October 29, 2012
The last time the mayor ordered an evacuation of my Brooklyn neighborhood I played the role of obedient citizen. Hurricane Irene sent me packing and moving to higher ground. Now Hurricane Sandy is approaching, and this time I am not leaving. You could call that irresponsible. I work for the mayor who ordered the mandatory evacuation, and I know enough about the dangers of a storm this size that I should be worried. But as the chief urban designer for New York City, I want to observe the dynamics of the storm surge and its effect on our streets and structures.
All the coastal neighborhoods in New York City are being evacuated, from Wall Street to the Far Rockaways. Everyone in Zone A — more than 350,000 people — has been ordered to leave. If the police knock, I plan to say I’m conducting official research.
I live in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where the East River meets upper New York Harbor. They used to make ships in Red Hook, and you could say the ships made Red Hook, too. Much of the neighborhood is built on cobblestone fill brought over as ballast in the 19th century. Today the original brick factories and warehouses are occupied by artisans and grocers. It’s a beautiful neighborhood (when it’s not underwater), with stunning views of the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.
The lights are flickering now, and the wind is picking up. I comfort myself with the thought that I’m on the second floor of my old row house. Even if the storm surge reaches 11 feet, I’m at 12. Right? It’s the cocktail hour, and I am having my customary martini. No sense in curtailing my routine.
The hurricane is projected to make landfall at 8 pm, at high tide, which unfortunately will be amplified by a full moon. The subway shut down last night, and soon we will lose power. For now I can check the internet. A crane is in danger of collapsing in Midtown, teetering one thousand feet above the street. The first fatality is reported in Queens. And there’s a blog post about Red Hook, about how the water is seeping up Van Brunt Street.
I look outside and see a trickle of water in the gutter. That’s nothing unusual, except the water is flowing out of the gutter, and now the trickle is turning rapidly into a stream. I put on my rubber boots and go downstairs. I open the door and water rushes in, dark, covered in the golden leaves of autumn. I step out into the street but realize that I’d better not — there’s a current — and as my hallway fills, I remember the electrical panel in the basement. It shorts out, and I hear the breakers fall. Then there is an explosion outside, and the neighborhood goes dark.
From an upstairs window, I see the street become a full-fledged river. I measure the storm surge by how much of my neighbor’s abandoned car I can see. The wheels go under, then the doors. Debris is rushing by. I am at the center of New York, surrounded by buildings that are separated by water. I try to imagine Venice, but this feels different. The buildings are more like boulders in a mountain river, navigable only by kayak.
I use what little battery power I have left to check the path of the storm and the timing of the tides. I think we’ve reached the peak. The storm surge will crest, and my house will stand.
I go to bed knowing only one thing — that tomorrow my neighbors will be out in the streets, helping each other. Each conversation will be a small stone resetting the foundation of our great community. We have so many families here, so many children, so many creative people who could not afford space in Manhattan. But will that be enough?
It’s true that New York inspires a strong sense of community, but the city itself is physically weak. This storm is almost a thousand miles across. Do we rely too much on the resilience of our citizens and not enough on the resilience of our city? We told ourselves that Irene was a once-in-a-century storm, and now we’ll say the same about Sandy. Maybe that was true last century. This century, I think such storms will be far more frequent. If we care about cities, and New York City in particular, we have to do something to change the status quo. I want my city to be safe.
My neighbor on Van Brunt Street stops me one morning in March, as I get on my bike to head to work. “What do I do?” he says. He is a carpenter, and his basement woodshop was under eight feet of water. Five months later, he has gotten some insurance money and replaced his machines. He thought his life was getting back to normal, but now he’s heard a rumor that the government has redrawn the flood maps and he’ll have to buy mandatory flood insurance. His cost will rise from $400 to $10,000 a year. “I can’t afford that. If the flood didn’t put me out of business, the insurance will.” Again he asks, “What do I do?”
I don’t know the answer. The threat of mandatory and ruinous flood insurance is a symptom, not a solution — a federal policy designed to keep people from building in dangerous places. Maybe it will dissuade developers from building mansions on barrier islands, but it has no place being retroactively applied to people who live in brick houses in communities over 200 years old.
For weeks I have been working on plans to rebuild the ground floor of my house. It’s frustrating; the rules keep changing. A couple of months ago, the mayor issued an executive order mandating higher levels for rebuilding. Then the federal government issued a new set of “advisory base flood elevations.” Now those are rumored to be changing, too. The new flood height is almost five feet above my ground floor. I’m as confounded as my neighbor: What do I do?
I just want to design my house in a way that’s resilient. When the next flood comes, I want to be able to evacuate safely, and, when I return, get things up and running quickly and on my own. So I have devised the idea of floor panels that I can attach with cables to new ceiling beams. When the evacuation order comes, I can crank the floor panels up out of the reach of floodwaters, with my computers and lamps still sitting on my desk, the whole thing lifted six feet in the air. When the waters recede, I can hose down my subfloor, dry the place out and crank the desk back down to its normal position. Should work, but there’s nothing in the building code to permit this.
I go around in circles trying to understand the regulations that should tell me how I can rebuild. City, state, federal: they all conflict. The insurance company is trying to get out of paying for my loss. I am in a perpetual state of haggling with government officials, banks, insurance companies, contractors, “rapid repair” crews. It’s not the people that are the problem; it’s the institutions and the rules that run them.
My neighbor’s livelihood depends on his carpentry shop, so he couldn’t wait, and he rebuilt his shop as it was before. The rules allow that, the politics encourage it, but of course it doesn’t solve the problem. As a consequence my neighbor is at the mercy of the insurance company. Shouldn’t we be thinking beyond the capabilities of individual building owners? My puny resources and those of my neighbors are nothing compared to the force of the next storm. Shouldn’t we discuss how together we can best meet the challenge of the new climate realities, pool our resources, leverage our opportunities, manage our risk, design our neighborhood to become resilient?
Much of the recovery effort since the flood has focused on getting back to where we were. And where we were was unprotected. If, in rebuilding our neighborhood, we have neither decreased the probability nor the consequences of disaster, then we’ve failed.
Two years ago, when the planning department was building computer models to simulate a hurricane, we wrote a playbook for the recovery of a realistic but fictitious neighborhood, Prospect Shore. We imagined recovery as a process of urban design and rapid transformation. The old brick buildings that survived the storm could be hardened with reinforcing steel and integrated into new hurricane-resistant structures. The new buildings would have ground floors reserved for retail and parking. The geometry of their envelopes would be optimized to withstand wind forces. The new streets and buildings would drain into a restored waterway where native plants would bioremediate any toxins before they reached the harbor. Industry would be rebuilt at the waterfront, integrated with a public esplanade and protected from storm surge by an earthen levee doubling as a park. Wetlands would be developed offshore and a barrier island in the harbor would become an oyster habitat. We imagined in our computer scenario that we succeeded. Residents returned to find Prospect Shore physically better prepared for storms, socially better integrated into the surrounding city, and therefore more sustainable and resilient.
The realities of transforming Red Hook are sobering in comparison. Everything having to do with recovery is at least three times more complicated. Instead of one level of government, there are competing plans from city, state and federal agencies. Instead of one time frame for redevelopment, there are three: the near term of emergency recovery, the medium term of retrofitting houses and protecting coastal areas, and the long-term effort to build defenses against climate change that will endure well into the century.
In the meantime, there is confusion. The federal government is rushing to put out new flood maps, and the city is processing building permits based on shifting data. Private insurance companies are redlining any neighborhood within 3,000 feet of water, so lenders won’t extend mortgages. The only option is federal insurance, but if a building doesn’t meet federal standards, the cost is astronomical. New regulations may outlaw residential income units on the ground floor. Property values might plummet. Everyone is nervous. We are approaching a crisis of confidence: we perceive the problem to be that we have no consensus to solve the problem.
But that is an illusion. We have the tools, the products and process to succeed. We have the resources: more than $54 billion is earmarked for projects in the New York region alone. If we design it right, we can link public projects through changes in zoning and transportation into private investment that will achieve our resilience goals and improve the quality of our public space. The High Line Project and the rezoning of the Special West Chelsea District are examples of neighborhood transformation achieved through urban design.
In Red Hook, we have to redefine the “client.” It’s not only the existing families in a sparsely populated neighborhood who will benefit from recovery. It’s the million people across the region who will view our future success as a model for their own communities’ rebirth. We will see how government agencies can enlarge the notion of “site” from flood-proofing individual row houses to designing neighborhood and regional systems of shared public space and resiliency projects that counter the specific threats of climate change. We will see how tools of zoning or finance (e.g., insurance, mortgage and taxation) can be used positively, not punitively, to support change so that the “program” escalates from millions in public improvements to billions in private investment. For Red Hook to become resilient before the next storm, each product of urban design will have to be a discreet, actionable instrument to shift the ground and change the rules of the game.
What Would Moses Do?
Whenever I am faced with a difficult project, I ask myself what the great urban designers of New York would think. Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs, Frederick Law Olmsted: I call them my three bosses. I haven’t succeeded unless they are satisfied. How would they transform Red Hook to be resilient?
First, I think Robert Moses would appreciate a financing mechanism that could pay for the massive costs of adaptation by tapping into the value created by lowering collective risk. He would be impressed that transformation could happen simultaneously at the scale of individual buildings, coastal parks and regional infrastructure. (He was a master builder of all three.)
Jane Jacobs would urge us to maintain the character of our streets while making ground floor uses resilient to flood. Perhaps the tall brick warehouses that have survived the last 150 years are a clue to resilient building form. If they had reinforced concrete frames behind their bricks, and if their rusty arched metal shutters could be replaced with stouter versions that flood-proof the ground floor when closed, then — with shutters open— we could maintain the street activity that makes the neighborhood a delight on a summer’s day, when strollers peer into artists’ workshops and storehouses on the quayside. Jacobs would judge us on how we amplify the density of our pedestrian experience, and yet maintain the diversity of smaller 19th-century buildings, like my own old row house. She would want me to persevere in designing a raised floor that makes the ground level both active and safe. She would not approve if I were to take the easy way out and convert my Victorian storefront into a parking garage.
Frederick Law Olmsted would want to see if we can harness natural systems for coastal protection while giving our city a new public park. Designers have proposed oyster beds and wetlands, Dutch-style polders offshore with gates to let in water and boats, seawalls with greenways built along their crests. All would have to be public, all would have to lower the risk to the buildings and families inland. I think Olmsted would be pleased if this natural infrastructure were a catalyst as well, an emerald necklace for the coastline of 21st-century New York.
At the moment, though, we have only questions, not accomplishments. The judges are my family and my neighbors. They ask me daily how our low-lying coastal neighborhood can become sustainable as a place to live, raise children, maintain a business. My neighbors make a great variety of products, from marine tools to art to ideas. One makes maps; he’s made the most accurate map yet of the flood damage, relying on neighbors’ accounts rather than satellite images.
We want to be free from the fear that every year may bring a storm that will destroy everything we have made, washing away a lifetime of investment like an afternoon’s sand castle. We see it as a local problem for Red Hook, but if we can come up with a solution that works here, it could go global. Much of the world’s population lives in low-lying coastal cities where neighborhoods like ours are less than a few meters above sea level.
My neighbors and I are only slowly becoming aware of the enormity of our challenge, the difficulty of aligning New York politics, finance and design long enough to change our neighborhood and make it resilient, while preserving the character of our community and the quality of our public space. In that realization, my neighbors are discovering something new: that they, too, are becoming urban designers.