Embracing Complexity

2. Living Breakwaters Beach perspective
Living Breakwaters: social, economic, and ecological resiliency through risk reduction / SCAPE Landscape Architecture PLLC

“It’s going to be unbearable outside in the southern half of the U.S. by the end of the century,” said Harriet Tregoning, director of the office of economic resilience, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), at a lecture on Rebuild by Design at the National Building Museum (NBM).

Explaining why we need new approaches to resilience, she said in just the first twelve years of this century, we’ve already seen the two costliest natural disasters in U.S. history (Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012), along with more frequent and extreme events, such as wildfires, droughts, and flooding — which scientists say all result from climate change. Consider also the trend towards urbanization, particularly in coastal areas, and you have a precarious mix of higher exposure to risk for ever-increasing populations in some of the most vulnerable areas of the country.

Post-disaster rebuilding in the U.S. has historically focused on rebuilding the same systems that failed in the first place, as quickly as possible. But “the challenges of our time are bigger and more complex than our conventional linear thinking is capable of tackling,” said Nancy Kete, managing director at the Rockefeller Foundation.

After Sandy, the foundation was able to gain more traction for their progressive recommendations, rather than the more conventional “rebuild as usual.” The high visibility of their 2010 Rising Currents exhibition, a collaboration with New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), also helped. Together with HUD, they now seek new solutions that embrace complexity.

The foundation and HUD came together to organize the Rebuild by Design competition, which has allocated nearly $1 billion to 10 Sandy-affected areas in New York and New Jersey. As James Russell describes in Al Jazeera America, the competition seeks to“engage communities to develop a more porous relationship between land and water that recognizes the dynamism of rising seas and more violent storms.”

At NBM, three Rebuild by Design winners presented their projects:

The SCAPE team’s pilot-scale “Living Breakwaters” project running along approximately one-mile of the Staten Island shoreline, will create an innovative “reef street,” which will provide habitat for a range of sea life. Gena Wirth, ASLA, associate at SCAPE, added that a “layered approach” of risk reduction, culture, and ecology will “create moments along the shoreline that allow access.” (see image above)

The MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU) + ZUS + Urbanisten team proposed MeadowPark, which will transform New Jersey’s Meadowlands, west of Manhattan, into an accessible nature preserve filled with a set of marshes and berms that can serve as a buffer against rising water levels. Alexander D’Hooghe, associate professor, MIT School of Architecture + Planning, said: “what Central Park is to Manhattan, the Meadowpark could and should be to the entire metro region – a floodable regional park attraction.”

1. Meadowlands Aerial
New Meadowlands / MIT + ZUS + Urbanisten

The OMA team‘s proposal offers a range of interventions woven into an integrated green infrastructure fabric for the city of Hoboken, New Jersey. “Resist, Delay, Store, Discharge” uses a combination of hard engineering and “soft” landscape infrastructure to mitigate the impacts of flooding and help the city manage water better from all directions – land and sea. Mark Thomann, former design director, Balmori Associates, said “we can’t just build a fortress around the city – it’s neither feasible nor desirable.”

OMA 4-leg strategy
Resist, Delay, Store, Discharge / OMA team

In a subsequent panel discussion with the design teams, HUD, and the Rockefeller Foundation, the discussion hinged on questions of how to implement these and other proposed designs, how to move progress forward with notoriously slow-moving government bureaucracies, and how to gain support from both the public and policy-makers. Part of the answer lies in the structure of the competition and its design and implementation process: public and private stakeholders were involved from the beginning.

If these projects are successful, they will then build support for being “scaled up,” said Kete. But we need to take the time to implement them at a small-scale first and then observe and analyze them to see what’s successful and how easily they can be replicated. Indeed, finding and then replicating what works will be crucial. To enable this process, the White House recently announced the National Disaster Resilience competition, which will provide winning communities with nearly $1 billion to rebuild with increased resiliency.

Still, there is no way to become fully resilient overnight. “We can’t be in a hurry,” said Rebuild by Design co-chairman Henk Ovink. We can start out by “embracing complexity, not knowing what the next thing is . . . it will take a generation. But it will also take bold decisions now.”

3. oyster school
Students at the Billion Oyster Project’s Harbor School on Staten Island / SCAPE

Yoshi Silverstein is the ASLA 2014 communications intern. He is a Masters in Landscape Architecture candidate at the University of Maryland. He focuses on landscape experience and outdoor learning environments.

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