design entrants, Living Breakwaters is in line for a relatively small chunk — $60 million — of the $925 million pot. By comparison, Big U, Bjarke Ingels Group’s Lower Manhattan-hugging park-topped storm surge barrier, will receive $335 million in funding.

SCAPE’s Kate Orff, project manager for Living Breakwaters, sums up the goal of the biodiversity- and community-bolstering that takes a mantra — “don’t fight forces, use them” — from the late, great inventor/architect/futurist/philosopher/all-around amazing guy R. Buckminster Fuller himself to heart:

The Living Breakwaters project combines coastal resiliency infrastructure with habitat enhancement techniques and community engagement, deploying a layered strategy that links in-water protective forms to on-shore interventions. We aim to mitigate the risk to humans from periodic weather extremes, improve the quality of our everyday lives, and rebuild our ecosystem.

Orff adds in an announcement issued by BFI:

We are so honored to be the 2014 Fuller Challenge recipient — Fuller was optimistic about the future of humanity and deeply believed in cooperation as the way forward. As climate change impacts threaten shoreline populations, Living Breakwaters hopefully represents a paradigm shift in how we collectively address climate risks, by focusing on regenerating waterfront communities and social systems, and enhancing threatened ecosystems.

Please do check out Buckminster Fuller Challenge’s Living Breakwaters project page for more information on how exactly SCAPE's network of wave-dampering concrete oyster reefs will be realized. It’s a fascinating and rather complex project with numerous benefits beyond simple flood mitigation and the potential to generate huge change — and not just for Staten Island. As jury member Susan Szenasy, editor-in-chief of Metropolis magazine, explains:

Living Breakwaters has huge, worldwide implications, both in its understanding of how to communicate ecological issues to the local community within its own context, as well as in its rigorous, multi-disciplinary research and smart use of technology. Aside from the solid science, planning, and building approach, the most compelling aspect of this project is its community involvement through the engagement with students working on real-world science problems and being part of the solution to a local coastal problem that could contribute to similar solutions worldwide.

A big congratulations go out to Orff and the entire Living Breakwaters team on the win. Bucky himself is no doubt smiling down from his geodesic dome home in the great beyond. While each Fuller Challenge finalist proposed thoughtful solutions to a variety of formidable issues across the globe, this one, for me, really hit home.

Past winners of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, an annual competition which invites “scientists, students, designers, architects, activists, entrepreneurs, artists and planners from all over the world to submit their innovative solutions to some of humanity’s most pressing problems,” include Ecovative Design (2013) for its fungi-based plastic substitute and the Living Building Challenge (2012), a holistic, performance-based green building standard that's been featured numerous times here on MNN.

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Living Breakwaters: Coastal resiliency project wins 2014 Buckminster Fuller Challenge
A project revolving around artificial oyster reefs and the engagement of Sandy-impacted communities wins humanitarian design's most prestigious prize.