"There is a desperate need for the best science and information about what climate change will mean to families and communities."

It's easy to hate on design competitions. They’re beauty contests, is a common complaint. Exercises in vanity. Divorced from the reality of the streets.

But HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, who's spearheading the federal Sandy relief effort, promises that the one he announced this week in New York is going to be different. “The success of this competition will not be measured simply by producing theoretical solutions,” he said. “Rather we want proposals that will have an impact on the ground, in people’s lives.”

The Rebuild by Design competition, which will be conducted by HUD in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, is aimed at helping communities affected by Sandy to come up with innovative solutions to the problems they face. “Sandy is a reminder of why we must rethink how we build moving forward,” said Donovan. “Big storms that used to come every generation now seem to be occurring every year…. In light of this new reality, it’s not enough for any region to rebuild our communities back to the way they were. Instead we’ve got to build better and stronger communities that can withstand emerging environmental threats.”

Rebuild by Design is soliciting applications in four areas: for small coastal communities, for high-density urban environments, for ecological networks, and in an open fourth category that will allow, said Donovan, for “other innovative proposals” that don’t fit neatly into the first three classifications.

Speaking to an audience of planners, architects, elected officials, students, and other urbanism geeks at NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge in downtown Manhattan, Donovan vowed that the competition would result in much more than a collection of pretty renderings. “These ideas are going to be developed in concert with local partners to make sure they don’t just look good on paper, but will also make a real difference in our communities,” he said.

The competition will first select 5-10 teams in the fields including infrastructure engineering, landscape design, urban design, architecture, land use planning, industrial design, and communication. Then those teams will spend three months analyzing the region’s challenges and another three months coming up with solutions before submitting their final designs in February of next year. Implementation of the winning efforts will begin in March 2014, funded in part by $5 billion in federal community development block grants.

Donovan said that the feds couldn’t and shouldn’t be the only source of dollars for innovative rebuilding projects in Sandy’s wake, and he called on state and local governments to work together to overcome the welter of conflicting jurisdictions that can create political obstacles to action. He called for “an unprecedented era of collaboration.”

“Storms like Sandy don’t discriminate,” said Donovan. “They don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, if you’re from New York or New Jersey, if you live in a city or a suburb or along the shore. Instead, these storms pose a threat to all of us. They know no boundaries And so it’s important that our solutions have no boundaries as well.”

The secretary made the case that the federal government is uniquely qualified to bring about a meaningful, coordinated response to the threat that a changing climate poses to the nation’s cities.

“There is a desperate need for the best science and information about what climate change will mean to families and communities,” said Donovan. “No one at any level of government is better positioned to do that than the federal government.”

Can the Rebuild by Design challenge fulfill the ambitious goals that Donovan advanced? Could the Sandy rebuilding effort become a laboratory for solutions that could then be adapted and scaled around the country? Or will this end up being just another beauty contest despite the best of intentions?

“We honestly believe it can change the direction of how we plan our cities and our regions across the United States,” said Donovan. A roomful of people nodded in agreement. Maybe they can make it happen.

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