Building Resilience: Can design make a difference?

This year’s Lincoln/Loeb Fellow Helen Lochhead has been following the progress of the Rebuild by Design teams and finds much to inspire hope for a more climate-resilient urban landscape.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the unprecedented damage hammered home to all affected the real threat of more frequent extreme weather events on our coastal cities and towns. While rebuilding is a priority and well underway it was clear from the outset of the recovery that just rebuilding what existed before was not a viable option. To ensure the region is more resilient next time round we need to build differently.

The good news is that out of disasters can come opportunities and an imperative for innovation. Post-Sandy, a range of new initiatives is being tested, fueled by competitions like Rebuild by Design. Design is seen as a key tool for dealing with such complex problems by creating integrated strategies to build resilience, sustainability and livability. 

Rebuild by Design came out of the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and HUD. It aims to address structural and environmental vulnerabilities that Hurricane Sandy exposed across the region and develop solutions that give better protection from future climate events. Acknowledging the need to think creatively because of the scale and open-endedness of this challenge, Rebuild by Design is also a different kind of competition process.

This poses a number of questions. Will this design competition deliver innovations that better prepare and adapt the region to a changing climate? Can these be successfully implemented, leveraged or replicated to build resilience in other vulnerable communities?

I have been following the process to find out.

HUD in collaboration with NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge, the Municipal Art Society, Regional Plan Association and Van Alen Institute, with financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation and other major Foundations, developed a 3-stage competition underpinned by extensive research in Stage 2. This was led by the Institute for Public Knowledge and other outside experts to address a broad range of issues involving local community input and fieldwork. The multifaceted research phase differentiated this design competition process from the start.

Stage 1 began with a call to designers around the world to participate. From a huge field of submissions 10 multidisciplinary design teams were selected. The teams include a breadth of expertise but primarily planning, design, engineering, development and ecology.  The consortia from the United States and Europe are led by notables such as BIG; WXY/West8; OMA; HR&A with Cooper, Robertson & Partners; as well as less established firms such as Interboro, SCAPE/Landscape Architecture and Waggonner and Ball with unabridged Architecture. Significantly, a number of teams are bolstered by university affiliations such as the MIT CAU, ZUS and URBANISTEN team; PennDesign with OLIN and Sasaki with Rutgers University and ARUP.   

From the outset of Stage 2 in August 2013, the teams were immersed in design based research, targeted discussions and field trips to Sandy-affected areas to help to understand the enormity of the challenge. This enabled them not only to identify and respond to core problems but also to define opportunities and create scenarios using GIS mapping tools. They could thereby collate, synthesize and communicate complex data and 3D visualizations to convey various options that could readily engage stakeholders. The power of design-led propositions cannot be underestimated as a means to translate intangible problems into tangible solutions that stakeholders can relate to and discuss in meaningful ways. This enabled more than 40 design opportunities identified in Stage 2 to be interrogated and a shortlist of the 10 most compelling projects selected to be the focus of the next design phase.

In Stage 3, working closely with MAS, RPA and VAI, each team is focused on transforming their design opportunities into projects across the region that can be implemented and funded wtih political, community and agency buy-in. Because of the regional approach of these far-reaching projects, the role of the partner organizations has been pivotal in bringing local coalitions wtih often vastly different interests together. Developing coalitions of support will be essential to create the necessary traction to deliver projects in the short and longer term, as inevitably there will initiatives that will only be rolled out as funds become available over time.

At the midterm review in early February in New York the teams presented an extraordinary body of work supported by detailed research and consultation. What was impressive was the collegial approach to the process. Teams are openly sharing intelligence and resources in the spirit of getting the best outcomes. Layered approaches to building resilience which incorporate green, blue and gray infrastructure prevailed, along with new more regionally based governance models, online tools and educational initiatives to build capacity within communities. Many initiatives demonstrated place-based solutions that also had wider application and ability to scale up. So far, so good.

The projects are due for completion in April when they will be evaluated by an expert jury. The carrot for the competition winners is the possibility of building these projects with disaster recovery grants from HUD, as well as other sources of public and private sector funding.

There are still many challenges to work through, but if the work so far is anything to go by there should be numerous winning projects that demonstrate that a design-led approach can deliver multiple benefits as well as new paradigms for integration, resilience and livability.

Helen Lochhead will be giving the 2014 Lincoln Loeb lecture at the Lincoln Institute on March 25 at noon on “The Design Dividend: An Integrated Approach to Climate Resilience.”

Learn more about Rebuild by Design

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