One of New York City’s signature Sandy recovery efforts found itself in the international spotlight earlier this week.
Announced last summer, the contest invited architects, planners, social scientists and civic organizations to develop proposals that would reimagine the Sandy-affected region in light of newly realized resiliency challenges. 148 teams submitted preliminary ideas to a task force made up of representatives from the Rockefeller Foundation, New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other partners. In early August HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan announced 10 teams that would move on to the next stage of the Rebuild by Design competition.
Since that time, the teams have been meeting with experts around the region, including community groups, elected officials, issue-based organizations and other stakeholders in hopes of better understanding what’s needed, as well as how to best partner with other post-Sandy resiliency efforts that are also underway.
Next month, “The resulting proposals will be evaluated by an expert jury, and winning design solutions may be able to be implemented with disaster recovery grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as other sources of public and private-sector funding,” according to the contest’s website.
So how did all this jibe with an audience gearing up for the World Urban Forum? Surprisingly well, in fact. The ideas underpinning both the Rebuild by Design contest and the specific project that one of the panelists presented seemed to resonate nicely in a broader context and shed light on generating innovative ideas, engaging diverse communities and fostering projects that, through smart planning, are able to achieve a multitude of positive ends.
Holly Leicht, the regional administrator with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for New York and New Jersey was the first panelist to speak at length. She quickly made the point that the contest format used by Rebuild by Design was an easy way to allow government bureaucracies, which are rarely known for their cutting edge thinking, to tap into new ideas.
“The key here is government is not known for its innovation,” she said. “The onus is on us to go out and find people who are innovative.”
“But the burden is also on us,” she added, “to make sure that end result has credibility. That means buildability.”
Another panelist, Xavier de Souza Briggs, a vice president at the Ford Foundation who served as President Obama’s associate director of the Office of Management and Budget from 2009 to 2011, picked up on the contest format’s ability to drive innovation, adding that it also provided valuable political cover.
“What Rebuild offers from my perspective… is high expectations as to catalytic change. It elaborates specific outcomes. It offers thought partners… and frankly, it also offers something that is tremendously important to driving local change that we don’t often talk about and that is air cover.”
“In the conventional model,” he said, “the federal government was there to support you if you played by the rules. There wasn’t room for local ingenuity and local inventiveness. But you actually have to face up to some hard choices if you hope to become more resilient. I think there is a lesson in there not only for his country but for the broader dialogue as well.”
Bjarke Ingels, founder and chief of the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and a participant in the Rebuild by Design competition, used his time on the panel to show slides from his project, joking that, “I developed an ability to spontaneously answer questions with prepared Powerpoints.”
Wisecracks aside, he showed slides of his “big U” plan, a reimagining of Manhattan’s coastline south of 59th Street filled with “interventions between city and water” that would make the shore more able to withstand storm surge and quickly recover.
“We wanted to create eight miles of waterfront protection,” he said, “but in the end it would be sad if Manhattan’s waterfront was a wall against the sea. Instead, imagine infrastructure as a social amenity. Infrastructure for resilience could be combined with programs for people and various activities.”
“The headline version,” he quipped, “is, ‘We conceived of our approach as the lovechild of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs’,”
At that, everyone in the room laughed. But there was a kernel in the joke that resonated long after the chuckles faded: the Rebuild by Design contest, with its big-money government backing, its muscular reimagining and its savvy political cover is a page ripped right out of Robert Moses’s playbook, but with the community involvement and emphasis on organic innovation, partnership and best practices that are entirely inline with Jane Jacobs’s legacy.
Perhaps that pairing of two of the twentieth century’s great urbanists is exactly why the Rebuild by Design competition was worthy of such attention in the build up to the next World Urban Forum.
Graham T. Beck has written about art, cities and the environment for the New York Times, The Believer, frieze and other august publications. He’s a contributing writer for The Morning News and editor-in-chief of Transportation Alternatives’ quarterly magazine, Reclaim. He lives in New York City and tweets @g_t_b