Post-Hurricane Sandy: Designing a Sustainable Resilient New York

Marc didn’t need much more of a reality check than the rising water levels along the Upper West Side running path to realize New York City’s vulnerability. While we spend part of our time in the relatively unscathed half of Manhattan, we also spend much of our time in the Financial District, in an apartment that was power, water and heat-free for over a week. The contrast of business as usual uptown, and the unprecedented flooding and destruction in the ‘dead zone’ of Lower Manhattan was striking as well as thought provoking. It made us think about New York’s future and what would have to occur to ensure that there would be one.

Perhaps Montana would like an infusion of 20 million people, a billion commercial square feet, a million housing units, a healthy share of historic landmarks, and a global financial market and economy? Unless all of us decide to relocate, we must take radical steps towards becoming a sustainable city. In order to prepare us for the coming century, and to ensure economic, social, and environmental viability, we must overhaul our city’s coastal building stock, infrastructure and exposure. And as a world class city, these interventions must keep design in mind every step of the way.

 A row of stores in Rockaway destroyed by flooding and fire. (Photo by Marc) 

 The economic costs for the business sector, the toll on life in this region, the damage to infrastructure, and the hardship of thousands of residents who have lost their homes or remain without power, heat and water two weeks after Hurricane Sandy are undeniable. New York City was prepared to the extent possible for an unprecedented event but the loss has been tremendous.

 Navillus Contracting and Marc, from a flooded home in Belle Harbor. (Photo by Marc) 

The weekend after Sandy struck, Marc biked to Rockaway with a backpack full of winter clothes. He went, first, to an abandoned fire house that had been turned into an emergency supply distribution center and then joined a cleanup crew to empty out a flooded basement in nearby Belle Harbor.

Up until now, New York City has had what might be called, a distant relationship to the natural environment. In the new climate changed world, however, we are a very susceptible metropolitan area and must learn to forge a more pro-active intimacy.

 South Street Seaport’s Front Street: Restaurant owners empty their storefronts to begin the cleaning process.(Photo by Jill) 

One article in the NYT anticipated our profound vulnerability — more than a month before Sandy struck — questioning all of the new development built along the waterfront during the Bloomberg administration. Many agree that these new, primarily residential, large-scale buildings should have stricter building regulations. Citywide, however, the administration has taken steps to fight global warming — more bike lanes, the ban of certain heating oils, and emission reducing incentives.

A couple of years ago, we visited a visually striking architecture exhibit at the MoMa called “Rising Currents.” Five interdisciplinary design teams presented futuristic master plans for the 5 most flood-prone areas of Palisade Bay. At the time, it seemed very cool and purely theoretical. We never thought it would become so relevant, so soon. When Sandy struck, Marc remembered the exhibit. Suddenly, it seemed very realistic and worth considering for the near term! Blurring the lines between land and water, one team’s proposal created a new Lower Manhattan part “twenty-first-century business district,” and part “center of regional ecological renewal.” This proposal like many ideas that have come to light in the past few weeks integrates restored wetlands, oyster reefs, and porous streets and sidewalks as tools for reducing the impact of a storm surge. Design, here, is used as a means to create amenities — providing new parklands, walkways,educational viewing stations, etc — as well as a pragmatic tool to facilitate as much water overflow absorption as possible.

This is a soft edge vision for our water’s edge — a creative and environmentally sensitive response to the changing tides and sea levels. A more hard edge approach would be that of London’s Thames Barrier, built over a decade (1974-1984) for more than £600M. Operating like a locke, the barrier remains open for free water flow and closes only in the event of an anticipated storm surge. Since it’s completion, the barrier has been closed 119 times to successfully protect the city of London.

A few of the operation stations for the mile wide barrier across the Thames in London.
Good design can make our lives safer and more enjoyable, as well as help to redefine our city. These changes, whether they are regulatory, ecological, or infrastructure-based will impact us on as individuals and transform our city into a more resilient and sustainable urban mecca.


Additional Resources:

A New Manhattan Project Op-Ed by Bill Keller (NYT)

After Sandy, How Should We Decide What is Worth Rebuilding? (Atlantic Cities)

Build It Back Smarter (Urban Omnibus)

Deciding Where Future Disasters Will Strike (NYT)

Designing a Storm-Proof NYC (Brian Lehrer Show, NPR)

Hurricane Sandy Damage Amplified by Breakneck Development of Coast (Huffington Post)

Protecting the City Before Next Time (NYT)

Rethinking Waterfronts (WSJ)

The Stony Brook Storm Surge Research Group


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