New York Prepares for Post-Sandy Reality

Source: Rebuild by Design website By Marc Tuozzolo
The ramifications of climate change, both in the short and long term, were on display at the Sustainability Media Lab’s panel on the evening of February 25th at Columbia University’s Lerner Hall. The theme of the panel, “Resilient New York: Architecture and Urban Planning in the face of Climate Change”, brought together a number of leading scientists, architects, and urban planners, who had complementary narratives of a city that is quickly learning from the effects of Hurricane Sandy. The room was filled to capacity with an almost even distribution of students and professors. The discussion commenced on a grim note with Columbia’s climate research scientist Radley Horton highlighting the risk to humanity’s urban spaces. His arguments were based on the premise that small shifts in a probability distribution can lead to significant increases in extreme events. He warned that we either change how we live or adapt to a less hospitable world. “No one knows exactly how bad it will be.” Heavy rainfall, heatwaves, a rising sea level, and coastal flooding are challenges that New York City, and many cities like it, will confront in the near future. Elucidating the construction industry’s challenge in responding to these dire predictions, architects Brian Baer from the NGO Elevated Studios and Pippa Brashear from the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff detailed some of the projects they have recently worked on. Elevated Designs is an NGO that is trying to increase local knowledge on sustainable design. Mr. Baer said many homeowners are asking for resilient designs but the construction industry is ill suited to respond. Alarmingly, “Design professional aren’t helping or providing proper information for resilience” and “Contractors are even worse… banging out the work without thinking of it”. Because of this, Elevated Studios has found itself expanding its scope to not only educating local residents, but also local contractors. In contrast with the very micro-scale projects described by Mr. Baer, Ms. Brashear spoke about one of her firm’s large-scale infrastructure projects tailored to address the changing environment. She introduced the Staten Island Oyster Reef project as an example of mixed-use resiliency infrastructure. It was uplifting to hear Ms. Brashear’s outline of the benefits of the project – shoals and habitats for aquatic life, protection from heavy waves, and increased recreation space for local water sports. Ms. Brashear’s definition of resiliency was pragmatic. Even with enthusiasm for the project, she still emphasized that “Breakwaters are just a wall, they do not stop flood risk” so Staten Island may not be hit as hard by waves, but it still will be flooded. She emphasized that resiliency does not leave a city unscathed it only mitigates the damage. While Brashear and Baer focused on specifics, Tara Eisen, research coordinator at “Rebuild By Design” addressed the larger issues. Rebuild by Design is the competition organized the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) in an attempt to solicit ideas in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. This program gave a number of multidisciplinary teams a chance to propose solutions to toughen New York City against severe storms. From the 41 proposals received, 10 were approved and 7 are already receiving funding. The program was clearly a success, both in terms of the number of proposals, the size of the funds allocated and the innovativeness of the projects. Ms. Eisen mapped out all of the approved projects, one of which was the Oyster Shoal off Staten Island. Among the others were an extra flood protection and transportation infrastructure for Hunts Point, where New York City’s food is stored and the creation of greenspaces and floodgates south of 23rd Street. She also spoke of a microfinance program for critical businesses to raise their electrical equipment and reinforce storm doors and windows using the designs described by Mr. Baer. The most interesting idea was the conception of a new research institute called Blue Dunes. This new institution will be tasked with studying and revitalizing sand dunes along the coastlines, conceiving projects for building barrier islands and actively monitoring erosion. The panel concluded with a brief note from Jeffery Raven of the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), an architect and professor who spoke of urban heat islands, a phenomenon where man-made surfaces with higher absorption rates of radiation create artificially warmer climates. Raven lent an academic perspective to the discussion. Though the situation looked bleak, it was heartening to know there are competent professionals planning for the future. Thanks to the strong baseline set by the first speaker and the range of expertise on the panel, the subject was collaboratively examined in depth. Each speaker built on the ideas laid out by the previous one with a common emphasis: resiliency projects are not the solution to climate change; they would merely attenuate its most devastating effects. Only decreasing the amount of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere will save us from more dire catastrophes. There were barely any questions from the audience – The room seemed to be contemplatively silent, bordering on somber. One speaker made a point to say that Hurricane Sandy was not a hurricane when it hit New York. It was actually a tropical storm. What happens when New York faces a real hurricane? How will the cities of the world react? What if there was another degree or two of climate change? Will we be ready? Marc Tuozzolo is a 2nd year Energy and Environment student. This story first ran in the print edition of The Morningside Post on April 20, 2015.

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