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Weathering the Storm

Resilient design is key to protecting vulnerable coastal cities.


The research is conclusive: sea levels are rising faster than they have in 28 centuries. And, without drastic cuts in carbon emissions, they will keep rising.

Higher sea levels cause destruction in coastal cities around the globe. In the United States, places like Miami Beach, Florida; Charleston, South Carolina; and Norfolk, Virginia, already see routine tidal flooding—a foot or two of standing water—that lead to damage, pollution and roadblocks, according to The New York Times. In India, cities like Mumbai and Chennai are especially vulnerable to damage from rising waters.

The link between rising sea levels and stronger hurricanes, cyclones and other natural disasters is not fully understood yet, but one thing is for certain: the higher the seas get, the more water there is to strengthen storm surges and inflict severe damage. While reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the only way to slow down the oceans’ encroachment on the coasts, coastal cities  must design solutions to protect themselves.

To minimize destruction from storms and floods, U.S. coastal cities have implemented a variety of designs. For instance, sea walls in places like Galveston, Texas, and Providence, Rhode Island, have been protecting low-lying areas since the early 1900’s and 1960’s, respectively.

New Orleans, hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and New York City, where Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, have also developed comprehensive design plans to boost their resiliency while strengthening communities. New Orleans is designing its first Resilience District in Gentilly. Integrated initiatives on coastal restoration, workforce development and construction of parks and green streets are being implemented in an attempt to retrofit the area equitably and safely. In New York City, authorities are planning to enhance connections between neighborhoods, add green spaces and retail, and protect public housing projects. In 2011, the Department of City Planning of New York City released a 10-year vision plan for the city’s shoreline, “Vision 2020: New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan.”

These cities provide models for other cities to become stronger in the face of storms. But, there’s a catch.

“Solutions cannot just be copied from other parts of the world. They must be built with the uniqueness of the place in mind, incorporate the concerns of the inhabitants who must live with the results and have a sensitivity to culture and ecology, which can also add to economic value,” says William Kenworthey, partner at Cooper Robertson, an architecture and urban design firm in New York City. Cooper Robertson coordinated a 10-firm consulting team for New York’s resiliency and recovery project for the five communities most affected by Hurricane Sandy. The firm continues to work on this project.

The design challenges Kenworthey and his colleagues faced while formulating plans to fortify New York City against storm surges are complex. Kenworthey says resilient design needs to pay attention to “the significant capital required to build waterfront infrastructure; retrofitting the existing city fabric, which is usually at a much lower elevation than the necessary design flood elevations; the legal constraints of developing protections that are in water; and having clients that are aware and educated about resiliency issues.”

To navigate this potentially rocky path to create resilient design solutions, Kenworthey and his team follow a process they’ve developed based on the lessons learned from their past efforts. It begins by identifying vulnerable neighborhoods, populations and assets, and subsequently, engaging affected people and government agencies to inspire participation and leadership.

Then, Cooper Robertson identifies potential threats, assesses the buildings and infrastructure susceptible to these threats and evaluates the potential financial and physical impacts of damage. Based on this, the team “develops clear design principles to guide efforts to measure success in terms of outcomes and timeframe,” says Kenworthey.

With these principles in place, the design team can explore partnership and funding opportunities and attend to regulatory constraints. Next, they prepare a resiliency strategy that supports social, environmental and economic sustainability, while articulating “a unique and memorable vision that is the extension of a place,” says Kenworthey.

Finally, it’s time for implementation. This is done in defined phases based on funding capacity, while considering “the uncertainty of climate change outcomes for near-term protection and long-term flexibility for implementation should the worst case scenarios emerge,” he says.

The process outlined by Kenworthey needs intensive assessment and community involvement because awareness is the key to protecting the livability of coastal cities, including their surrounding environments.

“Education of the public and of design professionals on these matters,” says Kenworthey, “is paramount to building political momentum for the necessary investment, programs and projects to achieve genuinely sustainable cities.”

Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.