Inside N.Y.C.’s Plan To Fight Climate Change Through Architecture

The city wants architects to start designing for bigger, badder weather.

Inside N.Y.C.’s Plan To Fight Climate Change Through Architecture
[Photo: Julienne Schaer/courtesy City of New York]

While Washington, D.C., is busy denying climate change, New York City, which doesn’t have the luxury of pitting politics against science, is planning for its effects. Last week, the mayor’s Office of Recovery & Resiliency (ORR) released its latest initiative: the city’s first-ever Climate Resiliency Design Guidelines for capital projects.


“It’s a drumbeat in the office to really try to broaden people’s knowledge base about what these [climate-related] risks are in the future,” says Susanne DesRoches, deputy director for infrastructure policy at the ORR. “We want to push engineers and architects to think more holistically about climate risks.”

A screenshot from the N.Y.C. Flood Hazard map tool. [Image: NYC Planning]
The document, which was released as a preliminary draft and will be refined before its final version is published in December 2017, is dedicated to design strategies for minimizing impacts of extreme heat, extreme precipitation, flooding, and storm surges–some of the major weather-related risks New York faces in the future, according to the most recent climate-change projections. (Most building codes reference historical data.)

The guidelines are meant to be instructive–a road map that details how the urban fabric will need to dramatically change over the next few decades to cope with the reality of climate change: By 2050, the average temperature is expected to increase between 4.1 and 6.6°F; the number of annual heat waves are expected to triple to between five and seven a year; and the annual precipitation is expected to increase between 4% and 13%.

To develop the guidelines, DesRoches and her team worked closely with different city agencies responsible for capital projects throughout the city (think parks, transportation, energy, telecommunications, water, and sewer) in order to understand their design and construction needs. They also looked at climate-change best practices from dozens of cities–such as Boston, San Francisco, and Miami–to figure out what made the most sense for New York. While climate resiliency is a general priority for many coastal cities, few have specific design guidelines outlined like New York’s. Hoboken, New Jersey, issued climate resiliency design guidelines in 2015, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey issued its own design guidelines the same year.

What do these changes mean for the physical composition of New York? Potentially more shading and cooling systems in buildings; new materials and landscaping that encourage storm water infiltration, like permeable pavement and bioswales; materials and finishes that reduce the urban heat island effect, like cool roofs, green roofs, and living walls; passive cooling to help reduce the need for energy on hot days; and new flood protection systems.

Rather than being overly prescriptive, these guidelines are intended to be a tool to help agencies, their architects, and engineers approach climate change consistently using the most appropriate data and projections that apply to a project.


[Photo: Jon Flobrant/Unsplash]
“How do you incorporate climate into the lifetime of a building?” DesRoches says. “You don’t want ‘square peg round hole.'”

The design guidelines are emblematic of New York’s aggressive approach to resiliency planning. The specific interventions aren’t particularly innovative or new, but the very fact that New York is interested in applying them to its built projects is novel. Climate change doesn’t affect single buildings, and a project-by-project approach won’t have as much impact as a citywide initiative. If one building decides to install a green roof, the impact is marginal. But if 100 buildings do, the scale generates more of a return.

“We want to lead by example,” DesRoches says. “We want a constant methodology over what we’re building. Codes and standards do that, but we don’t have mechanized guidelines to endure everyone’s doing the same thing.”

Ultimately, zoning and building code are still the letter of the law. There’s no guarantee that the agencies which ultimately have authority over what is built will actually heed the ORR’s suggestions. The ORR’s guidelines are preliminary, and the office views them as a working document. It plans to pick a handful of civic projects already underway, work with the designers and engineers to incorporate the guidelines, and see how they affect the design. Based on their findings, they may update or modify the guidelines before the final version is released later this year.

While citywide resiliency-related design guidelines are relatively new, DesRoches compares them to sustainability and expects them to become the norm over time. “It’s like green building,” DesRoches says. “The movement started and then we got LEED. There is no LEED for resiliency.” This might be the first step toward a more systematized approach in cities elsewhere in the country, where the effects of climate change are already being felt.


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.