Vulnerability In Resilient Urbanism

Has “resiliency” been hijacked to justify and promote development?

Development Editorial National Urbanism
Has
Has "resiliency" been hijacked to justify and promote development? AECOM, the creator of this scheme for Red Hook, has presented a vision (identified specifically as not a “plan”) that it claims was done in response to community demands for new investment and infrastructure. (Courtesy AECOM)

The recent visioning scheme for Red Hook, Brooklyn, is a case study in the conflicting interests that contribute to any proposed change in New York neighborhoods. We all know the story of poor, underserved areas like Red Hook that are ignored for generations, and then suddenly become intense hot spots for development. This scheme proposes not just subtle adjustments, but instead hyper-development, which brings out conflict.

The shorthand to describe this process of change is the overused word “gentrification.” But development in any New York neighborhood, let alone one like Red Hook, with spectacular views of the Verrazano Bay and Manhattan, is fraught with the prospect of winners and losers. All too often in New York City, the losers have been the poor and the winners the wealthy who want (and get) to live in these prime urban sites.

AECOM, the creator of this scheme, has presented a vision (identified specifically as not a “plan”) that it claims was done in response to community demands for new investment and infrastructure. This vision encourages the public to visit AECOM’s website and offer suggestions and critique. The project has the sense of being another top-down plan, where more valuable pieces of landscape are handed over to developers.

In fact, the vision seems to check off many of the much-needed development boxes for southwest Brooklyn: three new subway stations, a bulked up manufacturing-commercial zone, and 11,250 new units of affordable housing.

One important new piece of this “non-plan” is its use of a resiliency paradigm to justify and promote the change. Red Hook is perhaps the lowest lying waterfront area west of the Rockaways and needs new physical barriers to save it from the increasing occurrences of flooding.  In a recent study of the impacts of Superstorm Sandy, “resiliency” is defined by Leigh Graham, Wim Debucquoy, and Isabelle Anguelovski, as “the degree to which a complex adaptive system is capable of self-organization and can build capacity for learning and adaptation.” The concept is usually presented in technical, engineering, and competitive business terms where social, political, and cultural issues are never a part of the equation. The AECOM vision states, for example: “Strategies could include both green and gray infrastructures that provide coastal protection and flood management as well as development of smart grids and distributed clean power generation to provide energy security and buildings that can deal with longer, hotter summers without requiring more energy use.”


But the concept of resiliency is becoming a buzzword that animates otherwise pedestrian urban design schemes into relevant and apparently socially conscious initiatives for a more functional and healthy city. AECOM has proposed a creative resiliency plan here, but underserved communities are always wary of these code words because they often mean gentrification. Is resilience in this scheme potentially one of these words?

Many visions or plans for “resilient neighborhoods” consider only a limited number of factors in what they consider resiliency to mean for any particular neighborhood or stretch of coastline. Many advocacy groups are starting to question whether resilience in the scientific sense is enough and propose the use of the concept of “vulnerability” as a framework for understanding exactly what is at stake. 

One such plan is “Equity in Building Resilience in Adaptation Planning,” a guide produced by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), that aims to “provide a guide to localities to enable them to integrate an equity lens as they seek to build resilience in designing adaptation plans.”

The NAACP report calls into question the politics behind physical resilience. They point out a long list of factors that should be considered when planning for environmental stresses on an urban area, in addition to purely engineering factors such as income/wealth, employment, literacy, education, housing stock, insurance status, and access to fresh food.

For designers, this list offers an opportunity to think beyond traditional architecture and planning modes of resilient design, and further challenge what it means to create an equitable, 21st century city—a city that is not easily definable in the face of such large environmental issues. Problematizing “resiliency” with an advanced understanding of “vulnerability” can lead to a more progressive understanding of a rapidly changing world and urban habitat at all scales. This resiliency vision for southwest Brooklyn might yet be one of these new ways of designing cities, but it needs further refinement in how it considers and represents the public.

This article was part of our Oct. 12 issue which focused on how water is shaping today’s landscape architecture and urbanism. Communities face deluges and droughts—for some, the stakes can be survival itself, but others see opportunities for decadence. To explore these stories from around the U.S. and the world, click here.

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