August 24, 2022
by Kasey Motley, AIA, LEED AP BD+C and Ankita Nalavade, Assoc. AIA
Two women sit at a red table in front of a computer
Motley and Nalavade present key adaptation concepts to the 2022 CLP cohor. Photo: Christina X. Brown.

On Friday, August 5, the 2022 class of the AIANY Civic Leadership Program (CLP) hosted their second development session, organized by Kasey Motley, AIA, LEED AP BD+C and Ankita Nalavade, Assoc. AIA. In collaboration with industry professionals, session participants discussed various coastal climate adaptation pathways through political, financial, and social lenses. The session also explored the impact of climate threats on vulnerable communities and how designers can learn from current practices to prepare for, and effectively communicate, future threats.

Definitions, History, and Scope

The development session began with a discussion about climate risks and key definitions. Referencing a TED Talk by Renée Lertzman, attendees discussed how to address their  eco-anxiety and take productive action against climate change. Nalavade and Motley then discussed key climatic threats to New York City, including extreme heat, inland flooding, and coastal flooding. Superstorm Sandy in 2012, for example, prompted the funding and implementation of a range of climate adaptation projects. The session leaders identified three to these types of adaptation strategies and explored examples of each:

This portion of the session prepared attendees for a more detailed discussion of adaptation pathways and how they are implemented.

Exploring Our Options through Different Lenses 

Following the introduction by Motley and Nalavade, Kate Boicourt, Director of NY-NJ Coasts and Watersheds at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), discussed her career in coastal adaptation. At EDF, Boicourt works with communities to identify and address risks while prioritizing nature-based, equitable solutions. She focuses on applying scientific research to inform and advocate for evidence-based policy. Some areas of study that interest her are: 

  • Understanding opportunities to retrofit or retreat NYC’s housing stock by identifying current funding and policy gaps
  • Identifying the goals and pathways to get to measurable resilience targets
  • Building awareness of initiatives such as the Environmental Bond, which would invest $4.2 billion in climate resilience measures in the State of New York

Prior to working at the EDF, Boicourt was the Director of Resilience for the Waterfront Alliance, where she played a major role in developing and implementing the Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines (WEDG), a tool for designers to develop resilient waterfronts.

Boicourt also worked as a Restoration Program Manager for the Hudson River Foundation’s NY-NJ Harbor & Estuary Program. During the discussion, Boicourt reflected on how her background in ecology did not prepare her to envision possibilities in urban areas from a habitat and people perspective. She sees this changing with the growth of the environmental justice movement, as more leaders such as Timon McPhearson, Professor of Urban Ecology at the New School, advocate for urban resilience.  

Boicourt also provided technical insite by identifying federal, state, and local funding sources that support resilience, including FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC), the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Army Corps of Engineers, NYS Climate Smart Communities, and the NYC Department of Environmental Protection. Boicourt, however, noted that the prioritization and use of these funds can sometimes overlook equity concerns. For instance, federal cost-benefit analyses for green infrastructure assets in New York City indicate higher construction costs compared to assets in rural areas. This can disincentivize funding for projects in urban areas, despite the considerably greater population served by the asset. For privately funded projects, designers are often responsible for communicating the value of proactive climate adaptation. Boicourt suggested designers review the Urban Land Institute’s report The Business Case for Resilience in Southeast Florida to help with this challenge. 

Boicourt also discussed how vulnerable communities are often over-engaged and under-delivered on capital projects and academic projects due to discontinuous or limited funding. She highlighted projects where community members and local leaders had been engaged successfully and emphasized the importance of including the cost and time of engagement into schematic phases of design. She also suggested reviewing the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development as one of many resources available to understand how best to communicate with local stakeholders.

The 2022 CLP class also had the opportunity to discuss some of the challenges that they are currently facing in practice and receive feedback from Boicourt. She encouraged attendees to search for opportunities to embed environmental design into their projects. Examples include remediating historic toxins, integrating ecosystems and ecological function, maximizing land’s potential to reduce urban heat and flooding, and actively listening to the local community.

Planning + Design for Climate Adaptation

Following the conversation with Boicourt, the session continued with a panel that welcomed diverse perspectives to discuss climate adaptation challenges and opportunities:

Ginsberg began the discussion with a short presentation on his approach to climate adaptation. Emphasizing that “the next disaster won’t be like the last,” he spoke about his work on the Post-Sandy Housing Task Force, noting the lack of resiliency guidelines available for multi-family resilient housing. In collaboration with Enterprise Community Partners, Ginsberg developed Ready to Respond: Strategies for Multifamily Building Resilience in 2015, identifying specific building scale-adaptation measures. He later applied these strategies on NYCHA’s Recovery and Resiliency projects in Coney Island. 

As director of this program and a technical leader in the public sector, Suh provided her insights on these projects while reflecting on the challenges of being relied on by numerous diverse constituents. Suh emphasized that 40 percent of NYCHA housing is within the floodplain, leaving low-income communities specifically vulnerable to flooding.

With a background in academia, Shi had a unique perspective, allowing her to effectively observe and synthesize trends related to the vulnerability of low-income communities. Her 2016 research compared adaptation practices in eight cities around the world and how the efforts to change land use has affected equity on the ground. Shi highlighted that adaptation measures can often exacerbate the vulnerability of disadvantaged groups by either failing to take them into account or causing their displacement. Shi also provided background on the history of planning, politics, and terminology. She explained that the term “resilience” was popularized during President George W. Bush’s administration instead of the term “adaptation”. This led panelists to discuss whether resilient design is about bouncing back or if it is the designer’s job to proactively mitigate future threats. 

In thinking through proactive solutions, the panel discussed how zoning strategies can provide adaptation options for coastal communities. However, modifying zoning requirements is complex. Shi, for example, explained that local governments must balance budgets with revenue sources including property tax and fees and charges. This heavily incentivizes cities to modify zoning to increase population and development value.

Panelists were later asked to suggest policy proposals that would allow for the development of effective resiliency projects. Ginsberg expressed his concerns with dry-flood proofing, particularly with regards to testing and risk transparency. He also identified the need for mandated egress above the flood elevation for wet-floodproofing design. Suh suggested a more regional approach for adaptation planning. Shi provided opposing views, noting the importance of interstate policy while understanding that, on average, each United States metropolitan region has one hundred municipalities to coordinate. This led panelists to a discussion of regional taxation as a vehicle to finance coordinated adaptation measures, similar to the strategy used in the Bay Area for wetland restoration. 

A primary takeaway from the conversation was the importance of cross-disciplinary dialogue and the melding of ideas. With representatives from the public sector, private sector, and academia, this panel started to break down these silos, highlighting the value add of each sector to the broader discussion.

Communicating Vulnerability 

After the panel, attendees had the opportunity to explore their own climate vulnerability. Each participant was asked to locate their home on the NYC Community Risk Assessment Dashboard, the NYC Hurricane Evacuation Zone Finder, and the NYC Flood Hazard Mapper, leading to an open discussion of fears and concerns they had for their own community. 

The session concluded with a discussion of common climate-related terminology and the associations that people have with the word choice. Exploring the emotional responses to terms such as “managed retreat,” “climate migration,” “buyouts,” and “relocation,” attendees identified how language can determine whether people feel forced into options or feel empowered by choice. 

Core Takeaways

The development session focused on exploring key climate-related coastal risks and associated community vulnerability through localized case studies and mapped predictions. The discussions with industry professionals provided insight into how regulatory policies and funding impact the implementation of adaptive strategies and identified key concerns. As designers, it is essential to understand climate threats and opportunities for adaptation to appropriately respond to climate-related risks in design projects. As advocates, it is essential to understand how to communicate vulnerability with our local communities and client communities to provide them with the information and agency to protect themselves from climate-related risks.

Special thanks to:
Kate Boicourt, Environmental Defense Fund
Christina Brown, CLP Advisor
Kalina Browne, Anthropocene Alliance
Tallant Burley, NYC Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice
Harriet Festing, Anthropocene Alliance
Mark Ginsberg, Curtis + Ginsberg Architects
Kavitha Mathew, AIANY
Kristin Marcell, Climigration Network
Gita Nandan, RETI Center
Linda Shi, Cornell University
Philip Stevens, AIANY
Young Suh, NYCHA
Joe Tirone, Compass S.I.
Jean You, Urban Lab at UN-Habitat

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