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Five years later, AN considers Hurricane Sandy’s impact on New York’s built environment
. . .This is by no means a comprehensive look at the thousands of initiatives, local and national, that have shaped the city in the five years after Hurricane Sandy. Below, we scan some initiatives that are remaking the built environment. For housing, Build It Back is one of the city's key programs to quickly rebuild dwellings in waterside neighborhoods post-Sandy. So far, the city reports its Build It Back program has completed repairs on around 7,200 structures, or 87 percent of the housing in the program. Since its launch in 2013, the program has rebuilt almost 1,400 of the most severely damaged homes, raising them on stilts above the floodplain. Another 6,500 homeowners, many without flood insurance, received reimbursements for repairs and technical support. “As we near the end of the Build It Back program, we are continuing to make steady progress," Mayor Bill de Blasio said, in prepared remarks. "We have succeeded in getting more than 10,000 families back in safe and resilient homes and stronger communities. We have more work to do, and this program will not be done until every family is home.” Though the city is close to reaching its goals, last year the program's creator slammed Build It Back as a "categorical failure," largely because it didn't get residents back in their homes quick enough. "After the multi-billion dollar rebuilding process ends, neighborhoods will see a hodgepodge of housing types: elevations, demolitions, in-kind repairs—is that the best outcome?"asked Brad Gair, former head of the mayor's Housing Recovery Operations, at a July 2016 hearing. "Have the billions invested in infrastructure projects to reduce flood risk made our coastlines safer?" DNAinfo reported that Gair questioned the government's capacity to set up "what amounts to a multi-billion dollar corporation" in a few months to speedily re-home people. At that time, Mayor de Blasio stated that the program's work would be complete by the end of 2016. Today the Daily News reported that almost one-fifth of the 12,000-plus families in the program are still waiting for a buyout or work to wrap up on their properties.
. . .All along the city's 520 miles of coastline, new dunes, bulkheads, and sea walls are intended to prevent the catastrophic flooding that characterized Sandy. Even with the latest interventions, is New York City really prepared for another superstorm? While offering hope for a more resilient future, new climate projections sow doubt on the city's viability over the next century and beyond. A new study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that floods that with a high-water mark of 7.4 feet could hit the city once every 25 years, and the same level of floods could come as frequently as every five years between 2030 and 2045. Superstorms could be more intense, but modeling indicates that they would move further offshore. Tottenville Shoreline Protection Project and Living Breakwaters, two resiliency strategies at the southern tip of Staten Island. None of these massive projects have yet broken ground.
Five years after #SuperstormSandy was supposed to have taught the U.S. a lesson about the dangers of living on an undefended coast, there’s still no city that’s truly prepared for the challenges of #ClimateChange and the storms it will deliver. @AP https://t.co/HXJDIq8b7K pic.twitter.com/W5kFdu7zDI— Ed Joyce (@EdJoyce) October 27, 2017
Massive post-Sandy roof restoration begins at Red Hook Houses
New York–based firms Rice + Lipka Architects (R+L) and Liz Farrell Landscape Architecture have won a 2017 Award for Excellence in Design for their scheme for the NYPD Bomb Squad Headquarters Building in the Bronx's Pelham Bay Park. The New York City Department of Design & Construction (NYC DDC) commissioned the project after the existing facilities were damaged in Superstorm Sandy.
To make the new 10,700-square-foot building more resilient to storm surges, R+L elevated the main programs of training, office, and "robot shop" beyond the required Design Flood Elevation (DFE) floodplain. This new space underneath will become parking for a specialized truck fleet. The resulting apparatus floor is enclosed by cast concrete walls punctured by flood vents that allow for full inundation without damaging the building or its critical systems.
Resilient cast-in-place concrete walls have vents that allow flood waters to permeate the building without damaging it. Above, an upper massing is wrapped in a corrugated aluminum rain screen covered in a series of photovoltaic panels and mechanical units. Where the original structure once was, native plants will be reintroduced to restore the shoreline ecology. The project embraces NYC’s "80 x 50 roadmap" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with a photovoltaic farm and other energy efficient systems including triple-glazing and high R-value wall composition.
Vulnerability In Resilient Urbanism
Has “resiliency” been hijacked to justify and promote development?
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.
Come Hell or High Water
FEMA updates New York City flood maps for rising sea levels
Bjarke Ingels receives LafargeHolcim Global Bronze Prize for his work to make a more resilient Manhattan
New York City is getting serious about future superstorms with $100 million to fund floodwater mitigation
Before New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio delivered his second State of the City address, it was widely expected that he would focus the address almost entirely on housing policy. He did speak at length about his ambitious plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade. But it was a major transportation policy unveiled near the end of the address that surprised onlookers and made headlines.
“Transportation is central to the mission of providing affordable housing and services—connecting neighborhoods in the five boroughs to New York’s largest job centers,” said the mayor. Building these connections, he continued, could be achieved by taking advantage of the water with a five-borough ferry system.
This system would launch in 2017 with routes that connect Manhattan to Queens, South Brooklyn, and the Rockaways. The following year, ferries would run along Manhattan’s Lower East Side and between Manhattan and Soundview in the Bronx. Another route connecting Coney Island, Staten Island, and the Financial District is still in the planning stages. The administration has said that work is slated to begin this year on the $55 million process of designing and building the system’s docks; the city will also select private ferry operators to run the service. When completed, the ferries will accommodate 4.6 million trips a year, according to the mayor’s office.
Courtesy Office of the Mayor of New York City
Like many of de Blasio’s urbanism proposals, this one was born under his predecessor. In 2008, Michael Bloomberg worked with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the New York City Economic Development Corporation to create a framework for a citywide ferry network that includes many of the sites seen in de Blasio’s plan. The Bloomberg administration ultimately only moved forward with the East River Ferry. That service launched in 2011 as a pilot program and has been providing service between Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Long Island City for $4 a ride ever since. The ferry has been hugely popular, but still requires a significant subsidy—$2.22 per trip, according to a 2013 study commissioned by the EDC. (For comparison, there is a $0.62 subsidy for each subway ride.)
The de Blasio administration has said the new system would require between $10 million and $20 million in annual subsidies and that a ferry ride would cost as much as taking the subway or bus. Critics of the mayor’s plan say that the city’s money would be better spent on other transit programs like bus rapid transit that could reach lower-income New Yorkers who do not live near the water. (In his State of the City address, Mayor de Blasio also pledged to complete an additional 13 BRT lines.)
Creating and sustaining a viable city-wide ferry system—even with considerable subsidies baked in—will not be easy to pull off, said Jeff Zupan, a senior fellow at the Regional Planning Association who has been studying New York City ferries for decades. In that time, he has seen plenty of ferry attempts fail. Just last fall, the de Blasio administration discontinued ferry service to the Rockaways that was set up after Superstorm Sandy because it was costing the city about $30 a passenger.
Zupan is skeptical that the new Rockaway iteration—or any of de Blasio’s planned routes for that matter—will fare much better. To be successful, he explained, ferries must provide a quick and efficient ride between people’s home and office. This is most feasible when ferries run between densely populated areas (think Hoboken to Lower Manhattan) where it is easy to get to and from a dock and then onto a final destination. Short distances also make matters easier because riders are enticed with a faster trip and ferry operators can run fewer boats while still maintaining frequent and reliable service. Many of de Blasio’s proposed routes do not have this built-in advantage.
“They are not all going to be dogs,” said Zupan referring to de Blaiso’s planned routes, “but they do not have all the features you want to look for. If they had all the features, these would have been done long ago because these ideas have been around for a long time.”
But Zupan noted that the resurgent waterfront, with apartment towers sprouting up one after the other, has buoyed the mayor’s plan. The glossy buildings may offer great views, but are typically a hike from transit options. Citywide ferries could be a major boon to developers already eager to build near the water. The mayor’s office did not respond to AN’s question about whether it would ask developers to contribute funds for the ferry system.
Ultimately, the mayor’s five-borough plan is a kit of parts with only some routes seeming positioned to succeed. But what will happen to some, or all, of the ferries cannot be known until the boats hit the water. “You can never really know until you try it,” said Zupan.