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Designing (and Defining) Resilience in New York’s Flood Risk Planning

A critical look at two New York area flood risk planning reports by the Department of City Planning. What implications do they have for New York’s costal communities, and for disaster planning in the nation as a whole?

A house on Staten Island, N.Y. ravaged by hurricane Sandy this past October. Credit: DVIDSHUB

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Disaster preparedness is serious business, but it needn’t take away from what makes a city livable.

That’s one message that came out of a series of reports from the New York City Department of City Planning last week, which recommended changes to New York’s zoning code to better make it ready for, say, another Hurricane Sandy.

Part of a broad-based effort to prepare the city for a future of higher sea levels and more frequent storms, the recommended zoning code changes would apply to new and existing buildings alike. Some of these design recs call for elevating the first floors of commercial and residential buildings, dry floodproofing existing non-residential buildings, installing buffers to break the impact of waves on coastal properties, and setting buildings back from existing property lines. (See the full zoning revision proposal for more details.)

“How can we ensure that buildings meet these higher flood protection standards while preserving the vitality of our neighborhoods? To meet these challenges, reconstruction must be shaped by clear and tested design principles,” wrote Amanda Burden Director of the Department of City Planning, in a foreword to the report, “Designing for Flood Risk”

The other report addressing this ever-timely question, titled “Urban Waterfront Adaptive Strategies” (UWAS), focuses on both the neighborhood and citywide levels and emphasizes that there is no silver bullet solution that will make the city’s infrastructure more resilient. “New York City’s 520 miles of waterfront are incredibly diverse,” the authors write. “Each of these areas face specific types and levels of risks, and therefore require different strategies.”

Representing a concerted effort to move toward proactive rather than reactive disaster planning, these two reports together aim to give an evaluative framework that can guide New York’s decision-making processes into the future.

UWAS is the more comprehensive of the two, laying out a series of typologies, strategies and assessment processes. Acknowledging the diversity of coastal environments in the New York area (and across the country), it focuses in on coastal geology and landform as key in determining areas that are most at-risk.

New York has nine different types of coastal geographies, called geomorphologies, which range from oceanfront beaches to coastal marshes to the harsh bluffs of the palisades. The risk level of a given area is evaluated according to the land use that occupies a given geomorphology. Each site, after being classified, is then evaluated according to building type, open space, infrastructure, built area, land area and density in order to identify which of the eight designated land use typologies it falls into. This dual classification helps pinpoint risks, concerns and resiliency strategies for each specific site along the city’s waterfront.

Many of the strategies meant to make these areas more resilient should be familiar to those who have lived in coastal areas: Dry floodproofing (sealing the base of a building up to the expected flood line), elevating structures above the flood line, and the use of landscape and constructed elements to protect the structure from waves. However, some strategies described in the report are quite new. Drawing on examples from Hamburg to Rotterdam to New Orleans, UWAS puts forth a near-comprehensive synthesis of flood protection systems, including many novel in-water strategies like constructed wetlands, artificial reefs, floating islands and coastal morphology alteration — strategies that are rarely deployed in the U.S.

One of the more fantastical flood resilience strategies for New YOrk’s Gowanus Canal. Credit: Flickr user rene_beignet

A final section of UWAS deals with emergency management, insurance, land use management and infrastructure protection. With that, it zooms out to discuss the notion of “resilience” (a word that shows up nine times in the four-page press release alone) as the basic framework for evaluation of all of these strategies. The authors assert that resilience is both the overarching goal and evaluative framework for all of the information provided. Defining resilience as “the ability to withstand and recover quickly from disturbance,” they go on to explain that it is not only about resisting or rebuilding, but also adapting and embracing the risk and inevitability of occasional failure.

This emphasis on resilience is part of a shift away from the hubris of earlier U.S. disaster prevention plans that relied on strength and wit to overpower natural forces, rather than flexibility and responsiveness to work with those forces. Cities have long been seen as the opposite of the ‘natural’ ecosystems they disrupt. Yet in recent years, environmental scientists and designers have framed the city itself as an ecosystem. Solutions, in this case, are collaborative rather than oppositional — humans with nature, not humans versus nature.

Furthermore, the authors extend the notion of resilience beyond its conventional use in environmental science, claiming resiliency is not only about facilitating building practices that can weather coastal storm events but also about supporting “the vibrancy of the urban public realm.” The question becomes, then, how do you reconcile general sustainability principles (density, walkability, sharing resources) with specific disaster mitigation strategies (setbacks, window treatments, structural reinforcements)?

The Department of City Planning is telling us that resilience isn’t just about the physical. It’s also about the social — if we deploy resources to protect urban areas from a natural disaster, that investment should not undermine the reasons people settled there to begin with.

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Tags: new york cityinfrastructureresilient citiessustainable citiesfloodingdisaster planninghurricane sandy

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