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How cities prepare for the next Sandy

Jane Amidon

Sev­eral weeks after Hur­ri­cane Sandy made land­fall on the East Coast, the dev­as­ta­tion is still being felt — par­tic­u­larly in hard-​​hit sec­tions of New York and New Jersey. The storm has also raised ques­tions about how major cities can pre­pare for the next major weather event of its kind. Jane Amidon, pro­fessor of archi­tec­ture and director of the urban land­scape pro­gram in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design, looks at what urban design lessons can be learned from Hur­ri­cane Sandy, and why researchers must take an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary approach to preparing for another nat­ural disaster.

What did Hurricane Sandy teach us about the design and redesign of cities?

For a long time, we’ve thought about form in urban design but we’ve become increas­ingly focused on the envi­ron­mental per­for­mance of cities. “Green” and “blue” infra­struc­ture like urban forests and “soft” rather than “hard” water­fronts edges double as scenic and recre­ation zones, urban habitat and alter­na­tive trans­porta­tion such as bike­ways. Living sys­tems such as wet­lands, estu­aries and flood plains help pro­tect urban cen­ters by helping detain and absorb storm water and pro­vide fil­tra­tion to reduce the amount of con­t­a­m­i­nants being dis­persed fol­lowing floods. These are all mea­sur­able ben­e­fits for society.

During Hur­ri­cane Sandy, one reason why the East River’s water rise was so dam­aging to lower Man­hattan and Brooklyn was because the tidal surge coming through Long Island Sound had nowhere to go but into streets and tun­nels. There was very little green infra­struc­ture in place to pro­vide these crit­ical eco­log­ical ser­vices. Today, there is only a frac­tion of the hun­dreds of thou­sands of acres of flood­plains and wet­lands New York’s metro region once had. We need to design working ecolo­gies back into our cul­tural spaces, which is a very com­plex process envi­ron­men­tally, finan­cially and socially.

Your expertise lies in the design of urban environments. Can you explain how this field relates to climate change and responding to the increasing frequency and strength of storms like Sandy?

The field of urban land­scape stems from the pro­fes­sional dis­ci­plines of urban design, land­scape archi­tec­ture and plan­ning and is deeply influ­enced by the envi­ron­mental sci­ences and the arts. Con­tem­po­rary landscape-​​urbanism or ecological-​​urbanism theory posi­tions cities as dynamic, adap­tive organ­isms rather than static enti­ties. The inter­sec­tion of changing envi­ron­mental and eco­nomic par­a­digms on a global level points to sus­tain­ability as an all-​​encompassing agenda for 21st-​​century cities.

In response to extreme weather events such as Hur­ri­canes Sandy and Irene and to eco­nomic events such as the 2008 reces­sion, design pro­fes­sionals increas­ingly use a “tele­scopic” per­spec­tive to com­bine systems-​​scale research and analysis with local inter­ven­tion. Of pri­mary interest is how designers create frame­works for change by shaping land-​​use strate­gies and designing envi­ron­ments that can be phased in over decades instead of with sin­gular master plans. This is due in part to the fact that urban projects are becoming increas­ingly com­plex and respond to issues that can’t be answered in one gen­er­a­tion or budget cycle.

How can taking an interdisciplinary approach be effective in addressing these issues?

The scope of ques­tions in the built envi­ron­ment calls for col­lab­o­ra­tion between design, policy, engi­neering, envi­ron­mental sci­ence and tech­nology. In urban envi­ron­mental design, for instance, we work fre­quently with prac­ti­tioners and researchers in public health, law, busi­ness and related disciplines.

A major com­po­nent of our cur­riculum in the School of Archi­tec­ture is the design studio, which is a hands-​​on edu­ca­tional lab­o­ra­tory for exploring and applying ideas to real-​​world con­di­tions. We try to bring in studio instruc­tors and studio critics with a broad range of inter­ests and prac­tical expe­ri­ence so that our stu­dents are exposed to inter­dis­ci­pli­nary thinking. We are devel­oping degree options like the half-​​major and cross-​​college mas­ters pro­grams that allow stu­dents to cus­tomize their edu­ca­tion by hybridizing design with other fields. Our co-​​ops and Berlin study abroad pro­gram place stu­dents in a range of inter­dis­ci­pli­nary envi­ron­ments. Essen­tially, we hope to pre­pare our stu­dents to be inno­v­a­tive design thinkers.