Engagement by Design

Staten Island Living Breakwaters Community Meeting / Rebuild by Design

It’s been just over three years since the winners of the Rebuild by Design competition were announced. Since then, there have been almost 400 meetings with communities around each of the seven project sites in the New York metro region. The competition, launched by President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, called for large-scale, cross-sector, hybrid solutions to make communities more resilient to future storms.

Long before construction begins, teams in charge of design and implementation are helping community stakeholders visualize the project, the goal being to stimulate dialogue. At each step, community feedback is integrated into plans and designs.

Staff of Rebuild by Design — a research and design organization that was formed after the competition — attended public meetings held by every design team, where they have catalogued the most effective community engagement practices. Engagement by Design, an event put on by the organization at New York University, showcased them:

Living Breakwaters, which was presented by Nans Voron, SCAPE Landscape Architects, and Victoria Cerullo, Living Breakwaters Citizens Advisory Committee, is an innovative project off the coast of Staten Island that will use constructed offshore oyster reefs to attentuate waves in future storms and reduce shoreline erosion. In addition, the project will increase biodiversity and social resiliency by providing educational and stewardship opportunities and increased access to the shoreline.

Living Breakwaters is unusual for an urban landscape design, in that much of it is underwater and over 500 feet offshore. This proved to be a challenge when it came to communicating the project to the public. “Even though we were producing renderings to try to envision the future, at the end of the day it’s still very hard to communicate the experience a boater, a swimmer, or even an oyster will have next to one of the breakwaters,” said Voron.

The team began to use virtual reality (VR) goggles to help the public visualize the project. Voron believes VR offers the opportunity for a more visceral and immersive understanding of the effects of climate change. When classic flood maps fall short in their ability to communicate urgency, VR has the potential to create a deeper emotional impact.

Hoboken, a city hit especially hard by hurricane Sandy, recently released the draft Environmental Impact Statement for an urban water management strategy with four components: Resist, Delay, Retain and Discharge. Most of the Rebuild by Design competition funding is going to the “resist” features, which keep storm surges out of the city. The resist features morph into various forms depending on surroundings, so the team decided to make a flyover animation to give context and scale to this complex infrastructural intervention.

Alexis Taylor, outreach team leader for the New Jersey department of environmental Protection, narrated as a flyover animation of the current preferred design for the urban water management plan played. The animation followed the path of the resist feature through city, as it changed from a berm with a serpentine path and integrated recreational spaces to a floodgate closure and then a way-finding device.

At certain points, Taylor interjected to tell the audience that features had been added or amended based on community recommendations. The absence of a fixed audio narrative for the animation allows anyone presenting it to describe the project in their own voice — whether they are a city official or a Hoboken community member.

All teams admitted the engagement process is not without conflict. Angela Tovar, The Point Community Development Corporation (CDC) in the Bronx, urged project teams to be patient with the “planning fatigue” of community members reticent to participate, especially in under-served communities such as the Bronx. For decades, these communities have been subjected to broken promises by city officials, discriminatory housing policies, and environmental injustices, so promises of improved quality of life can be met with justified skepticism.

For David Kooris, director of Rebuild by Design & national disaster resilience for Connecticut, community engagement is not a necessary evil, but critical to evaluating the progress of the project: “I would be very nervous to follow just the bare minimum standards, and once every few months go to a public hearing not having any idea what people were going to show up and say.” By meeting with the stakeholders in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on a near-weekly basis, “I know what all the issues are. I know the ones we can address and the ones we can’t, and we can tweak the project in response to them.”

“I think the most important thing is to arm people with information,” explained Taylor. “Whether or not they are going to come out in support or opposition is fine, at least we are giving them the tools to communicate.”

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, landscape designer at SWA/Balsley in New York City.

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