Rebuilding for resiliency, with an eye toward the next Hurricane Sandy

Andy Darrell

I stopped by earlier this week at the launch for Rebuild by Design, a competition run by the federal Hurricane Sandy Task Force “to promote resilience for the Sandy affected region.”  On this anniversary of Sandy, I wanted to share a few quick takeaways. 

First, resilience can be beautiful.  On the poster boards around the walls of the Kimmel Center at New York University, there was a virtual symphony of dunes, wetlands and berms – many shown   with people using them for recreation, transport, open space, parkland and wildlife observation.  A resilient coastline, these exhibits demonstrated, can be a   diverse, living ribbon of protection, with neighborhood-appropriate solutions linked together like green beads on a necklace.  This is not just about seawalls to keep nature at bay;  it’s about a partnership with the protective systems that nature already knows how to make.  And it’s about designing to deliver benefits in good times and bad. 

Second, resilience is about networks.  A dune in front of one house might help a bit, but a network of dunes and wetlands and parks linked together in front of a community would protect even more.  And imagine if the networks of new waterfronts were paired with networks of clean energy:  efficient buildings, solar, wind, geothermal and many diverse sources of power linked up to a dynamic, flexible grid that could keep the lights on in neighborhoods even when the main grid fails.  Bringing clean energy, efficient buildings, resilient landscapes and low-carbon transport together to deliver resilient neighborhoods and cities – that’s the ultimate network.  And the ultimate test of the power of great urban design.

Third, resilience happens at lots of different scales.  To make it happen, we need  networks of decisions at vastly different scales — from the hugely complex  energy, water and transport systems that feed our cities to the personal decisions that families and businesses must make about how, where or even whether to rebuild.  The choices made at every level matter.

 The designs on the wall at NYU showed promise for landscapes resilient to rising sea levels.  There are signs of progress in other parts of the puzzle too.  My colleagues at EDF recently published a blog post  that points the way forward for energy resilience, noting that there is progress underway on some of the big behind-the-scenes changes needed to enable microgrids, clean energy and the financing needed to put it all into place.. 

We’re far from a system of decision-making that gets the resiliency equation right every time and at every  scale – but today, for a moment, I feel like maybe we do have a shot at pointing ourselves in the right direction.  Now, if only we can keep the momentum going.

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