HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan On How Design Can Prepare Us For Climate Change

Donovan sat down with Co.Design to discuss Rebuild by Design, a HUD initiative that hopes to make communities--and governments--more resilient.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development launched Rebuild by Design, a design competition aimed at developing innovative storm resilience strategies in the places that Sandy devastated. Ten teams of architects and designers chosen from 148 international applicants--including Bjarke Ingels Group and Rem Koolhaas's Office for Metropolitan Architecture--met with elected officials, members of local communities, and experts on climate change, public policy, and more. After tours of the affected regions, they drafted design strategies to get the coastal communities of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut ready for the rising waters brought on by climate change.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, who led the initiative, recently discussed housing and climate change at the New York Times' Cities For Tomorrow conference. I spoke with him backstage at the event about Rebuild by Design, which he says encompasses more than just unique architectural solutions to the threats posed by climate change. "We also saw this is as a way to get design innovation for the way government works, design innovation for the way community engagement works," Donovan tells Co.Design.

"The way that we talk about climate risk is hard to understand," Donovan says. What does a 100-year flood mean? Credit: OMA

The final design proposals display an innovative approach to flood management, largely through landscape architecture. BIG envisioned a loop of parkland around the lower half of Manhattan to soak up floodwaters. SCAPE / Landscape Architecture reimagined Staten Island with breakwaters that will play host to a microsystem of lobster and shellfish serving as a buffer against wave damage. Interboro Partners designed new marsh islands and public green spaces to help deal with stormwater and surges on Long Island. HUD plans to implement at least some of these projects using funding from disaster-recovery grants as well as other sources of public and private funding.

While the designs themselves focus on recurrent flooding in the New York metropolitan area, the ideas behind Rebuild by Design may be applicable on an even broader scale. The designers were tasked with rethinking how design could change the culture around the risk of flooding through what Donovan calls social resiliency--the idea that preparing for the eventuality of a big disaster means recognizing you are at risk and learning to live with that risk.

For instance, OMA, a firm headquartered in Rotterdam (a city with plenty of experience with flooding), designed bus stops for the city of Hoboken that display the water-level rise during Sandy "in a very concrete way for someone to be able to compare their body against," Donovan described, and "look around them and say 'oh, it would have completely flooded this whole set of storefronts.'" To Donovan, it's vital to create that kind of recognition.

Emergency information could be communicated through existing infrastructure. Credit: OMA

Furthermore, the process of the competition itself represented an innovation in the way the government approaches issues of disaster resiliency. If given the chance to redesign anything in the world, Donovan says he would totally reconfigure how the federal government works with state and local governments and communities, creating a sort of new regional institution. "One of the things we really tried to do with the Sandy task force was to create a forum that would allow individual communities, cities, and states to come together and actually cooperate," he explains.

Hurricanes don't always fall neatly across state or city lines, and different regions need to be able to come together to form solutions. "So what we’re trying to do is find a way for the region to collaborate in a way that could make it safer and stronger. Right now there was no natural convening place to say here is a way for all of you to work together--no institution that existed to help do that."

Rebuild by Design's 10 teams spent a total of eight months researching their sites, talking to experts, meeting with members of the public, and refining their designs into implementable solutions. The focus, Donovan says, was placed on the most vulnerable communities--not only the most environmentally vulnerable, but the most economically vulnerable as well. "The places that are the lowest--literally the lowest elevations, the most at risk of flooding--are much more likely to be low-income areas, much more likely to be minority areas," he says, a lesson that bore out in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. "By focusing on this issue of resilience . . . you are by definition helping cities to be more equal places," he says.

Though ideas floated in the Rebuild by Design competition are intentionally site-specific and couldn't be applied to, say, a tornado-struck region in the Midwest, the process of the competition itself may be scalable to other resiliency challenges the country faces. "What I think is potentially replicable in thinking about approaching this is how we bring the best ideas from around the world, how we bring the best science, and how we bring communities in the process to help them design their own places," he says. It's "definitely a different way for government to be thinking about approaching these kinds of problems."

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