At the Cities for Tomorrow conference hosted by the New York Times on April 22, I sat down with U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan to get his perspective on the Rebuild by Design competition. The competition launched by President Obama’s interagency Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, which Donovan chairs, could potentially transform vast stretches of metropolitan New York’s coastlines. The winners from the 10 finalist teams will receive funding from the approximately $3.6 billion in remaining Hurricane Sandy disaster money that HUD has slated for rebuilding and reinforcing flood-prone areas.
Donovan, who trained as an architect, describes the competition as part of a larger effort to change the ways government agencies and the design professions approach issues such as resilience and sustainability. “There are many competitions that have spurred innovation and excellence,” he told me. “What we were looking for here was to go beyond that in a couple of ways. One was to make an investment in some of the projects so at the end, they would get built. Second, to get innovation in community engagement, and third, to think about how this could actually bring about innovation in the way that government works.”
Donovan says outdated rules and regulations hampered the development of sustainable design solutions in the past. “There are many federal rules, fewer now than before, but there are still some which don’t encourage this type of thinking,” he said. “Even the cost-benefit analysis that is done by FEMA and other agencies often does not have a way of taking into account the benefits of green infrastructure.”
Beyond the competition, the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force is working to make coastal areas more resilient by gathering more information about climate change and making it publicly available to citizens, “but also to professionals like landscape architects,” Donovan said. “You are building on the waterfront—what are the risks of sea-level rise over the next 50 to 100 years, and how do you then think about building as a result of that?”
One of the more transformative aspects of Rebuild by Design is that instead of privileging hard engineering solutions, as has been the case with traditional approaches to building resiliency to storms, it is elevating softer strategies such as restoring wetlands and other ecosystems alongside them. Donovan says that one example of this multipronged approach is a system of oyster reef breakwaters designed by the landscape architecture firm SCAPE, which leads one of the finalist teams. “What they [breakwaters] do is significantly reduce wave power. And what that does is naturally start to build back the beach behind it, which itself creates dunes and protects homes—so it is a much more sophisticated approach that involves hard and soft [strategies].”
Donovan has a distinctive perspective on designing storm resilient infrastructure. In addition to his architecture degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he is married to a landscape architect, Liza Gilbert, who worked for Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates on Brooklyn Bridge Park, a waterfront park that, although hit hard by Sandy, emerged relatively unscathed.
Nearly all the projects by the 10 finalist teams have a strong landscape architecture component, and Donovan believes that the profession is especially well-positioned to drive design decisions in Sandy-ravaged areas, where much of the work involves rebuilding beaches, promenades, and boardwalks. “Landscape architects have a unique set of skills,” he said. “In some ways they most easily get beyond this opposition of hard versus soft—they understand that the natural world can be part of the man-made world.”
Alex Ulam is a frequent contributor to LAM.
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