ABOUT OUR TEAM
Our unique team combines the best of Dutch land-use planning, environmental and coastal engineering, and urban water management with the best of American urban design, participatory planning, community development, engineering, and economic analysis and financial engineering. The Dutch contingent, which consists of design professionals who have extensive experience working together to adaptively plan coastal regions around the world, have envisioned, designed, and implemented some of the most important flood mitigation and management strategies worldwide. The American contingent, which consists of professionals in the fields of architecture, urban design, urban planning, coastal engineering, community economic development, governance, education, graphic design, and financial-economic advising, are recognized leaders in their fields, and have an extensive track record working with communities to build resiliency.
Center for Urban Pedagogy
NJIT Infrastructure Planning Program
Palmbout Urban Landscapes
We are pleased to present four design opportunities–each based on a different coastal typology–that offer a menu of options for vulnerable, low- and medium-income, low- and medium-density communities. While each design opportunity presents solutions for a particular place, it is our hope that each one offers solutions that may be applicable elsewhere.
About Our Strategies
All of our design opportunities deploy the following strategies:
Towards a Grassroots Regionalism
Because planning and land use regulation in the United States is local, municipalities have the power to effectively chart their own course, often without having to consider the consequences their land use decisions have for neighboring municipalities. But of course municipalities are interdependent, and are connected in innumerable ways. As a simple illustration, imagine two municipalities located on the same creek: the upland community’s decision to zone for big box retail means more impermeable surfaces. This will generate more stormwater runoff in the creek, and this will result in an increased flood hazard the lowland community. Is this fair?
Unfortunately, our system of “home rule” creates a barrier to the kind of regional decision-making that is required to adequately address regional issues that don’t respect municipal lines. Among them are environmental issues like stormwater management, pollution, and habitat preservation, but also social issues like transportation and housing: when municipalities aren’t required to accept their fair share of a region’s affordable housing, for example, municipalities can become overburdened with them.
Regional decision-making is therefore required to create a built environment that is socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable and just. But how can regionalism be achieved when what’s rational, comprehensive, and in the region’s best interest and what’s implementable, fair, and in the interest of any given municipality are two different things? A Mayor who campaigns on ceding authority to a larger unit of government is unlikely to get elected.
What can we do to change this? How do we help shift public consciousness? Towards this, our team has used the unique opportunity of this competition to develop what we’re calling a “grassroots regionalism” that uses design to help grow a consciousness about municipal interdependencies.
As we approach the one year anniversary of the storm, most communities are still recovering, and struggling to determine where and how to find the resources to rebuild, adapt, or move on. Unfortunately, most communities are as vulnerable today as they were before Sandy hit. How do we as architects, planners, and policy makers insure that our projects help those who need help the most? How can we insure that our projects are maximally impactful?
Towards this, we have identified design opportunities that are prototypical and catalytic. They are prototypical in that they address common problems. While each design opportunity can be implemented in one place, each offers solutions that may be applicable elsewhere. The design opportunities are catalytic in that each one can be conceived of a concrete starting point capable of catalyzing other desired outcomes.
The Emergency and the Everyday
Architecture that protects us from the occasional disaster (for example, a terrorist attack or a flood) too often requires us to sacrifice things we enjoy about the more everyday, non-disaster moments. The bollards, barriers, guard booths, and other anti-terrorist ephemera that started popping up around lower Manhattan soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks might protect us somewhat from future attacks, but they can contribute to an environment that feels unpleasant, hostile, and militaristic.
In our design opportunities, each and every investment in flood protection in one way or another improves everyday life. If we’re going to build protective structures, there is simply no reason not to add value to them so that they do more than merely protect.
Low-Risk, “No Regrets” (for now)
Why did residents of Staten Island’s Oakwood Beach almost unanimously vote to retreat from their home so soon after Sandy? Prior to Hurricane Sandy, Oakwood Beach was severely impacted by a nor’easter in 1992, a marsh fire in 2008, and Hurricane Irene in 2011. As one resident of 40 years put it, “(Sandy) was just like the last straw that didn’t even allow you to fool yourself into thinking it was OK to stay.”
It’s easier to think that you’re “stronger than the storm” when your community hasn’t repeatedly experienced the brute force of nature. But in places that presently lack the resources or will to move, it’s not feasible to insist on it. But neither does it make much sense to sink billions into protecting land that people may eventually want to walk away from. Dealing with low- and medium-density communities therefore means hedging your bets somewhat. Our design opportunities are relatively low-risk, “no regret” propositions for the present that sow seeds and offer a mixture of strategies.
Design for a Dynamic Landscape
The landscape is continuously transforming. Knowledge of dynamic natural processes such as tidal movement, erosion, and sediment movements allows us to work with and anticipate on these transformations. If we take into account the various interconnections within the natural system, we can use these processes to our advantage, and can create a more safe, productive, accessible, and attractive landscape.
About Our Sites
We decided to look at vulnerable, low- and medium-income, low- and medium-density communities, representing a diversity of natural systems.
Communities that are Vulnerable to Flooding
Sea level rise (SLR) is the 800-lb. gorilla in the room. The federal Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force cautiously highlights sea level rise but does not propose significantly altering federal policies, de-emphasizing SLR projections by its own agencies. SLR is real. SLR is a Sandy-like storm surge in slow motion – an inexorable, month-by-month, year-by-year, decade-by- decade phenomenon that never creates a sense of immediate crisis. We have chosen a 6-foot SLR as our base standard.
Low- and Medium-Income Communities
Hurricane Sandy did in fact discriminate: low-income communities were hit harder, more severely disrupted, and less likely to get back on their feet. We want to use this competition as a means to address recognized emergencies–like floods–but also the everyday, invisible emergencies that are found in low-income communities like income inequality, segregation, and environmental racism.
Low- and Medium-Density Communities
We decided to work in low- and medium-density coastal communities because of the unique challenges they present. Very high-density places are more likely to be protected against floods and very low-density places are less-likely to be. But what about medium-density communities that don’t have the resources to effectively adapt to storm surges and sea level rise (or move somewhere else)? We want to use this competition as an opportunity to address questions like these.
Communities with Critical Infrastructure
Because they rely on the force of gravity to move sewage, sewage treatment plants are typically located in low-lying, coastal communities, and can’t therefore be moved. Sewage treatment plants are critical to the regions they serve, and therefore need to be protected. But as Climate Change Central concedes, “The vulnerability of wastewater treatment plants to rising sea levels and severe storms is not well-studied and the projected costs of protecting these facilities (or making them more resilient to storm surge events) is not well-understood.” In our projects, we wanted to explore solutions to this problem.
Communities that are Socially Vulnerable
The University of South Carolina’s Social Vulnerability Index measures the social vulnerability of U.S. counties to environmental hazards. The index, which synthesizes 30 socioeconomic variables that are thought to contribute to or reduce a community’s ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from hazards, is a standard metric that demonstrates where “there is uneven capacity for preparedness and response and where resources might be used most effectively to reduce the pre-existing vulnerability.” According to the Index, all of our sites have a high social vulnerability to hazards.
Diverse Natural Systems
The Sandy-damaged region contains a variety of coastal landscapes, from central New Jersey’s tidal bays, to the cliffs and bluffs of Staten Island’s south shore, to the urban waterfronts that flank Hoboken, New York, and other high-density communities in the region. For this competition, we want to insure that our sites represented a selection of commonly inhabited coastal landscapes that suffered at the hands of the storm. We decided to look at creeks, freshwater marshes, bays and oceanfronts. No two freshwater marshes are the same, of course, but our hope is that a proposed solution for one freshwater marsh might be applicable to another.
About Our Solutions
In our design opportunities, we deploy the following three solutions:
Give residents of low-lying, low-opportunity communities the opportunity to “move on up,” either by moving to high and dry, high-opportunity areas, or by elevating homes on-site.
One of the best things we can do to create more resiliency in the region is create more opportunities for people to live in high and dry, high-opportunity communities that are less prone to flooding. But there is a major obstacle to this seemingly simple solution: a lot of high and dry, high-opportunity land in the region is inaccessible to low-income and minority persons because of exclusionary zoning tactics. Thankfully, many states in the region have policies that require their municipalities to build their fair share of affordable housing (for example, New Jersey’s Mount Laurel Doctrine, Long Island’s Workforce Housing Act, and Connecticut’s Affordable Housing Law Use Appeals Process).
Despite these progressive measures, many of the area’s high and dry, high-opportunity municipalities have not complied with the mandate to build more affordable housing, and therefore have unfulfilled obligations. For example, within a short commute of New Jersey’s vulnerable Long Beach and Barnegat Bay Islands, there are 16 relatively high and dry, high- and maximum-opportunity towns with a projected constitutional obligation to build a total of 11,254 affordable housing units.
In our design opportunities, we look to offer individuals in low-lying, low-opportunity communities opportunities to move to high and dry, high-opportunity areas by identifying appropriate sites for the construction of mixed-income housing.
In our design opportunities, we also present a number of options to “move on up” by elevating homes on-site.
Restore the natural functions of coastal landscapes in a way that simultaneously strengthens them as attractive, accessible public spaces.
Unsustainable development practices have led to the erosion of the region’s marshes, bays, creeks, and beaches. Coastal habitats provide ecosystem services that are essential to people and the environment. Services provided by coastal wetlands include:
In our design opportunities, we combine restoring these natural functions of our coastal landscape in a way that also enhances recreational opportunities.
Protect regionally critical infrastructures (such as sewage treatment plants) in ways that would have a direct benefit to people living in the immediate vicinity of these critical infrastructures.
Low- and medium-income communities host a disproportionate number of the region’s treatment, storage, and disposal facilities, and therefore bear a disproportionate burden of the negative externalities that these facilities produce (for example, toxins in the air and drinking water).
People who live near sewage treatment plants have the added problem of having to cope with bypasses and overflows, a fact that was brought into sharp focus by Hurricane Sandy, which caused about 11 billion gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage to flow into the rivers, bays, canals, and streets of coastal communities in nine states (because they rely on the force of gravity to move sewage are typically located in low-lying, coastal communities).
Because of their regional importance, sewage protection plants need to be protected from flooding. Typical solutions include improving the capacity of the storm collection system, raising the elevation of key components above projected flood heights, constructing watertight doors and windows, installing submersible pumps, and building walls, earthen berms, and floodgates. But from an environmental justice perspective, shouldn’t people who have to bear a disproportionate brunt of the externalities of a region’s critical infrastructure be in some way rewarded? In all of our design opportunities, we propose to leverage investments in the protection of sewage treatment plants in ways that have direct, positive benefits to those who live near them.
View the team’s latest project updates on their finalist page.