Atlantic Cities

Shaun Donovan Wants to Reinvent the Way We Do Disaster Recovery

 Shaun Donovan Wants to Reinvent the Way We Do Disaster Recovery
Reuters

When he announced Rebuild by Design back in June, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, who chairs the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, said that it wouldn’t be your typical design competition. "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."

Today, the task force announced the 10 teams selected to engage in the ambitious program (full list below), part of the much larger effort to rebuild storm-gutted communities in New York and New Jersey. The teams, composed of experts from a variety of disciplines, weren’t selected because they submitted fancy renderings of proposals. In fact, they haven’t submitted proposals yet. Instead, they won on the basis of the range of expertise they were able to assemble from across fields such as architecture, engineering, marine science, and industrial design, and on the innovative nature of their approach to the problems at hand.

More than 140 teams from some 15 nations applied. The winners, including participants from Denmark, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Mississippi, New York, and many other places, will spend the next three months studying the region and building relationships with local stakeholders. The next three months will be dedicated to creating designs focused on four areas: coastal communities; high-density urban environments; ecological and waterbody networks; and "the unknown and unexpected." Implementation of the resulting designs will begin in March 2014, funded in part by federal community development block grants. The Rockefeller Foundation is a lead supporter.

Secretary Donovan came to his hometown of New York to launch the working phase of the initiative on Thursday. He sat down to answer some questions about how it’s all going to play out, and about how the resulting projects might serve as a model for communities facing the effects of climate change around the country and around the globe. This is an edited version of our conversation.

What are you hoping for in terms of the types of solutions coming out of this? How might they serve as scalable models for communities outside the New York/New Jersey region?

The value of a competition is it makes innovation possible at a scale that’s incredibly difficult to do in general, and particularly difficult to do in traditional government processes.

I think we can talk some about the types of solutions, but part of what’s so exciting about this is the unknown and unknowable before the competition is actually run. Part of what we are looking for is what we don’t know we’re looking for.

The way we’ve designed the design competition is really intended to get at this issue of scalability. The designs can’t be generic. They have to show that they can meet the ground and be built and deal with very localized conditions. But the process of having an extensive research and analysis phase that engages with people on the ground, and then having each of these teams propose at least three to five proposals, means that there will be scalability. You have to show how your generic solution could work in at least three to five places. What is generalizable about the solutions that then could be taken to other places? I think that is very, very important.

The innovation here isn’t just what comes out of the competition, but it is the competition itself, and how that can be replicated.

I was talking earlier with your team about how the solutions can’t just come from the government, and how there has to be a new understanding coming out of the communities about their role in the response to these threats.

We made a fundamental choice about the nature of the competition. We didn’t say, you’ve got three months to propose solutions. What we said is, bring us a highly interdisciplinary world-class team, bring us an area of interest, describe the way you’re going to work, but then we’re going to require you to spend this intensive period engaging with these communities.

And so, by definition, the process is set up to drive that engagement. What does a homeowner or business in coastal New Jersey need? What are the realities they’re facing? What does the mayor say? The town engineer?

Had we reversed the process, where they would complete designs and then come in and compete, I think we would have been much more at risk of them repeating what is already known -- what might have been innovative before, but isn’t grounded in the regional research and the community engagement that is going to happen over the next eight months.

The storm and the devastation were a very emotional experience for these communities.

Yes, and for me personally. One of the first things I did was come back and attend the funeral of a friend’s daughter.

How do you deal with the emotional aspect of rebuilding these places?

The engagement, the ability to participate in reimagining your community, is part of the process of dealing with the emotional trauma of an event like this. Obviously there are very direct, visceral, and prosaic impacts, like how am I going to stay warm. But there is also a very deep sense of loss of control, and there’s a sense of helplessness that comes with this.

Families who refuse to leave their homes, often saying that they’re afraid of looting or other things, really what that’s often about is wanting to stay connected to what is known because of all the sense of helplessness and displacement.

It is a very powerful thing to engage in the process of reimagining your community and feel that you have a voice in what that community will look like. And then actually being able to see that come to fruition, that I think is part of what the community engagement thrust of the competition will be about.

How much was the way you structured this informed by the way the recovery from Katrina was handled?

The recovery more broadly has been deeply informed by that, from the whole national disaster recovery framework we set up to the creation of the task force itself. I do think the very visible and tragic consequences of neglect of our infrastructure and neglect of resilience obviously has informed the thinking behind this competition.

It’s as if we’re getting better at disaster. It’s something we’ve had to learn how to do.

We learned the hard way, absolutely. But also — and I think this is very important —  there’s a very strong intention here to learn from the world, not just from a specific storm, or even just from the U.S. experience. And then to be able to share that knowledge beyond the U.S. as well.

This is your region, your place. What is the significance for you personally of being able to be part of the rebuilding?

In the very first conversation I had with the president I had about leading the task force, he began to ask me whether I would take this on, and I interrupted him and said, I have to do this, Mr. President.

Ten years from now, I know that I will be able to — with my college-graduated, hopefully better-behaved children — be able to go and visit some of the most innovative approaches to protecting the neighborhoods in the entire region, and know that I played a part in making those possible. And maybe even visit India or China or Brazil or similar efforts that were inspired by the work that we did here. And to be able to feel that and touch that is an enormously rewarding experience.

Design teams selected for Rebuild By Design:

- Interboro Partners with the New Jersey Institute of Technology Infrastructure Planning Program; TU Delft; Project Projects; RFA Investments; IMG Rebel; Center for Urban Pedagogy; David Rusk; Apex; Deltares; Bosch Slabbers; H+N+S; and Palmbout Urban Landscapes.

- PennDesign/OLIN with PennPraxis, Buro Happold, HR&A Advisors, and E-Design Dynamics

- WXY architecture + urban design / West 8 Urban Design & Landscape Architecture with ARCADIS Engineering and the Stevens Institute of Technology, Rutgers University; Maxine Griffith; Parsons the New School for Design; Duke University; BJH Advisors; and Mary Edna Fraser.

- Office of Metropolitan Architecture with Royal Haskoning DHV; Balmori Associaties; R/GA; and HR&A Advisors.

- HR&A Advisors with Cooper, Robertson, & Partners; Grimshaw; Langan Engineering; W Architecture; Hargreaves Associates; Alamo Architects; Urban Green Council; Ironstate Development; Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation; New City America.

- SCAPE with Parsons Brinckerhoff; SeARC Ecological Consulting; Ocean and Coastal Consultants; The New York Harbor School; Phil Orton/Stevens Institute; Paul Greenberg; LOT-EK; and MTWTF.

- Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Advanced Urbanism and the Dutch Delta Collaborative with ZUS; De Urbanisten; Deltares; 75B; and Volker Infra Design.

- Sasaki Associates with Rutgers University and ARUP.

- Bjarke Ingels Group with One Architecture; Starr Whitehouse; James Lima Planning & Development; Green Shield Ecology; Buro Happold; AEA Consulting; and Project Projects.

-unabridged Architecture with Mississippi State University; Waggoner and Ball Architects; Gulf Coast Community Design; and the Center for Urban Pedagogy.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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