Rebuild by Design's innovative solutions for a future when rising sea levels reconfigure the East Coast beyond recognition.

The Rebuild by Design initiative, part of the federal Sandy rebuilding effort, is supposed to be a different kind of design competition – one that results in more than pretty renderings by self-satisfied architects. The goal is to create and implement innovative projects that address specific community needs, in the process uncovering strategies for more resilient cities that can be replicated around the world.

It's suffused with idealism and ambition, and has attracted many of the world's top engineering and design firms, educational institutions, and architects. All of them are eager to devise solutions for current vulnerabilities and for a future when rising sea levels reconfigure the coast beyond recognition.

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The 10 teams selected to compete yesterday presented 41 designs, developed over three months of research and analysis, including extensive community outreach. Ten jury-selected proposals will go on to the implementation phase, funded in part by $5 billion in federal community block development grants.

Taken together, the 41 proposals provide a snapshot of an evolving kind of futurism. This is not the future of the past – the one that was all about more and bigger. The Robert Moses generation used landfill to give cities and towns room to stretch out. It built hard edges that created sharp separations between the human environment and the natural world. It channeled and paved and diverted, putting nature behind glass and concrete and on the other side of a parking lot, to be briefly admired and then forgotten. And it did all that with a heavy hand, from the top down.

Over the last 10 years or so, a different type of futurism has been evolving, one in which the edges are ragged and boundaries are blurred. In this vision of the future, we learn to "live with the water," as the Dutch say. Nature is incorporated into the fabric of the human realm. Forms of authority and governance are also decentralized to improve resilience.

The Rebuild by Design proposals show how designers and planners  are grappling with this new type of futurism. Some examples include:

SCAPE/LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE’s team imagines a system of protective breakwaters and tidal flats throughout New York Harbor, including an extensive network of oyster reefs that would recreate a historic element of the natural landscape. Such "living, growing breakwaters" could result in as much as a 4-foot wave reduction on the south shore of Staten Island, site of many of the storm's fatalities.

Sasaki/Rutgers/Arup looks at the Headlands area of the Jersey Shore, specifically the community of Asbury Park. In their design, "hyper-absorbent" streets would mitigate storm runoff and transit-oriented development would change the way people in the area travel. The shore's iconic boardwalk is re-imagined as a storm protection barrier that would incorporate replenished dunes and beaches.

MIT+ZUS+URBANISTEN proposes the creation of what they call "resilient districts" across low-lying parts of the region. Right now, 2.5 million people live in the flood zone across the New York/New Jersey area. In these districts, they envision "emergency infrastructure, evacuation capacity, ecological protection/absorption landscape infrastructure; as well as a development mix of light manufacturing/warehousing with residential." One such district is the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which flooded badly during Sandy, where the team proposes huge storm water catchment systems, landscaped buffers, and escape routes to allow residents to reach the safety of higher ground.

Unabridged Coastal Collective, in its proposal for a "Resilience Center" in Rockville, Long Island, acknowledges the harsh reality that that much of the town's Long Beach barrier island – where 41,000 people live today – will be underwater by 2080. “[A]ccess will be via water taxi or an elevated rail line. Marshes will reclaim the lower bayside of the island, hosting only independent colonies of stilt houses. An elevated east-west streetcar along Broadway will connect the remaining communities of the 9-mile long island." On the mainland, denser housing and new transit facilities will be built on high ground. 

PennDesign/OLIN have created a proposal for "Reorienting Living on a Shifting Estuary" in Toms River, New Jersey, where rising sea levels will put more than 30,000 of the 90,000 residents in flood zones over the next few decades. The team’s plan asks, "How do we live on a barrier island that wants to move?" Acknowledging the difficulty of imagining a future in which much of the low-lying land is covered by a projected three-foot rise in sea level, the team calls for a series of installations that serve as "'mock-ups' for the future." Examples include green infrastructure gardens; storefront "resilience community centers" that would serve as communications and resource hubs during an emergency; and modular buildings designed to flood and even move as the shifting landscape demands it.

Underlying all of the proposals is an acknowledgment of the complexity, nuance, and uncertainty of the 21st centure, where the key words are exposure and vulnerability. Retreat from the shore is part of the picture, and so is loss – of land, but also of the way of life we have grown accustomed to. The frank acknowledgment of the challenge we face in the world’s coastal cities has been slow in coming. Sandy sped it up. And Rebuild by Design shows how we are beginning – just beginning -- to face up to the new reality. 

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