Hurricane Sandy struck the shores of New York and New Jersey on October 29, 2012, wreaking $68 billion in property damages, taking the lives of 233 people, and upending the lives of millions of others in the most densely populated stretch of the United States. The storm also unleashed a flurry of creativity in the design community, as planners, engineers, architects, and others dug into the idea of resilient design with unprecedented intensity.
Rebuild by Design—an organization whose name has become synonymous with the effort to not only rebuild the devastated areas, but to reprogram them to survive and thrive in the face of future climate change related disruptions—facilitated a year-long design competition and community-building effort that generated an exhaustive menu of design interventions and a palpable buzz of opportunity in the regions most affected by the storm. In June of 2014, six proposals from the design competition were approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency charged with administering the design competition, and a total of $930 million was awarded to fully develop the designs and begin implementation. In the wake of excitement following what may have been the biggest, and arguably the most important, design competition in history, the serious work of moving from concept to reality has begun.
“Rebuild by Design is really more of a process, than a competition,” says Amy Chester, the organization’s managing director who coordinated the work of the 10 teams as they moved through the various stages of the design competition. This was not a case of a few ‘starchitects’ swooping in with lush renderings hoping to garner a prestigious award. Chester, a one-woman show at the time, says she led the teams through an exhaustive program “where they got to know the region by talking to the folks on the ground, whether a mayor of a small town, a public housing tenant leader, NGO groups, or Occupy Sandy.”
A BIG SOLUTION
“It was a design process of the people, by the people,” says Kai-Uwe Bergmann, a partner in the New York office of the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) of Copenhagen, one of the firms whose proposal was selected for implementation. BIG led the consortium that developed the idea of the Big U, a corridor of berms, walls and associated flood control structures interwoven with existing civic elements that would wrap around the lower tip of Manhattan and transform it from flood-prone to flood-proof. “We call it a bridging berm,” Bergmann says. “Each berm is like the hull of a ship that extends into and wraps around each neighborhood to protect it on three sides. We’re building bridges that connect the urban fabric to that berm… right now there aren’t that many bridges that connect from the city side to the water’s edge.”
As envisioned, the Big U would wrap around a 10-mile stretch of lower Manhattan, which has been broken up into six compartments that are each associated with different neighborhoods. Fleshed out designs have been completed for three of those compartments and $335 million has been allocated by HUD to implement the design for the first of those compartments—a two-mile stretch of coastline meandering along FDR Drive between East 23rd Street and Montgomery Street in the Lower East Side, an area that received the brunt of the storm surge in 2012. No longer known as the Big U, the project has been rebranded as the ‘Dry Line,’ in part because the entire ‘U’ could take decades to complete.
Since the funds were awarded in November, an intensive process of data collection, analysis, and environmental review has been underway. “We have divers going up and down the entire two mile length of the seaboard,” Bergmann says, illustrating the complexity of assessing the existing infrastructure and how to adapt it for the future. Construction is expected to begin in 2017 and should be completed by 2020.
STATE BY STATE
The other five projects are also moving forward to varying degrees, though the bureaucracy involved in allocating nearly a billion dollars of federal funds never allows things to move as quickly as anyone would like. The caveat of the HUD funding is that it cannot be disbursed directly to pay for design and construction. It must first be disbursed to the states, who can then funnel it to municipalities or other entities who will actually award contracts to get the projects moving. Because of the rules that govern the procurement process, there is no guarantee that the firms who composed the winning proposals will be retained to see their designs to fruition. “The projects were the winners, not the teams,” Chester says.
Hurricane Sandy caused this much in property damages as it also took the lives of 233 people.
The amount that the Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated to fully develop the projects for Rebuild by Design.
When completion of the ‘Dry Line’, designed by BIG, is set to happen.
Each state must create a detailed plan for how the funds are to be used before the money leaves the federal coffer, a process that is still underway in New Jersey. In the Meadowlands area of New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, $150 million has been awarded toward an initial pilot project to test the ideas of a larger $3.5 billion infrastructure improvement plan for almost 30,000 acres of low-lying land around the Hackensack River. Though the Meadowlands was historically an enormous intertidal marsh, it has long been an area of concentrated industrial development, which has resulted in severe water pollution—sending a surge of toxic soup into nearby residential areas during major storm events like Sandy. Much work has been done to clean up the Meadowlands in recent years, but the Rebuild by Design proposal will complete the restoration of the wetlands and build a berm system within them that “chambers the water into a series landscaped rooms,” says Alexander D’Hooghe, co-director of the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism and leader of the design consortium for the Meadowlands area. “This builds multiple layers of resiliency, so as one room floods, it spills over and fills up the next room.” Atop these berms will be a new roadway with bus rapid transit and bike and pedestrian pathways linking development nodes in the area. “This has been the garbage pit of Manhattan,” D’Hooghe says, “but [when it’s done] these areas will have an address on a park.”
The other New Jersey-based project selected for funding is also inching forward. $230 million was awarded for phase one of a plan to protect Hoboken and its smaller neighbor to the north, the city of Weehawken. This proposal was led by the international design firm OMA and involves a similar strategy of protective berms designed to pay for their construction over time through tax revenue leveraged by the increased value of the adjacent development. Daniel Pittman of OMA’s New York office says it’s unclear at this point exactly what involvement his firm will have in the project moving forward, but that the initial feasibility studies are slated to commence this spring and that they “expect to be part of the process” in some fashion.
Even though the HUD funding has taken its time to come through, the [proposal] has been taken to heart by the city leaders [of Hoboken] who have organized their efforts around the strategies proposed in the competition,” Pittman says. While the berms are the capital intensive portion of the proposal and are reliant on HUD funding, the OMA-led team provided a suite of other recommendations for knitting together resiliency from all angles, many of which will be funded by other means. Pittman cites a program to encourage the building of green roofs, for example: “not necessarily funding the construction of green roofs, but building the capacity, the know-how, the best practices and providing the tax incentives and zoning that will initiate the larger build out.”
A BIG SOLUTION
Leveraging multiple layers of resiliency by building partnerships among stakeholder groups has been at the core of the Rebuilding by Design process. Chester now has seven permanent employees on staff who continue to liaise with the scores of design firms, developers, public agencies, private foundations, non-profits, and other parties working toward the common vision. No one expects immediate results—the new infrastructure will likely be a generation in the making.
Two years post-Sandy, Rebuild by Design has taken its mission, and the expertise it has accrued, beyond the New York City region. The group travels regularly to cities around the world to share the results of their work and are carrying out a similar process of resiliency planning in Boston and San Francisco. “We’re adapting the idea to be about disaster preparedness, rather than disaster response,” says Chester. Preparedness, hopefully, is one lesson from Sandy the world will heed.