Ideas for a More Hurricane-Resistant New York Region Cross Sectors and State Lines

Forty-one proposals to make Northeastern cities more resilient were unveiled on Monday as part of the Rebuild by Design competition.

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Could a blue decal marking Hurricane Sandy’s high-water mark encourage more sustainable development of the Hoboken coast? Would a Jersey Shore pier that connects to a kayak network help neighboring towns stay unified in the case of future storms?

These early-stage proposals were among the 41 unveiled Monday morning at New York University as part of Rebuild by Design, an ambitious regional design competition that has brought together teams of climate change experts, architects and planners to think up new systems for Northeastern cities hit hard by Sandy.

The competition — part of a federal effort to rethink coastal development in the face of climate change — began in August and won’t wrap until March, when a jury will decide which proposals will go onto be developed in partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The ideas cross many fronts. Visitors who packed NYU’s Kimmel Center reviewed fairly familiar images of low-lying territory buffered with marsh grasses, sand and other natural material known to make land less vulnerable to flooding. Another proposal imagined a “Green Collar Institute” on a mixed-use waterfront in Bridgeport, Conn. and connected to other job centers in Long Branch, New Jersey and Brooklyn via new transportation networks. One even more fantastical vision suggested a levee and breakwater reef with “integration of earthwork and buildings” on Staten Island, while and still another suggested a “big berm” of landscaped, raised parkland around flood-prone public housing in Manhattan. (You can see them all here, and their data really merits a visual tour.)

Gallery: Rebuild by Design Gallery

The “big berm” exudes optimism, as did its sponsor, Danish starchitect Bjarke Ingels. His team invoked both Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses in a proposal that mixes new uses and new protections three New York City zones: the South Bronx, Brooklyn’s Red Hook peninsula, and what they call the “Big U” of Lower Manhattan, from ritzy TriBeCa around the Battery to public housing on the Lower East Side. In one representative slide, the South Bronx waterfront would gain boardwalks, new mixed-use buildings and recreation areas that would offer flood protection and thicken human connections.

Ingels, like the overall competition, stressed the hope that design development can make waterfront areas healthier in all weather, not just safer in storms. “Design is the art and science of making abstract ideals concrete,” he said. “The affected areas are undergoing a huge change in program [from industrial uses to recreational and mixed ones]. This can be an incredible opportunity to combine growth and resilience.”

But Rebuild by Design’s proposals must promote growth and resilience without the clarity of a single client. All solutions, from recreation to retail, work across a tri-state region with many political and administrative layers. Competitions only rarely engage such many-headed beasts. “It’s about the region and that’s what makes it different from anything that’s come before,” said Henk Ovink, senior adviser to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan.

The proposals cross city, state and agency lines because water, too, crosses those lines. If they become real projects, then who will manage them? Who will speak up for ways to adapt them over time?

Questions like these may invite a new vocabulary of design. “When issues hit they always hit differently, and you have to take perspective,” Ovink said. “Design can bring bridge science and politics, the real world with imagination.”

They also must answer to the public. “We can’t just design climate security to protect from storm surge,” said Eric Klinenberg, an NYU sociologist and Rebuild by Design’s research director. “How are we going to live in the places we remake? This is not a process about designers from on high.”

Indeed, Ovink stressed his invitation to the public to have at all 41 proposals. “We’re going to use your comments not only in the selection, but to drive forward the design.”

But how? The “ecologically focused” proposals came from a process including charettes, one adviser noted, and the jury will presumably measure and weigh the form and impact of public involvement. But it’s not clear whether any tool can channel broad public input, convert it to design language, implement designs and then adjust them to ensure that they promote social cohesion.

The standing-room-only crowd included more than a token number of folks who care about the process because they live and work in affected areas, and designers heard from residents about the need for jobs and communications. And the size of the crowd — estimated at 1,000 — shows that the competition has stirred broad commitment. But the regional riddle remains. Three people with links to the collaborators looked at the posters with me and wondered how anyone can devise the tools to sustain public involvement across so many borders.

David Waggoner has seen rebuilding falter elsewhere and put faith in this process — in part because this one has a budget. Waggoner, a New Orleans architect on a team called unAbridged whose leaders come from the Mississippi Delta, faced a question from Ovink about whether design came along too late after Hurricane Katrina. “Design is never too late, if you live,” Waggoner said. His distinction was that resources came too late for folks in New Orleans to coherently plan.

Still, his team’s area of focus, estuaries and water systems, deals with questions of regional power. The hardest redesign involves the political system and the mental shortcuts that map it.

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Tags: new york cityinfrastructureresilient citiesurban designarchitecturehurricane sandyhurricane katrinarebuild by design

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