Creating resilience against natural disaster

A federal design competition could radically alter our relationship with the water's edge

June 23, 2014 2:45AM ET

Today’s beachgoers in the three coastal states hardest hit by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 — New Jersey, New York and Connecticut — encounter huge piles of sand on ocean beaches as well as intrusive rock walls and beefed-up bulkheads. They have been rebuilt this way even though Sandy scoured just such dunes and overtopped just such walls. Why? U.S. disaster rebuilding has traditionally focused on merely replacing what has been lost.

But a little-noticed federal design competition, Rebuild by Design, has done something different: engage communities to develop a more porous relationship between land and water that recognizes the dynamism of rising seas and more violent storms.

The winning teams, announced on June 2, will receive $920 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). While customized to fit each community’s unique needs, the tactics they will test are intended to have wide applicability. Certainly they will apply up and down the low-lying Atlantic coast. At best, they will transform America’s relationship to the water’s edge.

Constructed nature

As disasters expose vulnerabilities, communities clamor for protection, and it’s easy for officials to respond with default shoreline-armoring tactics.

In Sea Bright, New Jersey, for example, Sandy’s waves overtopped a 12-foot-high wall, crushing nearby structures and flooding blocks. Such bulkheads encourage beach erosion by cutting off the natural flow of sand. A single storm can sweep away millions of dollars of government-funded beach restoration projects (which seek to counteract the effects of coastal erosion).

Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Rebuild competition involved 200 engineers, scientists, architects, landscape architects, real estate experts and planners. Rebuild originally hired 10 teams and tasked them with building advisory coalitions in Sandy-affected communities. That means local citizens have in large part already bought into the winning projects, which is essential to moving innovative tactics forward.

One of the winners, a team led by the landscape architecture firm Scape, has designed a necklace of “living” breakwaters to protect Tottenville, a neighborhood on the south shore of Staten Island, New York. Built about a quarter-mile from the beach, the serrated ridges of rock will shatter the massive waves that rise during violent storms. Working in concert with strengthened beach dunes, the reefs should slow flooding rather than stop it. They could buy decades for communities to adapt themselves to flooding or choose to move elsewhere as rising seas claim more developed land.

Another team, led by the architecture firm Interboro Partners, will receive funding to redesign the Mill River on the south shore of Long Island, New York, with sluices and fish ladders — series of steps usually used to help fish migrate upstream. These can be shut when storm surges push inland. The team will also widen the riverbed so that new wetlands and bioswales — planted basins that can absorb water — can temporarily store runoff headed downriver toward the sea. These planted edges will slow flow while encouraging wildlife and hosting bike trails, picnicking and boating.

A group led by a team from MIT will reshape the New Jersey Meadowlands, long paved over by warehouses and filled with garbage dumps, by expanding what remains of its marsh, river and estuary waterscape of reeds and elegantly tiptoeing egrets. The plan boosts protection of surrounding urban areas such as Little Ferry and Moonachie with a multipurpose berm, an embankment that can be made of various materials to suit local conditions. A hard edge made of rock is necessary to stop erosion along some stretches, while a soft perimeter planted with water-loving marsh grasses or drier upland shrubs and trees will work in other locations (inspiring redevelopment along the way).

These projects’ reliance on constructed nature — such as manmade marshes that emulate natural processes to aid protection — represents a major change of philosophy in the creation of resilience against disaster. 

Embracing water

Take the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency tasked since 1802 with maintaining waterways and protecting shorelines. Whipsawed by competing interests and micromanaged by Congress, it has traditionally been slow to innovate.

Once Sandy hit, the large-scale engineering firms that after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina surrounded New Orleans with $14 billion of concrete levees, pumping complexes, storm-surge barrier walls and hydraulic floodgates began advocating for similarly massive armaments to be installed in New York Bay. Yet the idea quickly faded as the costs and years — if not decades — of construction were added up.

A wall can only be built higher and wider in the face of greater flooding, but you can adjust a marshland or a dune as conditions change.

Rebuild teams took a different tack. In some cases, they adapted innovative ideas generated — but not built — after Katrina. Some had already been incorporated into New York City’s growth and rebuilding plans but remained largely unfunded. A wall can only be built higher and wider in the face of greater flooding, but you can adjust a marshland or a dune as conditions change.

The plans recognize that not all communities can wall out water forever. On the western side of the Hudson River, in Hoboken, New Jersey, a team led by the Rotterdam-based architecture firm OMA (known for its co-founder Rem Koolhaas) will deploy multiple tactics, keeping water out in some areas and accommodating it temporarily in others through the creation of bioswales and an ecological park. (OMA’s mantra behind the idea: “Resist, delay, store and discharge.”)

These tactics tend to appeal to communities because they develop multiple benefits: beautifying spaces, emphasizing natural resilience and encouraging new flood-resistant development opportunities.

Rebuild projects are also intended to identify bureaucratic barriers and help break them down. For instance, the living breakwaters project doesn’t fit current regulatory or funding regimes. In an interview, Henk Ovink, senior adviser to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, said the new project “will move faster because so many stakeholders are already behind it” (including the Army Corps).

Or take the Meadowlands berm system. It may better protect communities and bring a rich mix of ecological restoration and parklike amenity, but it may also cost more than the high, sterile wall of rocks that would otherwise be used. Government cost-control rules tend to rule out rebuilding that goes beyond replacing exactly what was lost. Rebuild intends to quantify the benefits of its projects’ tactics as they are implemented to determine when such additional costs can be justified.

Ovink says some projects can begin construction next year. He’ll be pushed to demonstrate success quickly because memories fade — and because business-as-usual rebuilding tends to proceed in a vacuum, even if it produces results just as vulnerable as what it replaces.

Strangled by inertia and hidebound policies, the federal government underwrites most of the rebuilding that occurs again and again in places of known danger. The Rebuild effort, in seeking local and agile ways of dealing with coastlines, deserves a chance to show that it can save us from such top-down folly.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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