New York’s lead role in solving for the future

A panel at Columbia looked at how New York is taking a leading role in how cities both cope with, and solve, the planetary challenge of climate change.

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Radley Horton is serious about climate change. As a NASA researcher, an author for the National Climate Assessment, and climate science lead for the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), he knows first hand the impending challenges of a warming planet. He rattles off measurements from the most recent NPCC report – including increases in average temperature and a greater frequency of extreme events such as coastal flooding and heat waves – with a calm that belies the urgency in the numbers.

Horton was one of five panelists at a Columbia University talk last month titled “Resilient New York: Architecture and Urban Planning in the Face of Climate Change.” The event, hosted by Sustainability Media Lab and open to the public, brought experts together to discuss New York City’s role in setting an example for other cities and regions by adapting its urban planning and infrastructure to the demands of climate change.

The speakers came with different specialties and skills; along with Dr. Horton, the climate scientist, were Brian Baer, an architect focusing on sustainable communities; Pippa Brashear, landscape architect and consultant to NYC on coastal protection; Tara Eisenberg, research coordinator for Rebuild by Design, the pioneering HUD program for new design solutions to protect the city’s coastline; and Jeffrey Raven, architect, planner, and author on the forthcoming Assessment Report on Climate Change and Cities (via the organization UCCRN, covered earlier in City Atlas).

Every speaker returned to the buzzword “resiliency.” The use of the word resiliency, both in the talk’s title and by its guests, recalls the City’s “A Stronger, More Resilient New York” plan released in 2013 after Hurricane Sandy. Resilience has a working policy definition, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and cited by New York’s panel, the NPCC:

“Resilience is the ability of a system and its component parts to anticipate, absorb, accommodate, or recover from the effects of a potentially hazardous event in a timely and efficient manner, including through ensuring the preservation, restoration, or improvement of its essential basic structures.”

Among the questions the Columbia panel faced were: what does ‘resilience’ mean to them? What is its relationship with sustainability; are they one and the same? Does the philosophy of ‘resilience’ call for adaptive solutions with steep emission cuts, or in place of emission cuts?

It should be noted that elsewhere, researchers are deeply engaging with the fundamental challenge of emission cuts, even in their own lifestyles. Nature cites a new paper that questions the norm of gathering for scientific conferences which could be replaced by online meetings. “If scientists want to bolster their credibility on the subject of global warming, the authors say, then they must harness the power of the Internet and reduce the time they spend in the air.”

At the Columbia talk, Brashear described her fascination with the concept of risk and its role in resilience. In her design solutions, she seeks to perceive risk and reduce fragility, emphasizing that “there are no generic solutions.” Her project at engineering giant Parsons Brinkerhoff, designed by SCAPE/Landscape Architecture and titled Living Breakwaters, is one of the winners of Rebuild by Design, the multi-regional design competition for resilient solutions. Living Breakwaters aims to reduce risk for the exposed southeast coastline of Staten Island, which was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, by creating a breakwater system to buffer against wave damage, flooding, and erosion. The redesign includes recreational and educational features for the community as part of the package.

For Brian Baer, director of The Elevated Studio, resilience and sustainability “are constantly being defined, redefined, put in a blender, hit pulse, and we try to figure out what those definitions are…they’re interwoven. A lot of times we try to separate what is resilience from sustainability, and at the end of the day, it’s about adapting the built environment to climate change.” Baer works with families affected by Sandy to cut through the complex and often ineffective government agencies and organizations created to help rebuild their homes.

Baer’s focus on the built environment is primarily centered around the mitigation of future damages the floods may cause. Similarly, Horton sees resiliency as designing with a flexible approach to adaptation, using integrated methods: engineering, ecosystems, and social strategies.

Tara Eisenberg, the research coordinator for Rebuild by Design, like Baer and Horton, highlighted the importance of speaking directly to the community. Part of what makes the Rebuild by Design program so unique is that it pushes its competitors, as Eisenberg notes, to “talk to everyone. Find out what happened and what the community needs.” Rather than starting with a definition of resiliency, participating designers and firms begin by finding what resiliency means to others–whether that constitutes more elevated land, an engaged community emergency center, or marshland protection.

While Eisenberg, Baer, and Horton focused closely and specifically on New York’s affected communities after Sandy, architect Jeffrey Raven spoke with a more global view of architecture’s expanding agency in protecting the climate. Raven works on resilient design solutions all over the world and is currently coordinating lead author of the planning section of the next Assessment Report for Climate Change in Cities; he stressed the importance of collaboration across jurisdictional boundaries. While collaboration and leading by example is key,  Raven also pointed out that adapting to climate change is different between sprawling cities like Phoenix and dense cities like Shanghai.

In the questions portion of the talk, one audience member challenged the panelists to look beyond the immediate needs of New York’s community to 100 or 200 years in the future. Another audience member asked the panelists to speak on South America’s rainforests; there is a link between here and there, because as the Amazon dries out in a hotter climate (or undergoes other changes), the forests may take up less CO2, which would increase the impacts felt in New York City.

Although the focus of the talk was on the immediate and geographically specific response to Hurricane Sandy, our response in New York, in adaptation and mitigation, has implications far beyond the metropolitan area. Leadership, locally, nationally, and globally, is where the solutions begin. As Radley Horton stated during his presentation, “New York City can really act as a multiplier. People look to New York as an example…New York City’s leadership really can be an inspiration.”

Reported by Rowan Wu and Madeleine Levin

Photographs courtesy of Sustainability Media Lab/Kaia Rose