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by Charlie Howe

There’s no catchall solution for sea-level rise retrofitting.

Last month the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Hurricane Sandy Rebuild Task Force unveiled 10 storm-protection proposals for the north Atlantic coastline. The proposals, which are the culmination of 10 months of research and conversation by some of the most accomplished thinkers in urban design, form the third phase of the HUD’s Rebuild by Design competition, a high-profile ideas contest aimed at developing “regionally-scalable but locally contextual” pilot projects to increase coastal resiliency.

The contest generated new conversations about what post-Sandy resiliency looks like and when the Rebuild by Design jury selects a winner (or winning projects) they will set a course for future storm-proofing efforts along the North Atlantic.

The Rebuild by Design jury is currently evaluating which proposed designs will be constructed using HUD disaster recovery grants. Considering the attention on the contest and the potential impacts of any of the proposed projects, selecting a final project is a difficult task. The jury must compare proposals that provide a suite of benefits beyond just flood protection.

Design teams are all multidisciplinary and draw on a wide range of skills and incorporate diverse values. Proposals that begin with flood prevention also layer in pedestrian circulation, waterfront access, educational opportunities within the natural environment, and nearshore habitat improvements. As former commander of the New York District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, John Boule describes Rebuild by Design ‘…is revolutionary in the sense that we’re looking at environmental benefits, we’re looking at ecosystem services, the social value of projects. We’re incorporating those metrics. Deciding how to bring those metrics into the cost benefit analysis is a huge challenge and has tremendous potential to change federal policy, national policy.’

One finalist, the SCAPE Living Breakwaters proposal creates shellfish habitat in a series of breakwaters that would reduce storm surge on the southern coast of Staten Island, an area with some of the highest surge during Hurricane Sandy. The proposal explains that increasing function of nearshore habitat would not only provide benefits to local fisheries, but could create a focus for secondary education in environmental science.

Beyond weighing the many secondary benefits of each proposal, the jury must also consider projects which address storm surge at drastically different scales. The smallest, neighborhood scale proposals provide a means of targeting investment in the most vulnerable or highest value areas of the city. Projects of this size may achieve the highest return on investment in terms of flood protection per dollar invested in infrastructure. This is the ‘bang for the buck’ approach most clearly adopted in OMA’s proposal for Hoboken. Of course, it’s important to remember the benefits of neighborhood scale projects are localized and these strategies cannot be implemented in every neighborhood. The most ambitious projects, would require substantially greater funds, perhaps even surpassing the total budget allocated for post-Sandy rebuilding, $50 billion. However, it would take an approach of this scale to extend flood protection across neighborhoods and boroughs, see WXY & West 8’s Blue Dunes.

It’s clear, when evaluating the Rebuild by Design’s final proposals, each with it’s own merit, that there’s no catchall solution for sea-level rise retrofitting. For this reason, the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance has formed a multidisciplinary group to collaborate and create design guidelines for waterfront development. When complete, the Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines (WEDG) will provide a framework for incorporating the multi-functionality and resilience evident in the ten Rebuild By Design proposals in all new waterfront construction. It has been an exciting opportunity for Great Ecology to collaborate with other architects, environmental consultants, and environmental regulators to help define and protect our coastlines.

Retrofitting the north Atlantic coast will require a variety of flood protection measures, at various scales. Evaluating the cost-benefit of these projects requires us to consider environmental and social benefits in tandem with flood protection performance and has the potential to greatly enrich coastal communities.