Post-Sandy, Designers Are Forced to Imagine Asking People to Move

Two proposals unveiled earlier this month tiptoe into the fraught territory of what's called Managed Retreat.

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Sasaki/Rutgers/Arup/Rebuild By Design

The numerous re-planning efforts after Hurricane Sandy have produced enticing renderings of designer dunes and fish-filled inland bays. Yet there's been little serious discussion of what happens when rising seas put many of those happy places underwater — until now.

Among the ten ambitious proposals unveiled earlier this month by Rebuild by Design, the high-speed, invited competition sponsored by a presidential task force, two teams tiptoed into the fraught territory of what’s called Managed Retreat. They imagined how to entice people to seek safer refuge from their beloved shore. Rebuild, which is guided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and other nonprofit funders, was intended to surface just such innovation.

Data supplied to Rebuild participants shows that sea level rise over decades will inundate the barrier islands that line America’s Atlantic coast, home to almost five million people, not to mention low-lying communities inland. Yet moving away from the places at greatest risk — from rising oceans, but also flooding rivers and forest wildfires — can mean catastrophic financial loss. It can also be unimaginably wrenching when people must leave behind those places where cherished memories were made, often over generations.

The idea of forcing people to move after they’ve suffered life-altering trauma has been anathema. Voluntary buyouts are expensive, and uprooting holdouts may require condemnation, which is expensive, time consuming and — in the minds of many — a violation of private property rights. (New York’s Governor Cuomo won’t expand the $400-million Sandy voluntary buyout program in New York City after approving the purchase of only a few hundred homes.) At the same time, taxpayer commitment to rebuilding is fading as costs exacted by predictable disasters like Sandy reach the tens of billions each, and people get subsidized to rebuild repeatedly in areas of known danger.

Residents of Long Beach, on a barrier island just east of New York City, “should not throw in the towel,” according to a presentation by a team led by the New York City architecture firm Interboro Partners that included engineers, designers, and academics from both the U.S. and Holland. Yet the Interboro team depicted a litany of vulnerabilities, including inundation of the island, overflowing inland canals, dissolving protective marshes, and storm sewers backing up into streets during even ordinary storms. Almost 37,000 residents were displaced by Sandy in Long Beach and surrounding Nassau County.

Renderings from the Interboro Partners team show how they would rework stream edges to create an amenity on Long Island that could flood when necessary. (Courtesy Rebuild by Design). 

The team proposed comprehensive community protections: naturalized bayside levees, widened stream floodplains, and marshlands configured as flood barriers. They also looked for development opportunities inland of the flood zone, along the Sunrise Highway, a commercial arterial, and the Long Island Railroad commuter line. By repurposing abandoned parcels and redesigning vast parking-lot landscapes, the team showed how higher-density commercial and residential transit-focused development could grow. In the process, the highway would become a parklike boulevard that soaks up the storm runoff that causes overflows in downstream communities.

With a summertime population as high as 100,000, “buyouts are not an option” on Long Beach, says Richard Baldwin, of the Interboro team. The dense development along the road/rail corridor “gives people a choice to move.” Multi-family housing near the train stations could be an appealing choice for the island’s lower-income families, for example, by putting them closer to jobs and schools, and reducing reliance on cars.

A team led by Sasaki Associates, of Watertown, Massachusetts, with New Jersey’s Rutgers University and the international engineering group Arup, made a Managed Retreat strategy the unifying theme of their proposal for communities along Barnegat Bay, one of the hardest-hit stretches of New Jersey’s shore. “We diversify the inland communities so that the residents of the barrier island have a place to move someday,” says Briana Hensold, a senior associate at Sasaki.

An aerial rendering from the Sasaki/Rutgers/Arup team shows Barnegat Bay, New Jersey. A threatened barrier island is visible on the right, and in the middle is a redeveloped area where people could, in theory, move. (Courtesy Rebuild by Design)

The team focuses on towns that have failed to thrive economically because retail and services are divided between commercial strips on both the mainland and the island. By restoring natural function to clogged and polluted inland streams and lakes, the team creates water-retaining landscapes with the kind of amenity that would attract owners away from the shore.

A repurposed 700-acre sand pit, for example, could become a lakefront community of 5,000 (as pictured in the Sasaki team's rendering at the top of this story). The team would explicitly connect the inland towns to the barrier island beach with an aerial gondola that would ride above an eco-tourism zone that extends from the Pine Barrens protected forest across restored streams, lakes, and marshes to a water-taxi hub on the edge of the bay. In this way, the allure of the beach is extended to diverse natural landscapes appealing to boaters, fisherman, and wildlife watchers. The beach experience would be enhanced as an element in this enriched natural environment, helping to allay the trauma of moving.

Proposals like these remove Managed Retreat from the realm of the planner’s abstraction and let people see what’s really possible if they do move. Still, that leaves much left to do. Elected officials will discuss Managed Retreat only under duress, because it can be depicted as admitting that government can’t protect its citizens. Both former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have resisted retreat, yet there’s yet no scope, price tag, nor timeline to implement either Rebuild’s gorgeous renderings nor the Army Corps of Engineers standard toolbox of seawalls and sand restoration. Incentives and legal mechanisms could ease the pain. An agency could buy threatened properties ahead of disaster, for example, but only take them when occupancy becomes untenable.

In the aftermath of disaster, TV cameras zoom in on survivors picking through the ruins of their shattered houses. Those who are shellshocked yet determined to rebuild make a redemptive story. Yet as neighborhoods look at flood maps that take into account data on sea level rise and more violent storms, that desire to rebuild in the face of horrifying loss begins to look like folly, not heroism.

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