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10.17.2007
Grate Expectations
MTA turns to designers for flood prevention
Courtesy Rogers Marvel Architects

The August 8 flooding and closure of the subway system left a lot of people wondering about the vulnerability of New York’s infrastructure. If a few hours of rain could bring the city to a halt, is its transportation network prepared for larger-scale natural or manmade disasters? While the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), Department of Transportation (DOT), and other agencies wrestle with the long-term answers to this question, a group of designers has been asked to figure out how to keep sheets of water from pouring into sidewalk subway gratings during heavy rains.

On September 11, the MTA’s Arts for Transit convened Grimshaw Architects, Rogers Marvel Architects, and Antenna Design to investigate ways to remake the subway grating at stations that are prone to flooding. “This is an emergency situation,” said Sandra Bloodworth, director of Arts for Transit, “so we called some minds together who have worked on these issues.” All three firms have worked on public space infrastructure, including Grimshaw’s street furniture (“Newsworthy Newsstands,” AN 16_10.03.2007), Rogers Marvel’s security bench/bollard combos in the Financial District, and Antenna’s new subway cars.

Subway grates provide fresh air as well as ventilation in case of fire, so the goal of the redesign is to keep the airflow open while raising the grates above the sidewalk’s surface. Grimshaw’s proposal is based on a standard kit of parts and forms a bench. Rogers Marvel’s is blockier but has an undulating seating surface that makes it difficult to use for skateboarding tricks. Antenna’s combines benches with planters, which help to absorb rainwater. All three are designed to plug into existing grate openings and require minimal work on the sidewalks.

“We are so excited to be working on another project for the city,” said Jennifer Carpenter, partner in TRUCK Product Architecture, Rogers Marvel’s industrial design department. “I think we all want this piece of infrastructure to be a public amenity.”

“The MTA’s director, Eliot Sanders, likes to talk about how his mother had to go pick up his father after the Queens Boulevard lines flooded 40 years ago,” said Jeremy Soffin, press secretary for the MTA. “So this problem has been around, but we’re trying to come up with innovative solutions.” Longer-term plans include modified streetscapes, with greater permeability and more greenery, and more powerful pumping systems.

Alan G. Brake