Cities around the world face new challenges every day, a reality being exacerbated by climate change: droughts last longer; storms are more severe; rising sea levels threaten to reclaim coastal land. Unprecedented extreme weather events are becoming more and more commonplace.
Yet, despite the urgency, we must not develop solutions that lack the necessary inputs.
Such was the case with Japan’s 250-mile sea wall, which, while protecting fishing communities from the threat of tsunamis, effectively cut them off from their biggest asset: the waterfront. Instead we must aim to enhance our communities, our networks and our governments, creating opportunities to address multiple vulnerabilities at once and ensuring we can thrive in the face of future and likely unknown climate risks.
As governments think about what cities need to do to prepare for the new normal, we must take a collective moment to think about the best way to approach these problems.
With a lead funder in The Rockefeller Foundation, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development spearheaded Rebuild by Design to take such a moment after Superstorm Sandy hit the Northeast United States in 2013. With support from the Municipal Art Society, Regional Plan Association, NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge, and the Van Alen Institute, Rebuild by Design, which began as a competition, ultimately turned into a model to help governments create research-based, collaborative processes that prepare cities and regions for the future.
Incorporating interdisciplinary talent from home and abroad to work with local talent, community leaders and stakeholders, and government agencies this award-winning process has been valuable in addressing the long-term climate related challenges our regions are facing on multiple scales, large and small, near and long term.
Why ‘By Design’?
“Design” is both a noun and a verb. It allows us to take the opportunity to think about innovation and leverage it to address multiple problems at once. By identifying what the problem is together and approaching it through a multitude of perspectives by architects, engineers, designers, academics, scientists, community experts, government officials and stakeholders, it surfaces creative solutions for projects that are not only beautiful but also have multiple benefits. And, it provides the context to create a space for a process that leads to the best ideas on every scale.
We need to ‘Design’ ourselves out of the constraints that have been designed for us.
Governments tend to operate in a siloed fashion—horizontally across geographic boundaries; vertically through City, State, and Federal divisions; politically by divisions of budget and resources (e.g., transportation funds cannot be used for parks), and election cycles making it difficult to innovate.
The effects of climate change do not discriminate against political boundaries. So we must devise systems to address these challenges without artificial constraints.
The Rebuild by Design Sandy competition has facilitated the development of projects that go beyond simply protecting communities from flooding. Enhancing social resilience is critical to ensuring that any solution will stick in a community and provide long-term benefits. Therefore, the resulting projects address ways to create social spaces that also provide protection—connecting communities to their shorelines through education, recreation, and economic opportunities. The results of this connection create new networks and address broader public health challenges, while establishing vital open spaces that absorb stormwater.
Our process ensures that projects address today’s needs, as well as the long-term needs of a community, building in incremental steps that are easier for government to support and implement. At the same time, this process builds lasting coalitions of stakeholder groups that continue to advocate for their projects through election cycles and budget cuts creating the close-knit relationships important for communities prevail in times of shocks and stresses.
There is a lot at stake for our future, but also an enormous opportunity to address these problems head-on, with a long-term comprehensive view, and create lasting solutions now that will benefit us generations into the future. But if we don’t take the opportunity to define the problems together and collaborate on the solutions, we could end up engineering our way out of one problem and into another.
Rebuild by Design’s award-winning process developed for the Superstorm Sandy region is being adapted for disaster prevention. Rebuild by Design is already working with regions across the US to help create processes to develop large-scale solutions to our pressing problems. With the recent announcement that Rebuild is joining 100 Resilient Cities, Rebuild by Design will bring that process to Cities all over the world.