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What a Hurricane Sandy recovery program can teach cities about resiliency

Rebuild by Design changed the way New York thinks about public works

Aerial photograph of the Verazzano Narrows Bridge Getty Images

In the seven years since Hurricane Sandy, the conversation about how cities must address climate change has changed. It’s no longer a question if the built environment will have to adapt, but how.

Last week, Shaun Donovan, HUD secretary in the Obama Administration, and landscape architect Kate Orff, spoke with journalist Nicholas Lehmann about their experience working on Rebuild by Design, the resiliency initiative that began as a design competition in response to Hurricane Sandy recovery, as part of Columbia’s yearlong investigation about water in social, political, economic, cultural, and environmental contexts.

The takeaway: The lessons learned from the experimental process have applications for future New York City infrastructure projects and for resiliency initiatives elsewhere.

A rendering of Staten Island’s coastline showing where oyster reefs could be constructed
For Rebuild by Design, SCAPE created the Living Breakwaters project, which includes a natural oyster reef that will lessen the strength of waves during extreme weather events, protecting the Staten Island shoreline.
Courtesy SCAPE / Governors Office of Storm Recovery

Rebuild by Design led to the development of Living Breakwaters, a collaborative project between Orff’s firm, SCAPE, and the Billion Oyster Project, to construct a natural oyster reef along Staten Island’s southern shoreline. The reef will reduce the power of waves during extreme weather events, will restore marine habitats, and fosters community stewardship of the landscape.

The project—one of many resiliency efforts in the works around the city’s coastline—shows how rewriting the rules of infrastructure projects can lead to creative ideas that provide ecological, social, economic, and protective benefits. Here’s how.

Think outside of “problem-solution framing.”

Rebuild by Design began as an open-ended competition that invited designers to research and develop ideas for resiliency projects. There wasn’t a specific brief or request for proposals, like most public works projects. Approaching infrastructure projects with a singular mindset is part of the reason why the country is struggling with flooding.

“There was a research phase to this,” Orff said during the discussion. “The Living Breakwaters project emerged from a larger study on the harbor and models of its hydrology. Then we developed a pilot project. That was a key part of Rebuild by Design. There wasn’t a problem-solution framing. There was: ‘What is the problem and how do we approach this in a new way?’ To me, that’s the innovation.”

This open-ended approach is necessary due to the continual flux of our environment.

“We are moving into this climate change era where there is change baked into the system,” Orff said. “There’s a clearer sense that there aren’t singular answers to these complex problems.”

Center designers.

Because of the open-ended nature of public works in the climate change era, Donavan, who was trained as an architect, believes it was important to center designers in recovery efforts.

“It was a slow process because we didn’t know what problem we needed to solve,” he said. “We also knew we would have to invent things that didn’t exist.… Design is imagining that which doesn’t exist. It was critical for designers to be in the center instead of off to the side.”

View designers as facilitators, not masterminds of a finished product.

Architects and designers are often perceived as form makers. But in the case of resiliency, their greatest work might actually be in developing a process.

“When Sandy hit, I was by no means an expert, but what I brought to the table was an ability and desire to be a visionary coordinator—to be a synthesizer of many people and many kinds of expertise,” Orff said, mentioning how developing Living Breakwaters involved working with everyone from community block association members to water engineers. “Through Rebuild by Design, designers saw an opportunity to be facilitators of larger civic problems that are spatial, that are social, that are applied. The power of design is that it can take multiple viewpoints.”

Build a culture of resilience.

The construction and maintenance of cities is the responsibility of many different departments in local government, and the Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts tapped into all of them. Thinking about all of their work under the umbrella of resiliency is essential, according to Donovan.

“If every government worker who works on any issue that has to do with the physical design of cities thought of themselves as in the resilience business, we could make an enormous difference,” he said. “Every time we plant a tree, every time we redo a sidewalk, every time we redo a roof—every one of those decisions has the potential to contribute to the resilience of our communities. And by the way, we spend trillions of dollars every year on those things. Part of Rebuild by Design was saying every department in your government is a resiliency department, whether it’s Sanitation or Parks. Every one of them has the power, through the accumulation of a million small decisions, to make the city more resilient.… We can create a culture of resilience.”

Build consensus between city, state, and federal government.

“After a storm hits, there is the political will to do things,” Donovan says. “We never would have been able to get Rebuild by Design done, and do things differently if it hadn’t been for the urgency that was created.”

With that urgency came a desire for results—and the opening of wallets. Rebuild by Design relied on unconventional funding to work. Because of the laws related to funding projects, HUD couldn’t dedicate its budget on the competition, but could guarantee funding for the winner through Community Development Block Grant Disaster money, which is provided by HUD but allocated by the state. The Rockefeller Foundation stepped in and funded the competition phase. Then, the state allocated its CDBG money to the project.

“Rebuild set up a forum where, very importantly, the federal, state, and city governments came into alignment,” Orff said. “One of the massively successful things was people agreed on it!”