by Jesse Dorris
“We are all here in pursuit of a viable future.”
This was the sobering introduction, offered by Spritzer School of Architecture Professor Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, to “Everything Water 4.0: The Role of Water in Shaping Our Future,” at the Center for Architecture. The day-long symposium was the AIANY Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee’s fourth and final event in its series devoted to exploring the connections between civilization and the liquid humans can’t live with too much of, yet can’t live without.
Held just weeks before the fifth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy flooding New York City, closing its subways and hospitals and killing more than 50 citizens—and in the midst of a particularly brutal hurricane season—“Everything Water” sought to provoke action. “We know [climate change] is happening,” Brown said. “But we’re not talking about it.”
The day’s panels of architects, nonprofit directors, lobbyists, and scientists did just that, arguing that while it may be too late to mitigate the worst of climate change’s many threats to the viability of our future, we can, and must, adapt to them.
Panelists noted small-scale, rapid responses available to communities faced with chronic storms, like a push to build concrete shelters in Bangladesh discussed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor Robert Olshanksy, FAICP, that, in the face of systemic infrastructure challenges, will at least reduce the death toll from cyclone storm surges. David Waggonner II, FAIA, of Waggonner & Ball and Concordia’s Steven Bingler detailed larger municipal efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans, including the Unified New Orleans Plan, which enshrines power sharing, constant prototyping, and heterogeneous knowledges into a city-wide strategy, and the construction of the floating New Harmony High school on a barge in Plaquemines Parish. When it comes to the existential threat of flooding and subsidence, Binger said, “We can’t levy our way out it.”
Carter Craft, Senior Economic Officer at the Consulate General of The Netherlands, offered a long list of what he called “worries,” including his belief that New York City is currently faced with “a cultural inability to look at infrastructure.” On a panel devoted to “Security and Risk,” Princeton’s Michael Oppenheimer noted that New York has designated much of the post-Sandy money for simple repairs, not long-term planning for what will happen when the rivers rise again. “The incentives in the system are perverse,” responded The New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman. Alan Rubin of Blank Rome Government Relations agreed, saying, “The science is there. Social injustices will be dealt with. The issue is political will.”
How to summon it? Margaret Klein Salamon’s Climate Mobilization project recommends examining how Americans rallied together during WWII for strategies. Dutch firm Dura Vermeer’s Hein Versteegen discussed the Room for the River program, in which the government bought flooded lands from farmers and “brought it back to nature,” creating recreational areas in river bypasses. “Our disasters became our trade,” he said. Closer to home, the American Littoral Society’s Pim Van Hemmen offered “nature-based solutions” to coastal erosion in New Jersey and Long Island, including whelk shell oyster reefs and helping local communities restore their own beach dune systems.
Two panelists discussed more ambitious ideas: Grimshaw’s Andrew Whalley, AIA, explored plans for an entirely self-sufficient pavilion in the Dubai Expo 2020 which harnesses reverse osmosis, robot cleaners, and “trees” that passively and actively generate water and electricity. Salamon talked about Los Angeles’s goal to become a zero-emission city, saying with approval that it “strains the power of the possible.”
Most agreed on a few elements to reduce that strain: existing residents in threatened areas must take part in defining the risks of both staying and leaving, and how and where they should live. Design solutions should integrate multiple community concerns, not just replace existing structures, and should be promoted in ways that overcome built-in distrust of government and emphasize amenities.
Each of these elements is key to the kinds of proposals put forth by the international design competition Rebuild by Design, praised by the event’s keynote speaker Henk Ovink, the Netherlands’ Special Envoy for International Water Affairs. Begun in Sandy’s wake, Rebuild by Design has expanded to 100 cities where Ovink hopes to replicate the collaborative spirit, he says, “without the disaster of Sandy.”
Avoiding disasters might be the best-case scenario, many panelists agreed. At the end of the day, Brown noted that at least the symposium “gave us, all the town criers, more to cry about.”