WXY Architecture + Urban Design's Blueway Plan for New York City's East River.

A river runs through it—but unless there’s a hurricane warning, you would hardly know it. To get to the edge of the East River on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, you’ll have to negotiate a maze of highways, low-visibility bike lanes, hospital and tower blocks, and other obstacles—all so you can peer down at the water four feet below as it laps against a concrete bulkhead. Not that you’d want to dive in: between the combined sewer overflows, the runoff from the FDR Parkway, and 200 years’ accumulated industrial waste, the water is far from welcoming.

Bearing the exuberant slogan “River to the People,” the East River Blueway Plan aims to set all this to rights. The plan for a four-mile stretch of the East River puts climate resilience, ecosystem renewal, and recreational uses like kayaking and swimming on equal footing, notes Claire Weisz, principal in charge at WXY Architecture + Urban Design. In early February, Manhattan’s borough president, Scott Stringer, announced his support for the Blueway proposal and pledged $3.5 million in capital.

“The plan will increase permeability and also handle all the runoff from the FDR through freshwater wetlands,” Weisz says. An existing road will also be raised to allow for a new piece of infrastructure to mitigate the park’s edge and rising sea levels. After a series of meetings and events, the planning team, led by WXY, found that the local community is enthusiastic about the redevelopment. “Community members want to build and make things that really connect further into the neighborhood understanding of being on the waterfront.” Weisz says. For example, participants discussed creative ways of showing the high watermark from recent storms Irene and Sandy as well as historical storms.

Intertidal salt marshes and other constructed habitats will create more of a buffer on the edge to help protect the neighborhood from flooding. Although the resulting viewing areas may be even higher than the current ones, you can still create walkways that give the experience of a more restored waterfront environment—not just being on the other side of it, Weisz explains. The plan also includes swimming and wading pools that use filtered river water.

Elegant bridges that would help cyclists bypass existing infrastructure have drawn particular attention. “It has really captured people’s imagination about what’s possible,” she says. “You don’t want to build walls that are just walls. It may keep water out, but it doesn’t make the edge work as a place.”