Meet Kate Orff, a landscape visionary who is working to help communities and coastlines cope with the devastating effects of climate change.

By Interview by Lauren Paige Kennedy; Produced by Lauren Phillips
October 13, 2017
Ethan Hill/Redux

Kate Orff, Founder, SCAPE

A landscape architect who saves coastlines? Meet urban designer Kate Orff, a newly named MacArthur Fellow, and the visionary behind New York City's SCAPE studio. Orff and her team tackle a future of rising sea levels while working to integrate regenerative marine life with sea walls, waterfronts, and other infrastructure. One example is SCAPE's award-winning "Living Breakwaters" project in Staten Island, which buffers neighborhoods from wave damage and erosion while protecting the biodiversity of juvenile fish and oyster beds. (The New York Governor's Office of Storm Recovery [GOSR] is now working to implement this groundbreaking project.)

Orff spoke with Coastal Living about her innovative work, the importance of design, and how we can help coastal species survive the climate shifts to come:

Coastal Living: What do you think of the current efforts to adapt to climate change?

Kate Orff: I think that, as much as the national dialogue has been pushing us backward, many people see climate change adaptation, and constriction and growth, and converting to green energy and renewables as a tremendous growth and business opportunity. There is some kind of cultural thing that is holding us back from having a really robust and informed discussion about how to handle that. But regardless of anything that’s happening on the national stage, I see cities across America advocating for their citizens.

CL: How is climate change affecting your field?

KO: I think every profession has to revamp and retool itself relative to the challenges of climate change and sea level rise. I feel like I have been pushing our profession more in that direction, and I think it’s funny [when] people might say, “Oh, landscape architecture! I need to prune my roses” but they don’t necessarily connect the dots.

CL: What’s wrong with historic methods of sea level management?

KO: The reality is that, prior to some of these broader ideas about green coastal infrastructure, the de facto solution for sea level rise is a vertical metal bulkhead wall that has zero ecosystem benefit. There are no shellfish that can attach to that wall, it has no fish habitat, it erases what is critical intertidal habitat. The de facto response to sea level rise was a vertical bulkhead wall, and the de facto response to surge is a tidal surge barrier, which impedes water flow and fish migration in our nation’s bays and estuaries. That’s what I would call hard infrastructure. It’s a dam. It’s a tidal gate: Somebody flips a switch, and the thing closes. My problem with that is that that might be good every 70 years, but on a day-to-day basis we have ruined our immediate ecosystem. … There is a way that design and planning can play a role to preserve and protect ecosystems and ecologies, but also a way that human settlement can persist and still be strongly connected to the coast.

CL: Other than the obvious responsibilities, what else do you think landscape architects should be doing to further this cause?

KO: People are very attuned to what’s happening in their daily lives, but that is really a very poor indicator of longer-term climate. These kinds of graphs that show temperature spiking and that show sea levels rising seem to be incredibly abstract to people, and so one other role of ours as designers is also to help visualize and help drive home these future challenges so it becomes less abstract scientific information and to more incorporate people’s immediate lives and decisions.

CL: How quickly do we need to act to save our communities?

KO: I feel like we’re at this precipice now, where we know this is happening. As a designer, I work with governments, city agencies, state agencies, and federal agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers, and I know how much time it takes to do things. That’s why I think we need to act now, because even if we act now, the implementation horizon is 10 to 15 years for any major project. I really want to mobilize people to become activists and work together with their immediate neighbors to pressure their local government and state government to take these challenges on.

CL: How does your work in altering coastlines affect the animals living there?

KO: Without design, and without changing and designing edges for our cities that enable these fish and eelgrass and intertidal landscapes, they will simply disappear. We have seen that our marshlands will be inundated, and there’s a whole series of interdependencies that all these systems depend upon. … There are interrelated series of species interdependencies that are going to be triggered if we don’t design our coastlines differently now. If we don’t plan for this intertidal gradient, we don’t plan for places these wetlands can migrate inland to, because you can’t migrate past a vertical wall. The wetlands have to migrate somewhere. We are in real danger of losing what are incredibly common [wetland] species only 40, 50 years ago.

CL: What drives your work?

KO: I have this sense that people have their roles, and we have a role within the northeast as this sort of designer/planner for water-based ecosystems. The scientists have their role in getting the best data. I’m just very clear on what my role is and am trying to plug in where it’s useful. The world is a design project now, and we need to build and adapt differently. That’s what I hope to contribute.


Every oyster shell that ends up in a landfill could be returned to local waters to help reef-restoration efforts, rebuild marine habitats, and make coasts more resilient. Urge local restaurants and governments to collect and recycle oyster shells, and follow groups like the Billion Oyster Project and the Oyster Recovery Partnership;

Responses edited for clarity and conciseness