How a Design Competition Changed the US Approach to Disaster Response

January 18, 2017
the story of Rebuild By Design, a competition – and now its own organisation – based on taking a more proactive approach to disaster response in cities; but how far can you prepare for the effects of climate change?

Ten years ago, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg released a plan to create what he called “the first environmentally sustainable 21st-century city”. The blueprint, known as PlaNYC and released on Earth Day, outlined more than 100 projects and policies to create that sustainable city by 2030.

It set a precedent for local action on climate change; cities around the world began drafting their own sustainability plans. But then in October 2012, it got a harsh reality check.

“We would talk about sea-level rise and how it was this thing that would happen in the future,” says Amy Chester, part of the team that created PlaNYC. “Never once in that office did we imagine a storm like Hurricane Sandy could hit New York.”

Hurricane Sandy made landfall north of Atlantic City, New Jersey, on 29 October 2012. Within hours, it was inundating New York harbour with a storm surge of waves that reached a record height of nearly 14 feet. The storm ravaged coastal communities: an estimated 80% of the city of Hoboken was under water. The power went out in most of Lower Manhattan as its basements, tunnels and subways flooded, bringing the biggest city in the country to a near-standstill.

Across the region, Sandy caused an estimated $65bn in damages and economic loss, destroyed or damaged more than 650,000 homes, and killed more than 100 people. It was a visceral reminder that, despite the wealth and power of the world’s biggest cities, many are inadequately prepared for the effects of extreme weather.

As the disaster recovery funds began flowing, the US federal government realised that even the best sustainability plans, such as PlaNYC, weren’t thinking comprehensively enough about the vulnerabilities cities and regions face. They didn’t recognise the inherent uncertainty of changing climate, nor how to respond.

On a trip to Europe in the weeks after Hurricane Sandy, then-secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (Hud), Shaun Donovan, visited the Netherlands to learn how a country, around a third of which is below sea level, protects itself. His guide was Henk Ovink, the country’s acting director general of spatial planning and water affairs. The Dutchman promptly offered to help the US rethink its approach to water.

“Mankind lost track in the last century,” Ovink says, referring to his proposal that cities such as New York should be redesigned with a better understanding of the natural processes that have guarded settlements against flooding for generations.

“It’s not new to the United States, and it’s not new to a lot of places in the world. But we lost track of that knowledge. And now with challenges like climate change, we are forced to un-forget that; to remember better and to start building new approaches based on that memory. And of course we will do better than we did before.”