Upland and Going Forward

Reflections on resilience: readiness, response and rebuilding

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Disaster comes in many forms. For those of us in New York it came with the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the loss of over 3,000 lives. This loss set many New York professional communities, especially the architectural community, on a road to readiness they had not previously taken. In 2003 I established the Disaster Preparedness Task Force (DPTF), an American Institute of Architects New York Chapter initiative that brought together architects, planners, engineers, and civic societies to begin the processes of responding and rebuilding that would be necessary for responsible professional readiness.

In 2011, after numerous other events had occurred nationally and internationally, I cofounded the AIA New York Chapter standing committee, the Committee for Risk and Reconstruction (DfRR). This committee has held many programs and events in pursuit of its mission, pursued a state protocol, trained hundreds of volunteers as disaster respondents, published critical documents about water issues and extreme heat issues, and remains one of the most active, influential, and model AIA Chapter committees in the country.

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana causing catastrophic damage, particularly in the city of New Orleans, causing over 1,200 deaths, and opening a new chapter in natural disasters related to something called “climate change.” While no direct connection was ever made between Hurricane Katrina and global warming, the event certainly helped to accelerate interest in and research about global changes in the atmosphere and environment of the planet. Katrina was added to the list of contemporary natural disasters being circulated in the media, which also included the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Ike in 2008, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

An aerial view from a US Air Force helicopter in Galveston, Texas, after the disasters provoked by Hurricane ‘Ike’.
An aerial view from a US Air Force helicopter in Galveston, Texas, September 13th, 2008. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In 2012, New York City felt the full impact of Superstorm Sandy, an unexpected, unprepared for, dramatic, and deadly storm with ramifications that will be felt for the foreseeable future. Just as 9/11 changed the way we experience the world relative to personal and civic safety and security, so our planning, design, and construction of our larger, more extensive, man-made environment will be altered by the evidence of environmental change, especially the consequential global rise in sea levels.

While we still have climate change deniers in our world—the response to the recent hellish fires in Australia being proof of the same—most nations now see that the coasts of all continents are being impacted by the warming caused by atmospheric CO2 changes resulting in Arctic ice melt and the resulting rising sea levels.

Meeting the challenges of climate change

In some locations, like Indonesia’s capital city of Jakarta, rising seas are compounded with geographic subsidence, causing ever-greater threats to the cities’ longevity. So dramatic is this situation that plans are being made to move the entire city of Jakarta. On the coast of Louisiana the Isle de St. Charles is being currently being moved north and upland from its submerging homeland. In the Pacific Ocean, the Polynesian island of Tuvalu is being both eroded and inundated. For now, the Tuvalu government plans to survive in place. Tuvalu is just one canary in the coal mine.

From Tuvalu, one of the world’s smallest countries to New York City, in arguably the world’s most powerful, the challenges of climate change are upon us. For post-Sandy New York the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development undertook a multimillion-dollar competition titled Rebuild by Design (RBD) to elicit ways that the region could be secured against future super storms.

One of the RBD solutions—the BIG U—was proposed by BIG and its interdisciplinary team, which called for a barrier to be built around Lower Manhattan. The first phase, to be built to protect Manhattan’s Lower East Side community, has been under discussion for over three years. Community Planning Board feedback has been robust, city planners have suggested modifications, and budgeting issues are being debated.

Last year my vertical design studio at the Spitzer School of Architecture (CCNY) worked closely with the village of Piermont on the Hudson River to create alternative vision plans for its future including retreating upland, building barriers in place, or even moving aggressively onto the river itself.

In 2013 the Rockefeller Foundation initiated and funded a global program titled 100 Resilient Cities that entertained applications for future planning from cities around the world.

Galveston Bay Park will provide extensive public access to the bay after the disaster caused by Hurricane ‘Ike’.
Galveston Bay Park will provide extensive public access to the bay, by Rogers Partners. Image © Rogers Partners

And architect Rob Rogers and his team of collaborators have just had their plan for Houston’s Galveston Bay Park accepted. This project—catalyzed by Hurricane Ike— illustrates the team’s proactive approach to the sea level challenge and  “revolutionizes how the industry interacts with local public agencies and supports initiating viable solutions to critical needs.”

We are on the threshold of a new era. The last 30 years have accelerated the challenges produced by the past 200 years. The era catapulted by the Industrial Revolution, which fed upon coal and oil fossil fuels, polluted the atmosphere and strangled our cities with combustion engine vehicles, has revealed itself in these and in so many other ways detrimental. Storms, storm surges, inland weather events, earthquakes, tornadoes, and sea level rise are now challenges that we must rise to. And in the words of the sci-fi writer William Gibson: “The future’s already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

There are challenges that are yet unmet. The design communities and our allied professionals are in many ways at the forefront of these challenges. Let’s meet them head-on. Let’s meet them together. Let’s meet them now.

Main image: Galveston Bay Park will be a landmark of resilient design, by Rogers Partners. Image © Rogers Partners

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