Event: VisioNYC 2080: Towards a Risk-Resilient City
Location: Center for Architecture, 10.06.11
Speakers: Klaus Jacob — Geophysicist & Urban Environmental Disaster Expert, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, Earth Institute, and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Respondents: Adam Freed — Deputy Director, Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning; Deborah Gans, AIA — Principal, Gans Studio, & Professor of Architecture, Pratt Institute; Jill N. Lerner, FAIA — Principal, Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects, & President-elect, AIANY; Donald Watson, FAIA, CIP — Architect & Planner, Vita Nuova, Former Chair, Yale School of Architecture Environmental Design Program, Former Professor and Dean, School of Architecture, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, & Co-author, Design for Flooding
Moderator: Lance Jay Brown, FAIA — Principal, Studio Lance Jay Brown, Distinguished Professor, Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at The City College of New York, & Co-chair, AIANY DfRR Committee
Introduction: Illya Azaroff, AIA — Founding Principal, +LAB, & Co-chair, AIANY DfRR Committee
Organizers: AIANY Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee (DfRR)
Among prominent geophysicists, Klaus Jacob studies things he must tell the public about and delivers his warnings in terms as reasoned as they are bracing. His work during the 1980s led to the creation of the National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research, NYC’s first seismic building codes, and other purposeful responses that have drawn national attention. Turning his attention now to the ominous synergies between sea-level rise and storm surges, he briefed the new AIANY Design for Risk and Reconstruction (DfRR) Committee’s first public audience on the need to assess flooding risks, develop engineering plans, and allocate funds to maximize resilience on every scale from single buildings to regions. A stronger case for the value of this emerging specialty would be hard to imagine.
Continued climate change is as close to a certainty as science can provide. With the “warning shot” of Hurricane Irene fresh in memory, Jacob cautioned that “we really are in trouble already” and described the need for risk-aware design, guided by the best available scientific information, as a race against time. Not all of his message was alarming: the best estimates of the benefit/cost ratio for flood preparation are in the 4:1 range, so that each dollar spent on measures that protect lives, places, and property brings about $4 worth of value in the form of destruction deferred. He commended city officials’ awareness of environmental hazards, but he noted that risk perception is notoriously difficult.
Multiple documents have been emerging on the subject, most recently the NYC Panel on Climate Change’s Climate Change Adaptation in NYC and NYSERDA’s ClimAID Synthesis Report. Their scientific grounding is generally improving, but Jacob critiqued the former publication for relegating the scenario of large-scale ice melts in Greenland and western Antarctica to an easily overlooked footnote. Planning for 100-year storm surges under current conditions is hard enough; scenarios involving rising sea levels at two or four feet call for higher degrees of resilience. New York’s subways — our most economically essential infrastructural component, but also “the default sewer system” during combined overflows — might take 21 days or longer to recover from a 100-year storm, producing time-integrated economic loss estimates between $58 and 84 billion. Under current financial (let alone political) conditions, marshaling the resources for preparations measured in the tens of billions is, to put it mildly, a reach.
Jacob does not let political pessimism paralyze his sense of urgency. “I’m not an architect, so I don’t give you the solutions,” he noted, “I gave you the problems.” Some available answers are facile or worse: denialism, inaction, and unchecked greenhouse-gas emission simply maximize hazards, and relying on insurance is hardly better (insurance firms are aware of climate change, and wind or flood insurance is becoming unobtainable). As respondent Donald Watson, FAIA, reminded the audience, Buckminster Fuller looked to “comprehensive anticipatory design science” for solutions to problems; Jacob and the panel likewise called on architects to look several decades beyond PlaNYC’s timetable and foresee adaptations to more drastic scenarios.
Waterfront cities worldwide offer a broad range of responses, some positive, some otherwise. Measures such as NYC’s Million Trees initiative have useful effects on certain scales (though they carry their own costs, should even a small percentage of these trees buckle in a storm). Large engineering approaches like London’s flood barriers (already being retrofitted) leave Jacob skeptical, though he hailed residential-scale inventions like self-deploying passive floodgates. He finds Lagos nightmarish but oddly resilient, with its informal and thus flexible infrastructure, but called Dubai blatantly irrational — noting the irony in that city’s development depending on the same mineral resource that contributes so heavily to the sea level rise that puts it at risk. He cited Hamburg’s Hafen-City, with its adaptive reuse of docks and elevated new Philharmonie, as an emulable balance of planning and creativity. Cities and architects alike, all speakers suggested, would be wise to reinvent themselves for an era when the Earth increasingly insists that human civilization’s growth, should it keep growing, must become dramatically and steadily smarter.