Rebuilding, in Many Guises

The Rebuild by Design competition aims to protect against the next storm while improving New Yorker’s quality of life.

By Alex Ulam

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In a lecture hall at New York University packed with politicians, planners, and students, an army of designers gathered Monday morning to show the initial stages of their ideas in the Rebuild by Design competition. The competition, for which 10 interdisciplinary design teams were chosen as finalists in August, is a project of the president’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force to generate ideas for protecting coastal communities from big storms such as Sandy, which struck the New Jersey shore one year ago this week, pummeled the New York metropolitan region, and caused more than $60 billion in damage in the United States alone. The competition runs through March. Proposals by winning teams will be eligible for funding by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and private-sector groups.

The Monday morning presentations, which were reprised at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark in the evening, were a much-awaited midpoint review of the process. For all the deep and lingering distress that Hurricane Sandy created—about 50,000 people are still homeless as a result of the storm—it appears that it has presented one of the most pivotal public moments for landscape architecture in decades, even a century.

As yet, little progress has been made in upgrading important infrastructure in the region to protect against another major storm. “Immediately, what comes across is the system that failed—the policy system, rules and regulations, and governance,” Henk Ovink, a senior adviser to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and a cochair of the Rebuild by Design jury, told the audience, “but also the communication to get to the hearts and minds of people. You have to make sure people understand what is going on.” Ovink knows this readiness territory well from having served as the acting director general of spatial planning and water affairs in the Netherlands.

The scope of proposals ranged widely among the Rebuild by Design teams. The team led by WXY Architects and the landscape architects West 8 showed the widest focus, with regional plans to address flood insurance, ecological impacts, and the representation of low-income communities in high-flood-risk areas. Flood protections involved both hard and soft landscape strategies—levees smack in the middle of Manhattan’s Battery Park, highways and parks designed to submerge, and, in some communities, temporary flood walls. “For designers…there is no such thing as a small problem,” said Claire Weisz, a WXY founding principal.

A team headed by SCAPE/Landscape Architecture delved under the water to explore the creation of elevated underwater reefs that would lower storm surges, restore fish habitat, and promote marine biodiversity. The proposal focused on specific places such as Jamaica Bay and the Hackensack River and emphasized rebuilding waterscapes that have been degraded by human activities such as dredging. “[W]e know that we live in political systems and ecological systems that have no distinct borders,” Kate Orff, a SCAPE partner, said. “You can try to draw boundaries, but water will try to find its way around.”

Among the more dramatic-looking displays came from a team headed by the Bjarke Ingels Group. A series of massive flood barriers along the Lower Manhattan waterfront would double as colossal benches and public art. If the public is to invest billions on resilience plans, the investment should yield multiple benefits, Ingels said, “so that in the end, we haven’t just spent billions of dollars on levees but also created a more lively and successful region.”

In a proposal by Penn Design and OLIN, defensive elements could be chosen à la carte and plugged into communities as needed. Flood-prone communities would gain local storefront resilience centers, run by community partners, where people could find informed, strategic help when extreme weather events occur. Richard Roark, an OLIN partner, said his team favors community-level solutions because federal, state, and municipal initiatives are too constrained by competing priorities, regulations, and insufficient funding. “When a storm hits, people are incredibly isolated, and in our recovery people are incredibly isolated,” he said. “We need to get back to having discussions at the community level.”

New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge (IPK) has been running the three-month research program, organizing field trips for the design teams to flood-ravaged communities throughout the New York metro region. “We cannot just design climate security to protect the city and the region and our communities against storm surge,” said Eric Klinenberg, IPK’s director and a professor at NYU. He pointed to the example of a landscape that could provide both storm surge protection and also a place for people to recreate, and noted, “We have to take this moment to improve the quality of life.”

For more information on these and the other proposals, visit Rebuild by Design.

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