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In Sandy’s Wake, Experts Strategize Relief from the Superstorm

Michael Kimmelman led a lively, thought-provoking discussion. (l-r) Michael Kimmelman; Stephen Cassell, AIA, LEED AP; Howard Slatkin; Cynthia Barton; Dr. Klaus Jacob; Donna Walcavage, FASLA, LEED AP; and Rob Rogers, FAIA.

Daniel Fox

Event: Designing the City after Superstorm Sandy
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.15.12
Organizers: Center for Architecture Foundation; AIANY
Supporters: AIANY Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee (DfRR); AIANY Committee on the Environment (COTE)
Speakers: Cynthia Barton, Housing Recovery Plan Manager, NYC Office of Emergency Management (OEM); Howard Slatkin, Director of Sustainability & Deputy Director of Strategic Planning, NYC Department of City Planning; Dr. Klaus Jacob, Geophysicist, Professor of Disaster Risk Management, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, & Special Research Scientist, Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; Stephen Cassell, AIA, LEED AP, Principal, Architecture Research Office; Donna Walcavage, FASLA, LEED AP, Principal/Vice President, AECOM; Robert Rogers, FAIA, Founding Partner, Rogers Marvel Architects
Moderator: Michael Kimmelman, Architecture Critic, The New York Times

“We have been in denial about climate change up to this point,” said Donna Walcavage, FASLA, LEED AP, principal and vice president at AECOM. But now, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, we need to take advantage of this watershed moment and move toward productive solutions. Just a couple of weeks after the hurricane, AIANY and the Center for Architecture Foundation brought together experts in the field of risk analysis and reconstruction to discuss relief efforts and raise funds for the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City.

Panelists agreed that recovery efforts in the city will require a layering of solutions. Stephen Cassell, AIA, LEED AP, principal at Architecture Research Office (ARO) believes the edge of the city should be fungible and flexible. Referencing ARO and dlandstudio’s project for the “Rising Currents” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Cassell discussed porous streets, below-grade waterproof vaults, and introducing a graduated edge at Manhattan’s waterfront. Robert Rogers, FAIA, of Rogers Marvel Architects, presented subway grates designed in association with di Domenico & Partners to help prevent subway flooding, as well as his firm’s design with West 8 for Governors Island that incorporates measures to mitigate storm surges, including wetlands at the perimeter and the careful placement of new trees.

While some panelists envision the proposal to add a levee system around New York Harbor as one of the potential precautionary measures, geophysicist Dr. Klaus Jacob believes this strategy will be ineffective in the near future, pointing to the failure of New Orleans’s levees during Hurricane Katrina. Even worse, Walcavage is concerned that storm-surge barriers could harm the delicate ecosystem in the rivers surrounding Manhattan.

Beyond design-specific solutions, NYC Department of City Planning’s Howard Slatkin discussed the city’s efforts to look at flood resistance and infrastructure within and among the many communities affected by the storm. He emphasized the importance of dialogue between communities and agencies to develop recovery strategies, acknowledging that an effective solution for one area may not be successful in another. Cynthia Barton, Housing Recovery Plan Manager for the NYC Office of Emergency Management, expressed the need to engage all types of entities, pairing the public sector with non-profits and private businesses with local communities. Both Jacob and Walcavage called for regional collaboration that crosses state and international boundaries. “Nature does not respect political boundaries,” said Walcavage.

“We need to be smart and cheap in the interim, but durable in the long run,” said Jacob. Whether it is through implementing strategies incrementally, or reassessing and rewriting regulations to “build back smarter,” panelists agreed that the conversation must take place now to set the framework to moderate future catastrophes.

The most difficult assessment, however, centers on the decision whether or not to allow certain communities to rebuild in the same location in the same way – or even at all. Moderator Michael Kimmelman voiced concern that this decision could be left in the hands of elected officials only, and questioned who or what will be in charge of leading the efforts. “We have to face the fact that it is a challenge to our democracy to determine what parts of the city are or are not salvageable.” (See “Vetoing Business as Usual After the Storm,” The New York Times, 11.19.12).

To conclude, Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, co-chair of the AIANY Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee summed up the discussion: “[The recovery effort] is going to require an enormous act of national will to make changes, and they need to be done compassionately.” With almost $2,500 raised, hopefully the design community is helping the city establish these parameters.