the big u proposal was designed to protect lower manhattan from the impacts of a changing climate

How a design competition changed the US approach to disaster response

the big u proposal was designed to protect lower manhattan from the impacts of a changing climate
The BIG U proposal was designed to protect Lower Manhattan from the impacts of a changing climate. Photograph: Rebuild by Design

Nate Berg tells the story of Rebuild By Design, a competition – and now its own organisation – based on taking a more proactive approach to disaster response in cities; but how far can you prepare for the effects of climate change?

January 18, 2017 — Ten years ago, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg released a plan to create what he called “the first environmentally sustainable 21st-century city”. The blueprint, known as PlaNYC and released on Earth Day, outlined more than 100 projects and policies to create that sustainable city by 2030.

It set a precedent for local action on climate change; cities around the world began drafting their own sustainability plans. But then in October 2012, it got a harsh reality check.

“We would talk about sea-level rise and how it was this thing that would happen in the future,” says Amy Chester, part of the team that created PlaNYC. “Never once in that office did we imagine a storm like Hurricane Sandy could hit New York.”

Hurricane Sandy made landfall north of Atlantic City, New Jersey, on 29 October 2012. Within hours, it was inundating New York harbour with a storm surge of waves that reached a record height of nearly 14 feet. The storm ravaged coastal communities: an estimated 80% of the city of Hoboken was under water. The power went out in most of Lower Manhattan as its basements, tunnels and subways flooded, bringing the biggest city in the country to a near-standstill.

Across the region, Sandy caused an estimated $65bn in damages and economic loss, destroyed or damaged more than 650,000 homes, and killed more than 100 people. It was a visceral reminder that, despite the wealth and power of the world’s biggest cities, many are inadequately prepared for the effects of extreme weather.

As the disaster recovery funds began flowing, the US federal government realised that even the best sustainability plans, such as PlaNYC, weren’t thinking comprehensively enough about the vulnerabilities cities and regions face. They didn’t recognise the inherent uncertainty of changing climate, nor how to respond.

hurricane sandy caused $65bn-worth of damage
Hurricane Sandy caused $65bn-worth of damage. Photograph: John Minchillo/AP

On a trip to Europe in the weeks after Hurricane Sandy, then-secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (Hud), Shaun Donovan, visited the Netherlands to learn how a country, around a third of which is below sea level, protects itself. His guide was Henk Ovink, the country’s acting director general of spatial planning and water affairs. The Dutchman promptly offered to help the US rethink its approach to water.

“Mankind lost track in the last century,” Ovink says, referring to his proposal that cities such as New York should be redesigned with a better understanding of the natural processes that have guarded settlements against flooding for generations.

“It’s not new to the United States, and it’s not new to a lot of places in the world. But we lost track of that knowledge. And now with challenges like climate change, we are forced to un-forget that; to remember better and to start building new approaches based on that memory. And of course we will do better than we did before.”

Based on hundreds of years of Dutch flood prevention experience, Ovink’s approach called for a systematic rethinking of American traditional disaster response: to simply rebuild whatever was destroyed.

“Instead we needed to ask not just how can we build back, how can we repair, but how can we look at the future?” Ovink explains. “This was not only about rethinking how our governments work, but how we think about future uncertainties like climate change.”

In June 2013, the US housing department launched a $1bn multidisciplinary design competition informed by this new approach. Dubbed Rebuild by Design and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation (which also supports Guardian Cities) and other organisations, nearly 150 interdisciplinary design teams applied to participate. Ten finalist teams were chosen in August 2013, after which Ovink led them through a year-long process of research and collaboration with community stakeholders to understand and design around local conditions and needs.

The design teams – world-class architects, landscape architects, engineers and urban planners – were forbidden from offering any design solutions at the start. Instead, they engaged in three months of research, travelling the region to meet stakeholders and learn about local concerns directly from the people affected by Sandy.

ground research in the region affected by hurricane sandy
Rebuild by Design teams spent three months doing on the ground research in the region affected by Hurricane Sandy. Here, finalists visit a site in Milford, Connecticut, where locals explained how the storm affected the area. Photograph: Cameron Blaylock

Only after that intensive research period could the designers actually begin designing. Even then, they had to submit not one solution but five – a requirement intended to encourage holistic thinking. It was a new approach to design for almost everyone involved.

“Everything was a challenge,” says Chester, who became the competition’s project manager. She was in charge of orchestrating the large number of design teams and even larger number of community groups and local participants to develop projects that could be built and replicated, all on a tight deadline to qualify for federal funding. “We were literally building the plane as we were flying it.”

The winning designs were announced in June 2014. Seven of the projects were eventually awarded a total of $930m in federal grants. They’re now being implemented – using ecological and landscape design techniques to address issues such as coastal storm surges and inland flooding of low-lying areas.

In the US, the Rebuild By Design competition represents a dramatic shift in disaster planning, adopting a more comprehensive and collaborative research and design approach to address complex problems and improve resiliency – in the New York region and beyond. “The whole idea was to start something that would have a larger impact,” says Ovink.

The competition was widely hailed as a success, but there was room for improvement before its approach could be replicated. A 2014 Urban Institute review praised its ambition but called its original vision “more aspirational than operational”. To have a larger impact beyond the New York region, the process would have to be systemised.

With that goal in mind, Rebuild By Design spun off to become its own organisation, focused on using its research and interdisciplinary design approach to help cities and regions prepare for climate-related disasters before they strike. It is currently working with five cities and regions in North America, helping them to understand and respond to existing and potential vulnerabilities – from water insecurity to sea-level rise, to ageing infrastructure. They use the same research and collaborative design approach from the competition, linking local stakeholders and public agencies with experts and international design talent.

a shoreline retrofit designed by a team led by the architecture firm oma for hoboken, new jersey
A shoreline retrofit designed by a team led by the architecture firm OMA for Hoboken, New Jersey, integrating barriers to protect against storm surges while providing new recreational opportunities. Illustration: Rebuild by Design

“What we try and do with cities is have them acknowledge that they may not know what the problem is. They may know what one aspect of the problem is, but not really the root cause,” says Chester. “Only after that’s understood can we start to think about what the solutions are. The challenge is, there are so many interdependencies in what cities face.”

That means bringing together multiple parties – local infrastructure agencies, elected officials, transit authorities, community members and others – to see how the vulnerability to a threat like sea-level rise is experienced across the spectrum.

“It’s about understanding the opportunity that you could do things differently,” says Ovink, who is now a special envoy for international water affairs for the Netherlands. “If you would take the responsibility to engage with others across government, across business, across communities, then we could invest and build better communities that are far better prepared for an uncertain future.”

Rebuild By Design’s first large-scale test of this approach will be Resilient By Design, a competition Rebuild is helping to organise in the San Francisco Bay Area to develop projects to address flooding.

This competition is different from the post-Hurricane Sandy effort in that the disaster hasn’t yet struck – but the Bay Area can literally see it coming. In mid-December, San Francisco experienced its annual “king tides” – the highest tides of the year, which have grown in recent years to overwhelm the concrete edge of some of the city’s piers. The result is little more than a shallow puddle, but it’s a preview of what will happen with greater intensity in the future.

after the destruction caused by hurricane sandy
After the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy, Rebuild By Design is offering a more proactive approach to disaster response. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

And that future may not be far off. A recent report from public policy advocacy organisation the Bay Area Council found that flooding from an overdue major storm could cause upwards of $10bn in damages to the region, about the same amount caused by the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. With nine counties and 41 cities touching the bayshore, flooding is a regional risk that will require widespread cooperation.

“Climate change writ large is very much a regional issue,” says Larry Goldzband, a member of the design competition’s executive board. He’s also executive director of San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a state planning agency, so he’s seen the region’s individual cities and counties begin to take action on rising tides. “They recognise that solutions have to be holistic, they have to be large scale, and they can’t simply deal with only one aspect of the rising sea level problem.”

The competition seeks to unite these efforts into a set of 10 implementable projects. Organisers are currently raising money from foundations and corporate sponsors to run the competition and award prize money to the winning design teams. The competition will launch later this year and is expected to cost about $5.8m – not including the cost of building the winning projects. But with commitments from counties, cities and various infrastructure and planning agencies, the organisers are confident the winning projects will get built.

“We don’t have the big sum of funds that Hud put up for the Sandy competition, so we really needed to structure the Bay Area competition differently and get all the infrastructure agencies on board,” says Chester. “Cities are going to spend millions and billions of dollars in the future shoring up for climate change.” There’s an incentive to commit funds to the competition’s winners, she says, because eventually “they’ll have to spend that money anyway”.

it is hoped the rebuild by design approach will help stop the contamination of the xochimilco lagoons in mexico city
It is hoped the Rebuild by Design approach will help stop the contamination of the Xochimilco lagoons in Mexico City. Photograph: Rebecca Blackwell/AP

None of the cities Rebuild By Design is now working with are in disaster recovery mode. Instead, they’re recognising vulnerabilities to future disasters and planning ahead for how they’ll respond. It’s a more proactive form of disaster planning, which is why Rebuild By Design joined forces with 100 Resilient Cities (also supported by the Rockefeller Foundation), a growing network of global cities that understand the importance of planning for future disasters and uncertainties before they happen.

Mexico City is one of the 100 resilient cities participants now using Rebuild By Design’s research and design approach to address one of its disasters-in-waiting, the environmentally sensitive UNESCO World Heritage Site, Xochimilco.

About 17 miles south of the city centre, it’s a pre-Hispanic settlement of canals and artificial islands that’s one of few remaining examples of traditional lagoon land use and development – and a popular tourist site. On weekends, garishly painted boats logjam through the canals in a slow caravan, carrying beer drinking revellers and floating mariachi bands.

But years of dropping water tables, contamination and encroaching urbanisation have put the area’s ecological stability at risk. The city hopes to use the Rebuild By Design process in conjunction with its resilience plan to counter the contamination, while still sustaining its local economies.

“This is a very traditional place where we have a lot of marginal communities, but still it’s a world heritage site and an area of one of the key elements of Mexican identity,” says Arnoldo Matus Kramer, Mexico City’s chief resilience officer. “So we don’t want to have just ideas from the outside; we want to also integrate ideas from the communities and to have this dialogue.”

He’s now convening local stakeholders and outside experts to begin the process of researching and understanding how these different systems interact. “It’s a very complex situation that will not be solved by just one solution. There should be multiple different solutions – some of which will succeed, and some will not. But we need to build a process and a system that can learn around that and provide a long-term vision.”

Ovink says the process that developed out of the original Rebuild By Design competition is an effective way to find those solutions – whether in Mexico City, San Francisco or New York. And he wants it to take off in other cities that are facing future uncertainties: “If I would lean back a little and dream, I would say it would explode into a movement around the world.”

But he also recognises that there’s a limit to the power of plans. “I really hope we can show in the New York region that those ambitions are for real, and that whatever administration is going to continue to build on that,” he says. “That’s a scary thing to say at this time. We better build these projects to showcase that this is the new reality, the new world.”


guardian_64  by Nate Berg | The Guardian