What Balmori envisions would mark a major change for Hoboken, more than 90 percent of which is covered in pavement and other impermeable surfaces. “Hard infrastructure is needed in cities, and you cannot avoid that,” Balmori told me. “But I think we’ve discovered a tool, in soft infrastructure, that we’ve never been able to use before extensively.” (Not in major coastal cities, that is; in 1996, Balmori designed a 91-acre soft-infrastructure system in suburban Farmington, Minnesota, using a network of channels, swales, and ponds to improve drainage and avoid flooding.)
To see a site where the two strategies might work in harmony, we stopped at Weehawken Cove, a Hudson River inlet at the northern border of Hoboken. The cove is a pleasant public space, but it meets the city at a hard edge rimmed by narrow walkways. High water threatens the lower floors of adjacent buildings, which will need hard infrastructure to protect them. For the rest of the space, Balmori prefers a series of rising terraces that will serve as a park most days and as a buffer during storms, blocking the river from going too far inland and storing excess water. It’s civic amenity, economic stimulant, and climate adaptation in one. “We’re going to see it going up, going up,” she said, tracing the arc of the cove with her hand. “And the whole edge is green and soft.”
Balmori attributes her interest in landscapes to the time she spent camping in South America with her father, a linguist who studied indigenous tribes in remote terrains. “I was exposed to an incredible diversity of nature,” she recalled. After earning her doctorate in urban history at UCLA—studying Renaissance and 19th-century cities—then teaching at the State University of New York, she left full-time academia to practice landscape design, and in 1990 formed her firm, Balmori Associates.
Whereas traditional approaches to urban landscape design isolate nature from the city—the park as escape from urban bustle—Balmori says she wants to make green areas “visible” and “experiential.” She designed New York City’s first major green roof, a 35,000-square-foot installation completed in 2005 atop a television studio in Queens where The Sopranos was being filmed. More-recent projects include a continuous green roof that unifies 11 government buildings in Sejong City, South Korea; a terraced park near downtown Memphis that’s designed to handle the Mississippi’s high waters; and a riverfront overhaul that enhances pedestrian space near the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, in Spain.
As for the Hoboken project, Balmori says it would be an “enormous achievement” to safeguard the whole city, but she knows a lot of work remains. Right now “Resist, Delay, Store, Discharge” is a loose collection of ideas. The next step is to transform those ideas into a master plan. The project has a dizzying number of stakeholders—from federal, state, and local officials to the mayors of neighboring Weehawken and Jersey City to public agencies such as New Jersey Transit—but Mayor Zimmer nonetheless hopes for an “aggressive” timeline. She’d like to finish the waterfront sections, including the hard barriers, in the next three to five years. In the meantime, as funding allows, the city will fill in the green-infrastructure network; a combined park/water-storage site, capable of holding 250,000 gallons, is already being planned.