Walter Meyer

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After Hurricane Sandy, Walter Meyer and his co-founders won the White House ‘Champions of Change’ Presidential Award for creating ‘Power Rockaways Resilience,’ a non-profit dedicated to fundraising and delivery of free geothermal and solar generators to volunteer centers throughout the coastal Rockaway peninsula in Queens, NY. 

Meyer describes the origins of Power Rockaways Resilience on his White House blogpost about the award:

Two days after the storm, with the help of R. David Gibbs and Liam McGann, we delivered the first of several hand-built, shopping-cart-sized solar generators to the hardest-hit blocks of the Rockaways. Within minutes these generators were charging cell phones, laptops and small power tools to get Rockaway Beach residents connected and rebuilding while gas generators sat idle due to the region-wide fuel shortage.

The Power Rockaways Resilience team subsequently won a competitive grant from NYCEDC, for developing a broader program to increase the resiliency of small businesses during extreme weather events. 

Meyer and his partner and wife Jennifer Bolstad, through their firm Local Office Landscape Architecture, now consult for the National Parks Service, the City of New York, and the Army Corps of Engineers on coastal resiliency planning in the New York Bight.

They learned through their experience in the Rockaways that many elements come together to make a neighborhood return to normalcy during recovery from a storm – even a tangential factor, like restoring day care, can be crucial, so parents can get back to their jobs. Meyer generously gave a tour of the Rockaways to Francesca Luberti (writer) and Kuntian Yu (photographer), showing where the solar was put to use, and describing what is needed for a coastal city’s true resilience going forward.

Walter Meyer: So, here we are at the Rockaways Beach Surf Club, it’s a social center for the surf scene in NYC. Before the storm, it was a place where music was played, independent film was made…

It looked like a bar when we passed by.

WM: Yeah, sometimes it’s a bar, sometimes it’s a cultural event space, other times it’s just a place to hang out and store your surfboards, take a bath or a shower after cold surf in the winter. But right after the storm, they rearranged their function from a cultural facility to a humanitarian aid facility and all the surfers self-organized in the area and there were lots of volunteers coming, from the mainland, from Brooklyn, and from Williamsburg, and from Manhattan. And we had a lot of hands, about a thousand people, but they all had to leave at 4 p.m. because the sun would set and there was no security past that hour. But what we did was, we brought solar panels on the roof and we were able to provide lighting and keep the critical systems running, like communications, light and security. 

So, you started it here? Power Rockaways Resilience?

WM: Yeah, the first installation. And so we were able to keep them running, so that the volunteers that would normally leave at 4 p.m. stuck around through the night, so you could have triple shifts. So, we accelerated the recovery by three.

What’s going on here is a mash up of art and surf culture. So, you have art, and celebrities would show up, like MGMT’s lead singer, Andrew VanWyngarden, he is a surfer here, he always comes around, and there’s also an international artist, Olafur Eliasson, that’s his skateboard on the ceiling, it’s made of metal. And there’s also some local art, you know? There’s stuff by Brandon d’Leo, he’s the guy who made this place. At night, there’s a projector. There could be bands, or other things going on. So, it’s a kind of cool, multi-use space that has different functions over day and night.

After Sandy, who came up with the solar panel idea?

WM: Well, it was kind of organic. David Gibbs and I work professionally, so we have contacts, big companies or vendors for solar. We called them to ask for favors, we said ‘we worked with you on some big projects, here’s more of a social humanitarian aid function, can you send us solar at cost?’ Sometimes a cultural place like this can have more meaning and the intention is not to just be profitable, but to really be a home for the surf culture of NYC.

[Walter stopped to show us a solar array.]

The line comes down and there’s a box that converts 12 volts of solar to 110 that goes to the grid, so…

Does this place only work on solar?

WM: Well, we did the emergency installation to keep the volunteer operation going, and then we did a permanent install, and we took the smaller emergency unit to the community garden – we’ll pass by the community garden on the way out so you can see it – and then we upgraded [the surf club] and now it’s permanent.

That was one of the early installations for Power Rockaways Resilience. We ended up connecting about twenty different places. By us helping them at that point it increased their capacity to self-heal, right? Right after an event like that storm.

Where we just were was the first emergency installation of solar, which is a solar generator, which is small-scale, like 3 or 4 panels – less than 2,000 watts. It can drive basic things like laptops, lights, wi-fi, communications, but it cannot drive heavy load, like heating and cooling. That’s a different operation. When we scaled them up at the surf club to a permanent installation, something that will last 20-30 years, with that upgrade it can run everything now.

When they upgraded we took the old solar generator, the small one for emergency operations only, and we brought it to the 91st Street community garden. And that’s where I am taking you now; we’ll have a look there. A solar generator for a building is only enough to handle emergency communication, but for a garden it can handle anything. It charges the battery up, you only use it every once in a while. In the garden, if they want to have a concert, they can plug in, have amplifiers, and play music. 91st street, it’s kind of the core, the spine of the surf culture in NYC. There’s other surf neighborhoods but this was the original, and it has a lot of critical mass of surfers, every house that you see it’s just about owned by a surfer, or rented by surfers, because at the end of the street it’s the Jedi, the best surf.

Solar panels that provided power in the wake of Sandy stay connected in a Rockaway community garden.
Solar panels that provided emergency power in the wake of Sandy stay connected in a Rockaway community garden.

The difference between a solar generator [at the garden] and a normal roof system is that this is modular, meaning that it can be moved. This has moved around a few places, but now its permanent home is here in the 91st street community garden. What’s interesting about this place – this place has a cultural function, it builds community, and everyone gets a garden plot. There’s individual expression in the box, but collectively we are all here, working together. My plot is in the back.

Everyone has one?

WM: Yeah, or a family or whatever, they share. This used to be bungalows, like these, see the old bungalows here? So, this used to be bungalows that were knocked down, but now each row is set up for a bungalow. See this is the outline of the bungalow that used to be here? But now it has a different life [as an open garden]. The wood here came from the boardwalk. Before Sandy they renovated the boardwalk and this wood would have been thrown away, this beautiful teak from the 1920’s, from the South American rainforest.

Teak lasts 100 years or more and they were throwing it away at only half of its life, so we saved it from the dumpster and we made these beautiful, non-toxic boxes…there’s no poison in it, it’s just natural wood, perfect for growing food. But what was interesting is that this open space of the size of a lot became a place where other volunteers would come and help distribute food.

“It’s a very special place, because I surf, and when I am not surfing, I am gardening”

Every few blocks you need a space like this, whether it’s a surf club or community garden, where you can have room, where you can stack a pile of food or things to keep warm. This became another important center. And there is these types of centers all around the Rockaways Peninsula, which is 11 miles long. We are identifying locations where if we invest in one solar generator, it helps a lot of people. You get the most bang for the buck.

Right after the storm, they had a big fire, a campfire, in the middle here on the sidewalk in the street. Every night as the sun was setting, they would light the fire and grab vegetables from the community garden, because there were a few days when we didn’t have food, like three or four days here at the peninsula. Thankfully the storm hit during the peak harvest, in October. We were able to go and harvest all the vegetables, and put them in a big stew and cook them for the whole block. And some people, even if their house flooded, they had some dry goods, like ramen noodles. They added it in, everybody added what they had together.

And there was security, because [elsewhere] there were looters coming, to break in and steal stuff. By creating a big fire in the middle of the street, they made looters see light in a place that was all dark, and when they see light, they keep moving to the next block. So, it was both for food and for security, and just for building community. Everyone was here, everybody gathered around the fire, to talk about what they did that day to fix up their house.

Anyways, I wanted to show the space because it’s a very special place, because I surf, and when I am not surfing, I am gardening, building community, making friends. And if I am not gardening, then my sailboat is on the other side and we go sailing. So, it’s always staying with the ocean and with our friends.

It’s a special place in NYC, we are in NYC, but we feel like we are definitely out on the beach somewhere.

It looks more like Hawaii or something.

WM: Yeah, with the porches and surfboards. There’s many more places like this that look the same: a couple solar panels, and homes. And what’s cool about this is that in the future, if there is another disturbance, whether it’s blackout in the city, or a hurricane, or anything, this solar generator can be quickly set up to power all the homes. And we don’t have to deliver again. It’s here, ready to be switched, and there is no more vulnerability for a week or two weeks – it’s now immediate. This can’t run all four houses you see here, but it can keep the lights on. And when you have lights and communication, you can tell your parents ‘hey, I survived, I am okay’ so…

With your new project, Safe Space Solutions, you are trying to do the same thing?

WM: This time for businesses. Before was disaster response in the most critical places to help. Now it’s a permanent installation, it’s not about disaster response. So, what we are doing now is identifying 30 businesses in Rockaway within walking distance of each other, and within ten minutes walking distance from everyone in the peninsula, but they are important businesses, like nursery schools, restaurants, hardware shops. The reason that’s important is that right after the storm we noticed that the people wanted to get back to work, they wanted to have normal things, and there were many months when they could not get back to work and it started to affect them economically…

But if they had nursery schools, they could drop the kids off for daycare and they could go to work. The kids daycares were all affected, so they had to watch the kids and they could not go to work. Little things like that get you you back to normal situations really quickly. So now the grant focuses on businesses, and it’s different. Before was emergency response, and now this is anticipatory, it’s imagining a future where these are critical functions [built in].

Most of our work is just about urban resiliency, and resiliency as a topic sometimes manifests into solar panels, other times it’s a garden, right? But the difference between a system like a garden that’s designed for resiliency and one that’s designed just for sustainability is simply the ability to function in a disturbance in a way that protects.

For example, there were houses that had solar panels during Hurricane Sandy and the panels didn’t work after the power went out. That’s because they depend on the grid to function, for them to keep working and pushing through the grid. And they did not have a special device that allows them to power the house directly even though the grid goes down. So, that is an example – it is not resilience just to have solar panels. That alone is not the system, it’s the overall process and how it functions.

These gardens are the same way. We design them with native blueberries and things that feed you in the short-term, but if there’s ever a disturbance, they are designed to protect the building, and protect the economics of the family, because the insurance premium cost went down because we are offering more protection to the building. So, there’s less risk for flooding.

Were you interested in climate change resilience even before Hurricane Sandy?

WM: Yeah, it was a topic…Jennifer [Jennifer Bolstad is Walter’s wife and partner] and I own a firm together called Local Office Landscape Architecture, LOLA. We design for urban resiliency, and we have been doing this work professionally with our firm since 2006. But before that we worked at other firms, and what we researched at Harvard University was how capitalism can be more effective with more of a social impact, because by itself sustainability is very limited in its ability for society to flourish after a disturbance. An example is a LEED platinum building, which is a product of sustainability. [LEED] failed during Hurricane Sandy. For example, the Freedom Tower at the WTC… Jennifer you can tell them the story about the WTC.

Jennifer Bolstad: About the mechanicals getting flooded during Hurricane Sandy?

WM: Yeah.

JB: They put all the mechanicals on the ground floor, so they flooded during Sandy, and it was too expensive to take them out and replace them in place, so they just abandoned them in place. They just lost all that square footage, and they rebuilt on a different floor of the building.

WM: That is a product of sustainability, when you think ‘okay, we should be good with this’ and that’s the limitation of sustainability. With ‘sustainability,’ the philosophical underpinning is about balance, whereas ‘resiliency,’ the philosophical underpinning is about disturbance. So, one is less about change, and the other one is more about change. So, when you design for change, what you embed in that is adaptation, the ability to adapt.

JB: You don’t know what disturbance it is, and it’s short-sighted to think the next disturbance is going to be exactly the same as the last one.

WM: Sandy caused the topic of urban resiliency to go mainstream. But the concentration of resiliency in other professions, for example in psychology, in sociology, as well as in ecology. Ecology is one of the core areas where resiliency is talked about, it has been written about in ecology for a long time. There’s an author responsible for taking resiliency to the mainstream, Andrew Zolli, who wrote a book called “Resilience: How Things Bounce Back” and the introductory chapter for that is really easy to read, it’s not too complicated.

It’s good to know the theoretical framework of what is happening right now in this country.

Hurricane Sandy wasn’t introducing resiliency to us, it was already happening. But it introduced a great response to climate change to the mainstream. Mostly because of Sandy, you could no longer ignore climate change. Or at least, it became more difficult to ignore it, and it came to the front door of all politicians at once, and everyone focused on it.

What we have been trying to get folks to do is not forget what happened, and to permanently have systems in place that anticipate future change, because after disturbances, after six months people start to forget the details, right? And then after six years they totally forget what happened, ‘oh yeah, there was a hurricane back then, I remember that’ but like…


WM: So, you have all the resources now, federal resources that are hard to trickle down, they are now getting here, and what we found interesting about this program, the Home Free: Safe Space Solutions, is when we won the award at the White House, we were asked to come up and advise the cabinet members of the White House, the different departments at the federal level, like Health and Human Services, FEMA, and a couple of others, like Housing and Urban Development (HUD). But the most interesting part about getting that award was not the accolade, but it was advising these groups about this topic of community capacity-building. Delivering information to them from what we saw on the field.

“We are learning that we are a little piece of a larger system, so we can’t conquer ourselves.”

The typical response is a top-down response, where the government trickles down, but we were able to tell them about finding a mechanism for delivering a bottom-up distribution of resources.

Especially, ways to leverage the structural difference between government, which is vertical, and top-down, and the community, which is horizontal.

And the surf club is one of those places that is in the middle between vertical and horizontal, and it’s a great example. In The New Yorker there was an article about the surf club and a few other places and mostly about the social phenomenon that happened there. So, that’s Andrew Zolli in a nutshell about this big shift. Because what’s happening here is restructuring this country’s relationship with nature, right?

Nature used to be considered something you can conquer. The information we had at the time, during the Industrial Revolution, was that we can conquer nature, because in our view we could see just the region. We said we have dominated the region, we have harnessed nature with oil and coal.

But we did not understand the global consequences, because we were not able to read information at the global level. We could only read at a regional level. So, to us in the regional frame, as humans, we conquered nature, you know: end of story.

Then you fast-forward to the 21st century when you have real-time global monitoring, there are satellites, and we are starting to see we have some serious problems. We have not conquered nature and it’s actually not able to be conquered, because we are part of it.

We are learning that we are a little piece of a larger system, so we can’t conquer ourselves, right? It doesn’t make sense. So, societies all around the world are realizing this and this is a tribal way of seeing nature. So, it was for a long time seen as something that is not so sophisticated, right? But we’re also going back to that now, learning that maybe they had it right, these tribes. But what I am saying is not to go back to tribal living, but to go back to the tribal relationship with nature, which happens to be about oneness with nature.

Do you know Klaus Jacob, the professor at Columbia? He is really into these ideas as well, about the bottom-up approach. And I think he has also mentioned the Rockaways after Sandy as an example in his lectures.

JB: Yes, we gave a talk with him, soon after the storm.

WM: Both of us have been on panels with Klaus, and it’s an important topic, because he sets the big global view, and with us, we are able to drill down and talk about cities.

Klaus is well known internationally and rightly so, because he was predicting Sandy decades before Sandy happened. Which, when you are a climate scientist, you have the big data, it’s not an opinion, you know? So, you just have to wait until the truth comes in. Sometimes it takes a decade, sometimes longer, you never know. 

I used to teach at Columbia, at GSAPP, [Graduate School of Architecture and Preservation], as an adjunct professor in urban design. But then we had better offers at other universities, so we went to Pratt and they hired both of us together and we were able to be coordinators at the program, so we had a little more control over the curriculum.

There are three strings in our work: we have the philanthropic work, which is why you are here today, we have our professional work, which draws on what is needed to support the philanthropic work, and then we have our academic work, which is where we do our research.

In the future, are you hoping to expand Safe Space Solutions to all five NYC boroughs?

WM: We have a vision. This grant is limited just to Rockaways because the grant is not enough to handle all the five boroughs. But the largest vision is to make all the five boroughs’ Zone 1 evacuation zones [Zone 1 is the lowest lying area, the most vulnerable part of NYC to storms] is to make the Zone 1 independent of the grid during the disturbance, using renewable energy. David Gibbs is the one in the field, he’s an engineer and a technician, whereas we are operating as planners or designers of the system, and the administrators. We are managing the system. David is the one who is able to put it together, bring all the labor together and manage the implementation. And he is also a system designer from an engineering perspective. Whereas we are looking at it from a planning perspective, right? We work more horizontally, while he’s looking vertically. Engineering is more like a science, it’s more empirical.

For Safe Space Solutions you are saying that you are no longer using solar power only, right? You are trying to find the best combination.

WM: That’s right, each site will have different needs, it will have different solutions for those needs. For example, some sites will use tankless hot water heaters, other sites that don’t have access to groundwater, we can use geothermal heating and cooling.

JB: But it also depends on the type of business, what they need. So, it’s tailored to what works best for their site. 

For example, we have a laundromat in our program, and they need a lot of hot water. So, that solution is going to focus on how to get them cheaper and more reliable and more resilient hot water supply.

We have a pediatrician in our program, and they said that after Sandy the biggest problem was that they did not have refrigeration, so they couldn’t vaccinate kids and they lost all the vaccines that they had on hand because they couldn’t keep them cool. It was October, so they had just got all the flu shots in, which was a huge loss to them as a business and also to the community, because now all those people did not have an easy way to get their kids vaccinated. For them refrigeration, and making sure that refrigeration stays on no matter what, is their biggest concern.

So, in that way the technology and the site access to resources, like is it a good site for wind, is it a good site for solar, is it a good site for geothermal, they kinda go hand in hand. A lot of these businesses may have access to technology, but they do not have access to the design and planning side of it that really analyzes their needs and tailors the solutions to them. And what we are hoping to show is that even in the absence of this grant we want to demonstrate to other businesses that with smart planning, you can really target your investment in alternative energy technologies and really get the most bang for your buck out of whatever solutions or set of solutions you choose. We are trying to demonstrate the power of bringing in a planning professional or analyst from the beginning to help them use that investment as wisely as possible.

WM: The other important piece of this grant is the way it’s being used. We want as many people as possible to come from Rockaways and we will be installing solar panels or the other systems. So, we have been trying to interview electricians or people who only work part-time or who lost their jobs but have skills and want to learn more about solar. They may know about electricity, but they may not know the next step to solar, so we’d like to help them learn that.

That gives you two things: one is knowledge transfer and then it brings new jobs to an area that can definitely use more opportunities. Then I want to share that with you, because in a small place like Rockaways you can jump on a bike and get to work on solar panels, and you are that person that goes home and tells three people what he did that day and it’s kind of like each one teach one for a possible future where you don’t have to depend on carbon or fossil fuels.

After Sandy all the gas stations were down, and it was hard to get fuel so the city became temporarily fossil fuel-free, you know? For better or for worse. That created an opening, an opportunity for renewable energy, because it does not depend on any resource other than the sun.

It was an exciting time for us to see, with very little effort, that we had a major impact. It was great. And a lot of people started to see it, even the Rockaway solar panels were not that big of a deal before, and now everyone knows what they are and what they do and they are all trying to find ways to buy them or to share them with the neighborhood. And I have seen this coming even from conservative people that normally do not believe in climate change, but they were realizing, whether you believe in climate change or not, you are still vulnerable and you need that assistance. And that’s the beauty of resiliency, it does not have the political baggage of sustainability. Until environmentalism becomes bi-partisan, or actually non-partisan.

We are at an exciting time when people like the pope are bringing together religion and science for the climate. And so, it’s really interesting to be where we are at and then apply this to the resilience movement, which is apolitical, and there is nothing romantic about it, it’s not like hippies, it’s just a way of surviving this crisis our society is currently in.  

Photo: Immediately after Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, Rockaways Beach Surf Club became a hub for volunteers, taken by Kuntian Yu