HUD Now Using Design Competitions to Achieve Policy Goals

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Living Breakwaters / SCAPE Landscape Architecture with Parsons Brinckerhoff, Dr. Philip Orton / Stevens Institute of Technology, Ocean & Coastal Consultants, SeArc Ecological Consulting, LOT-EK, MTWTF, The Harbor School and Paul Greenberg

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, “HUD didn’t want to move at the speed of government” in its effort to create more resilient coastal designs in New York and New Jersey, said Marion McFadden, deputy assistant secretary at HUD, at an event at the American Institute of Architects (AIA). To avoid this, HUD decided to partner with non-profits and universities running the Rebuild by Design competition as well as the Rockefeller Foundation, which underwrote the competition. Using a little-known feature of the America Competes Act, HUD used the competition to spur government innovation. And it continues to do so, with its newest $1 billion competition for local resilience.

From the get-go, the intensely-collaborative Rebuild by Design competition was different from other design competitions. Usually, there is just one winner, but with Rebuild by Design, a total of six projects received $930 million in funds. According to Scott Davis, a senior adviser at HUD, “each team was competing against the standard. There were 10 places, 10 problems.”

The competition set-up was tough because of the “compressed time frame and raw emotions. It was a really difficult design environment.”

Each design team was either led by an architect or landscape architect and purposefully structured to be multi-disciplinary, with planners, engineers, ecologists, scientists, and communication specialists included. Davis said, “we brought tons of resources to these teams, including workshops at universities that covered all the latest research.”

Designers were immersed in the latest climate science and asked to create elaborate cost-benefit analyses as well as meet with community groups hundreds of times.  It was also important for the design teams to be able to “know how to conceive of their efforts in economic terms. It may be boring, but it’s vital for policymakers.” The solutions that ended up being financed made the best case for how to meet a range of social, ecological, and economic requirements.

McFadden said the teams worked with a high level of uncertainty, given HUD was never sure if the $930 million was even going to be allocated. “But we learned that people can live with uncertainty if they have their hearts in it.”

Now, projects are starting to be implemented in phases, over the next 5-8 years. HUD’s funds are really meant as a kick starter, as they won’t pay for the entire projects, which must now be carried forward by the local governments tasked with coming up with action plans to be sent to HUD.

Based on the success of Rebuild by Design, HUD has now launched a new $1 billion competition to finance resilience open to state and local governments declared disaster areas in the past few years. Davis said, “we are asking cities and states to rethink from scratch and emphasize planning.” HUD is once again partnering with the Rockefeller Foundation and its resilience academies as well as local non-profits.

Davis said with its latest competition, HUD will be again be promoting the innovative use of green infrastructure in its efforts to improve local resilience to disasters. Where relevant, “we will maximize the role of green infrastructure.”

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