What a Hurricane Sandy recovery program can teach cities about resiliency

Curbed NY: In the seven years since Hurricane Sandy, the conversation about how cities must address climate change has changed. It’s no longer a question if the built environment will have to adapt, but how.

Last week, Shaun Donovan, HUD secretary in the Obama Administration, and landscape architect Kate Orff, spoke with journalist Nicholas Lehmann about their experience working on Rebuild by Design, the resiliency initiative that began as a design competition in response to Hurricane Sandy recovery, as part of Columbia’s yearlong investigation about water in social, political, economic, cultural, and environmental contexts.

The takeaway: The lessons learned from the experimental process have applications for future New York City infrastructure projects and for resiliency initiatives elsewhere.

Rebuild by Design led to the development of Living Breakwaters, a collaborative project between Orff’s firm, SCAPE, and the Billion Oyster Project, to construct a natural oyster reef along Staten Island’s southern shoreline. The reef will reduce the power of waves during extreme weather events, will restore marine habitats, and fosters community stewardship of the landscape.

The project—one of many resiliency efforts in the works around the city’s coastline—shows how rewriting the rules of infrastructure projects can lead to creative ideas that provide ecological, social, economic, and protective benefits. Here’s how.

Think outside of “problem-solution framing.”

Rebuild by Design began as an open-ended competition that invited designers to research and develop ideas for resiliency projects. There wasn’t a specific brief or request for proposals, like most public works projects. Approaching infrastructure projects with a singular mindset is part of the reason why the country is struggling with flooding.

“There was a research phase to this,” Orff said during the discussion. “The Living Breakwaters project emerged from a larger study on the harbor and models of its hydrology. Then we developed a pilot project. That was a key part of Rebuild by Design. There wasn’t a problem-solution framing. There was: ‘What is the problem and how do we approach this in a new way?’ To me, that’s the innovation.”

This open-ended approach is necessary due to the continual flux of our environment. Read more>>