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Learn More About the Living Breakwaters Project

[Project Purpose] [Project Overview] [Breakwater Design] [Project Progress]


In June 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched Rebuild by Design (RBD), a competition to respond to Superstorm Sandy’s devastation in the northeast region of the United States and promote a design-led approach to proactive planning for long-term resilience and climate change adaptation The winning proposal would be implemented using Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funding as well as funding from the State of New York. In June 2014, following a year-long community-based design process during which the design teams met regional experts, including government entities, elected officials, issue-based organizations, local groups and individuals, HUD announced the winning proposals. The Staten Island Living Breakwaters Project which proposed a layered resiliency approach to promote risk reduction through erosion prevention, wave energy attenuation, and enhancement of ecosystems and social resiliency, was one of the selected projects. As a result, New York State has been allocated $60 million of CDBG-DR funds to implement the project along the Tottenville section of the South Shore of Staten Island. With an ecologically enhanced breakwater system to address wave energy and shoreline erosion at Tottenville, this project also fulfills New York City’s Resilience Plan Coastal Protection Initiative 15.



The integrated purposes of the Living Breakwaters project are three-fold:
  • Risk Reduction: address both event-based and long-term shoreline erosion in order to preserve or increase beach width; attenuate storm waves to improve safety and prevent damage to buildings and infrastructure. 
  • Ecological Enhancement: Increase the diversity of aquatic habitats in the Lower New York Harbor / Raritan Bay (e.g., oyster reefs and fish and shellfish habitat), particularly rocky / hard structured habitat that can function much like the oyster reefs that were historically found in this area.  
  • Social Resiliency: Provide programming that builds a community around education on coastal resiliency and ecosystem stewardship; foster and encourage community stewardship and citizen science, and increase physical and visual access to the water’s edge and near-shore waters for recreation, education, research, and stewardship activities. 
The need for enhanced erosion protection, wave attenuation, and social resiliency were demonstrated during the severe storm events of 2011 and 2012 (including “Superstorm Sandy”) when the Tottenville community experienced severe damage from storm waves. In addition to storm events, the shoreline has experienced ongoing erosion over the last 35 years. While shoreline change patterns oscillate between erosion and accretion, most of the shoreline in the project area has experienced erosion. In many locations erosion rates average more than one foot per year and in one area of Conference House Park they reach an average rate of more than three feet per year.
The need for habitat enhancement within Raritan Bay has been well documented through ecological assessments and reports initiatives including National Marine Fisheries Service Raritan Bay habitat evaluations and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Shellfish Assessments to the Food and Drug Administration in support of their northern quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria) fishery. Additionally, the Hudson Raritan Estuary Comprehensive Restoration Plan (HRE CRP) states that, "The most effective way to sustain or increase fish and macroinvertebrate populations in the HRE may be to restore and/ or create mosaics of critical habitats to provide what habitat was historically lost (i.e. intertidal wetlands, eelgrass beds, oyster reefs, etc.), as well as expand upon existing habitats (e.g. subtidal shallows, rocky intertidal)."

1. US Army Corps of Engineers, Port Authority of NY & NJ, and NY-NJ Harbor Estuary Program: Hudson-Raritan Estuary Comprehensive Restoration Plan - Version 1.0, June 2016, p. 101.



Living Breakwaters is an innovative coastal green infrastructure project that aims to increase physical, ecological, and social resilience. The project is located in the waters of Raritan Bay (Lower New York Harbor) along the shoreline of Tottenville and Conference House Park, from Wards Point in the southwest to Butler Manor Woods in the northeast. The project area is a shallow estuary that has historically supported commercial fisheries and shell fisheries. In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy devastated Staten Island’s east and south shore neighborhoods. The driving wave action battered the coastline, damaging or destroying an unprecedented number of Staten Island homes and businesses, resulting in loss of life and significant harm to the local economy. Tottenville, a community at the southernmost point of Staten Island, experienced some of the most destructive waves in the region. Historically known as “The Town the Oyster Built,” the community was once protected by a wide shelf and series of oyster reefs, which in turn supported a robust oyster farming industry. Over time, due to siltation, overharvesting, channel dredging, and human pathogens in the water, the once abundant oyster reef collapsed.
Today, the Raritan Bay lacks not only the oysters, but the complex habitat their reefs provided and the species richness and biodiversity that they supported. Without these natural systems, the shore of Staten Island remains exposed to wave action and coastal erosion.
Living Breakwaters consists of:
  • Living Breakwaters: Approximately 3,200 linear feet of near-shore "breakwaters," or partially submerged rubble mound structures located between 790 and 1,800 feet from shore, designed not only to reduce risk, but also to provide habitat enhancements through the specialized design of the breakwater structures and the materials used.
  • Shoreline Restoration: One-time placement of sand along approximately 800 linear feet of shoreline from Manhattan Street to Loretto Street where the distance between the shore and the buildings is most narrow and subject to erosion, restoring the beach to the approximate width it was in 1970s.
  • Active Oyster Restoration by the Billion Oyster Project: This will include installations on the breakwaters themselves, as well as off-site oyster cultivation activities (hatcheries, remote setting, etc.), shell collection and curing.
  • A Water Hub: A floating vessel to house educational, monitoring, and stewardship activities, as well as an on shore experience consisting of interpretive signage which will be located along the Conference House Park shoreline, where the Living Breakwaters are visible.
  • Programming: This includes educational, stewardship, and workforce training activities related to the other project elements.
The project is taking a thematically and spatially layered approach to reducing coastal risk, restoring and enhancing habitats important to local ecosystems, improving waterfront access, and engaging with residents through community and educational programs directly related to the project’s coastal and ecological resilience actions. The project is consistent with New York City’s Coastal Protection Initiatives and planning studies for the Tottenville area as well as the New York – New Jersey Comprehensive Restoration Plan for New York Harbor (HRE-CRP).

Building Physical Resilience

The breakwaters are designed to reduce wave energy and reduce or reverse shoreline erosion in the project area. Extensive modeling efforts were performed to understand the impacts of the breakwater system on shoreline change in order to maximize risk reduction and erosion benefits while minimizing negative environmental and aesthetic impacts. The breakwater system has been designed to capture sediments along the shoreline, reducing historic shoreline erosion and in most places widening the beach over time. This wider beach will provide additional protection from erosion and wave action to on shore coastal protective features and other assets.

The project approach to storm wave attenuation is to focus design for storm wave attenuation in areas where existing structures and infrastructure are susceptible to wave damage from high-intensity / low-frequency storm events. The design storm considered is the 1% annual chance (100-year) storm event with 30” of sea level rise. According to the currently available FEMA preliminary flood insurance rate maps (pFIRMs), the area between Brighton Street and Sprague Avenue contains structures (buildings and infrastructure) within the Limit of Moderate Wave Action (LiMWA) and within the V zone during a 100-year storm event. Analysis of wave conditions at the project site provided through wave hindcast data transformed to the project area through numerical modeling, revealed that over the 30-year period, the largest significant waves come from the east and southeast. Using this transformed wave data, the wave attenuation performance of the Living Breakwaters was studied using hydrodynamic wave modeling.
Growing Ecological Resilience

The breakwaters are designed to provide habitat and support biologic activity consistent with existing regional plans and priorities such as the Hudson Raritan Estuary Comprehensive Restoration Plan (HRE CRP) and generate net ecosystem benefits in the project area. Contrary to traditional rubble mound breakwaters, which often offer less diverse biological niches when compared to natural rocky shorelines (Chapman and Bulleri 2003, Burt et al. 2009), the Living Breakwaters are designed to avoid and minimize negative impacts and optimize habitat creation and ecosystem services. To avoid critical habitats, and to reduce the structures overall footprint, the Living Breakwaters are designed with minimized crest widths and reduced crest elevations where this is consistent with the project’s risk reduction goals. Steeper side slopes allow for a smaller footprint for the main breakwater while still being structurally sound and providing opportunities for ecological enhancement on surfaces within the intertidal and subtidal areas. The use of multiple breakwaters with small gap widths rather than long, continuous breakwaters also helps to reduce footprint sizes while creating additional habitat variety between the ends of the breakwaters. Closely spaced rocky intertidal / subtidal protrusions (reef fingers) create “reef streets” which add habitat complexity and dramatically increase the length of productive edge habitat. The integration of bioenhancing concrete units into the armor units of the main body of the breakwater segments as well as the reef streets adds greater range of crevice sizes and promotes biogenic buildup to further enhance the overall complexity and variety of the rocky habitat created. This further contributes to greater biodiversity and overall biological activity on and around the breakwaters. The inclusion of active oyster restoration on and around the breakwaters will provide additional variety and micro-complexity to the structure’s habitat, as well as help to achieve regional restoration goals (HRE CRP). Together, these strategies help the project maximize the ecological uplift provided and help offset any impacts to existing habitats or species. The following section provides a summary of the habitat benefits and potential impacts provided by the breakwaters.

Fostering Social Resilience

The calmed near shore waters and wider beaches created by the breakwaters will not only help reduce risk from coastal storms, but will also enhance recreational opportunities along the shoreline including boating, fishing, and general beach use.

Programming and education are a critical part of the Living Breakwaters social resiliency project objectives, allowing for residents and visitors to engage with the shoreline, learn about resiliency initiatives and ecological restoration activities, and become stewards of the harbor. These goals will be achieved through programming at the floating Water Hub and supported by onshore interpretive signage.

The Floating Water Hub will be a multi-use vessel serving as a floating classroom and resource for ongoing monitoring of the Living Breakwaters. The vessel will be outfitted with classroom space, a wet lab, and exhibition space. It will be owned and operated by the Billion Oyster Project. The Floating Water Hub will carry about 50 students and other interested visitors and will be able to dock and board passengers at a wide range of locations including the city's numerous neighborhood ferry docks. It will offer its passengers the opportunity to approach the breakwaters and learn about the structures’ role in mitigating wave impact, reducing erosion, and restoring the ecosystem of Raritan Bay. The Floating Water Hub will begin operation after the breakwaters have been installed.

The Billion Oyster Project has also developed a Living Breakwaters STEM Curriculum designed for students in 6th to 8th grade public school science classes, emphasizing the history and importance of oysters to Staten Island and its ecology, and showcasing the Living Breakwaters as a case study in coastal resilience. The curriculum explains how the breakwaters will increase the area’s resiliency and how they will contribute to a healthier environment. In 2019, BOP worked with teachers in more than a dozen schools in Staten Island and nearly 50 city-wide and plans to expand these efforts when the Floating Water Hub is operational.



The breakwaters consist of a series of nine ecologically enhanced breakwater segments off the southwestern tip of Staten Island. Made of a combination of hard stone and ecological concrete units, the breakwaters are non-traditional rubble mound structures. The system, with final design completed in early 2019, has been designed to reduce or reverse erosion (grow beach) and reduce coastal storm risk through wave attenuation. A network of ecological enhancements integrated into the breakwater’s physical structure (“reef streets” and “reef ridges” and water retaining elements) and targeted material selection (bio-enhancing concrete) are aimed to increase biodiversity by providing various ecological niches and improving the ecosystem services provided by structures. The project also proposes to include eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) active restoration on and within the breakwaters and placement of “spat” (juvenile oysters) attached to shells.

Breakwater Layout

Living Breakwaters Figure 7

The breakwater system will include approximately 3,200 linear feet of breakwaters. The breakwaters will be located between 790 and 1,800 feet from shore and in water depths of between two-and-10 feet below mean low water (NAVD88). In addition to the breakwaters themselves, the design includes a limited, strategic, one-time placement of shoreline restoration that will add needed sediment to the system and provide initial protection to the most vulnerable stretch of beach as the breakwaters work over time to accrete beach elsewhere.

This layout was refined through the process of design and computer modeling, where scenarios were iteratively developed, modeled to evaluate impacts on shoreline change and storm wave attenuation, and the results analyzed to help inform the design refinement.

Living Breakwaters Figure 8

The breakwaters will be primarily constructed as rubble mound (rock) structures with a stone core, a marine mattress layer to protect against scour, and outer layers consisting of armor stones and ecological concrete armor units. In the subtidal and intertidal areas, approximately a third of the outer layer of stone armor units will be replaced with ecological concrete armor units. These ecological concrete units are structural armor units specially designed to promote biological activity and promote recruitment of marine species. This is achieved through both the specialized concrete mixture and the design of the textured surfaces of the units.

In addition to the main (traditional) breakwater segment, the Living Breakwaters will have “reef ridges”—rocky protrusions on the ocean-facing sides of the breakwaters—and “reef streets”—the narrow spaces between the reef ridges. These features will create localized modifications to wave behavior and provide a diversity of habitat characteristics to generate opportunities for species recruitment and ecological enhancement. Habitat diversity will be further enhanced on the reef ridges through greater variation in rock sizes and the interspaces between them, the textured surfaces of the ecological concrete armor units, and the inclusion of ecological concrete tidepools in the intertidal zone.

The Living Breakwaters function as a system of elements that work together to reduce risk and enhance habitat in the Raritan Bay. Each segment was individually designed to contribute to the overall system and achieve the desired performance in the project area. The breakwaters’ distance from shore, segment lengths, the width of the gap between segments, orientation, and crest height were refined in the final design to optimize wave attenuation performance and reduce or reverse shoreline erosion in line with the project goals.

Living Breakwaters Figure 8

Active Restoration: Oyster Installations

Active oyster restoration on and adjacent to the breakwaters will further enhance the habitat opportunities created by the breakwaters. Techniques will include the incorporation of spat placement into a small percentage of the ecological concrete units, the use of oyster shell gabions (non-structural units), spat on shell placed in the reef streets and adjacent to the breakwaters, and in-situ setting pilots. The oyster gabions will use the same design being employed in other oyster restoration projects in locations in the Harbor as part of the Hudson Raritan Estuary comprehensive restoration plan, spat on shell techniques will be based on techniques developed and deployed during the Oyster Restoration Research Project. Oyster restoration will be implemented by the Billion Oyster Project.

Oyster Instillation Photo

The Water Hub

The Water Hub, consisting of both the floating vessel and on shore interpretive signage, is an integral part of the Living Breakwaters Project. Together, these components will provide the educational and programmatic support necessary to introduce the Living Breakwaters Project to the surrounding community and visitors, provide resources and support to students and educators, and offer direct waterfront access and recreation opportunities.

The floating Water Hub will join Richmond County Yacht Club, Hudson River Park, Lower East Side Ecology Center, and other sites around New York City as a hub for activities organized by the New York Harbor Foundation’s Billion Oyster Project. On shore elements will support and enhance existing park activities, such as beach cleanup events, shore birding walks, citizen science monitoring, and other ongoing programs.


Plans for Construction

A Construction Management team has been hired to oversee the construction of the breakwaters and the shoreline restoration. As of Spring 2019, the State has begun the procurement process to identify a qualified marine contractor to undertake the construction of these project components. The lowest qualified bidder is expected to be identified by mid-2019 so that work can be begin in mid-2020. This will allow enough time for the contractor to gear up and mobilize to complete the construction efficiently by the end of 2021. Environmental concerns regarding the mating season of winter flounder require that breakwater construction only be done during the months of June through December. Construction of the breakwaters will be accomplished through water-based methods utilizing barges leaving from existing docks near the project area. The Shoreline Restoration portion of the work will occur in 2021 and will be land-based, utilizing a staging area near the project site.

Living Breakwaters Timeline

Environmental Review

The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process was completed in mid-2018 with the publication of the Joint Record of Decision and Finding Statement of the Coastal and Social Resiliency Initiatives for Tottenville. It can be found on the Storm Recovery website (Click Here) by scrolling down to the Rebuild by Design section. The Project also requires permits from the US Army Corp of Engineers and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. These permits are anticipated to be issued in the summer of 2019.


The budget amount submitted in the overall design proposal to the RBD Competition for the Living Breakwaters Project was approximately $74 million. When selected for funding, the project received a Community Development Block Grant- Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) allocation of $60 million. The State of New York has allocated $14 million of capital budget funding to augment the federal funds.