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Mitch McEwen Headshot

Don't Rebuild: Redesign

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Perhaps the New York Times' Michael Kimmelman said it best, in the concise lexicon of 140 characters, when he tweeted on election day, "Hope post-election, we can finally take big steps as a city, region nation to deal w costs, plans re: climate change. Beyond giant levees." Now that we have gotten past the election, perhaps New Yorkers and the rest of the country are ready to talk honestly and admit that sandbags in urban flood-zones are just not good enough.

This is not about the disaster response to hurricane Sandy or FEMA or even emergency preparedness. This is about forward-looking infrastructure, urban design and land-use that takes the effects of climate change seriously.

It is encouraging that President Obama mentioned the need for a response to a warming planet in his election night victory speech. This is a welcome shift from presidential debates that avoided mention of climate change entirely. Since the beginning of the hurricane Sandy, New York Governor Cuomo has been emphatic about the need to go beyond acknowledging the threat of climate change toward taking action to cope with it. "I think we do have to anticipate these extreme types of weather patterns. And we have to start to think about how do we redesign the system so this doesn't happen again," he said.

Why are there so few voices demanding, like Cuomo, that this never happen again? I worry that it may be that the public remains unaware of the array of designs worked out over the past decade to potentially mitigate the damage of a storm like this. Perhaps there is no outrage, because people do not know that with planning and investment -- not in emergency preparation, but in the landscape and land-use of the city, itself -- this horrific damage could have been largely avoided.

Certainly, if you are only listening to Bloomberg you would not know that there were any possible alternative. "We cannot build a big barrier reef off the shore to stop the waves from coming in; we can't build big bulkheads that cut people off from the water," the mayor said during a press conference.

Why does Bloomberg talk about bulkheads, as if the design possibilities for the waterfront edge to mitigate storms have not advanced since the 1950s? Why does he say we can't build a "big barrier reef off the shore to stop the waves from coming in"? Indeed, we can. Not only can we, but there is an array of strategies to choose from. The most innovative proposal from MoMA's Rising Currents exhibit five years ago uses oysters to do exactly that. For years, architects and urban designers in New York have been carefully modelling options to "stop the waves from coming in" -- from landfills to ecologically sensitive reefs to engineered flood gates -- and the Mayor talks as if he has never heard of any of it.

The worst part may be that New York City under Bloomberg has been encouraging waterfront development without taking plans for flood infrastructure seriously. As someone who worked on the early stages of Queenswest as an urban designer for the Department of City Planning, I can affirm that the city's process in waterfront planning prioritized real estate value, public amenities and sheer housing unit numbers. We drew internal maps of projected flood levels creeping up on new parks and potential soccer fields, but that had little significance in the planning process.

A number of the city's most respected planners spoke to the Observer during the hurricane evacuation, and questioned whether waterfront development should be allowed to continue without serious investment first in infrastructure. Ron Shiffman, founder of the Pratt Center for Community Development, told the Observer, "There has been a disconnect for some time between the actions of the City Planning Department and PlaNYC 2030," referring to the sustainability plan that the mayor's office released in 2007 and continued to revise through 2011. PlaNYC 2030 contains a handful of research ideas about flooding, but the actual initiatives are pretty much limited to improving information in the market for flood insurance and requiring new buildings to incorporate flood-proofing measures. The existing city is left to fend for itself.

Urban designers, architects and planners have been working for years on more proactive alternatives to coping with effects of climate change for New York and other coastal cities. If we could generate only half the interest for flood-ready urban design that we can for a sports stadium, it would get done. The architecture and urban design disciplines excel at the sort of long-term forward thinking needed for the complex problems presented by global warming. But the field needs public urgency to push investment toward something bold and purposeful. The conversations cannot only take place in museums and universities. Let's hope that on this issue, we really do see the region and the country moving forward.