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The Rebuild by Design Challenge

Photo: David Shankbone
Hurricane Sandy. Photo: David Shankbone

Soon, the NY/NJ area may be transformed by oyster beds in our harbors, artificial breakwaters on the shores, undulating boardwalks that trap sand dunes, or a levee-based park that covers FDR Drive.  All these innovative measures are being proposed as ways to make our region more resilient.

When Hurricane Sandy hit last October, the vulnerabilities of the New York/New Jersey region to extreme weather were made all too clear. President Obama created the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force to “…ensure that the Federal Government continues to provide appropriate resources… to improve the region’s resilience, health, and prosperity by building for the future.” The rebuilding cannot just replace what existed before, however, but must be done in a way that makes the region safer, and more resilient and sustainable to prepare for future disasters and rising sea levels.

To meet this challenge, the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched the Rebuild by Design competition. 148 teams composed of planners, designers, engineers and scientists from around the world, initially submitted ideas. Ten teams chosen to do further research on their proposals proposed 41 ideas in late October. On November 14, HUD announced the selected initial sketches of projects that each team will work on over the next five months, incorporating input from communities and stakeholders, and fieldwork.

The competition’s mission is to develop innovative design solutions that are feasible and fundable, and that could be implemented by other coastal communities. HUD Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funding will be used to implement the winning projects but the teams also need to identify additional sources of funding.



The BIG TEAM‘s Big U project would create an 8-mile protective system around Manhattan from West 54th Street to the Battery and up to East 40th Street. The system of berms and levees, incorporating art installations and parkland, would serve as flood barriers, with each local neighborhood devising its own programs and features. For example, on the East Side, F.D.R. Drive might be placed underground with an elevated park above it.




HR & A Advisors, Inc. with Cooper, Robertson & Partners would make vulnerable commercial communities in three areas of the region more resilient by creating a framework for a financing mechanism that helps business owners implement flood protection strategies by rebuilding or relocating. The financing could be contingent on a commitment to make a whole district more resilient through individual enhancements or community improvements such as sidewalk berms and porous roadways.



To strengthen Nassau County’s South Shore, the Interboro Team will work on a collection of resiliency building strategies that would enhance everyday life while restoring the natural ecological functions of the coastline, helping residents of low-lying areas move to higher ground, and protecting critical and vulnerable infrastructure.






MIT CAU+ZUS+URBANISTEN will create a “resiliency district” in the Meadowlands, NJ that incorporates emergency infrastructure, evacuation planning, ecological protection, landscape that absorbs water, light manufacturing and residences. Parts of the Meadowlands would be converted into a landscape infrastructural park that protects the edges from floods, absorbs water, creates habitat and provides opportunities for recreation.




To protect Hoboken, NJ, which is  very vulnerable to flooding and storm surges, OMA is working on a comprehensive approach that would include hard infrastructure as well as soft landscape measures to absorb water, a green belt and water pumps to store and allow drainage, and revised zoning policies to support the city’s transformation.








Penn Design/OLIN’s proposal to protect Hunts Point, site of NYC’s central food market, involves developing a protective levee that will be part of the Bronx Greenway. Green roofs and a “cleanway,” or stormwater channel that intercepts stormwater and chemicals in a planted canal will help reduce flooding. The project will engage the community and industrial property owners to develop other resiliency measures that provide multiple benefits.




Sasaki/Rutgers/Arup’s project would protect the Jersey Shore by rethinking iconic beach features—the pier, boardwalk and marina—so that they combine ecological function and resilience. The pier would be extended away from the beach to encourage stable inland development. A more organic boardwalk would capture sand and form dunes to protect the coast and provide habitat for wildlife. The marina would be integrated with the marsh to enhance coastal protection while providing new opportunities for recreation and commerce.



The unabridged Coastal Collective will make the South End of Bridgeport, CT more self-sufficient and resilient through promoting public safety, education and job training, community activities, and the development of workforce housing. The city’s proposed Green Collar Institute will be involved, training residents for green jobs such as building retrofitting, landscaping, site remediation and renewable energy.




WXY/WEST 8 will focus on protecting the mid-Atlantic coast through devising a new framework for insurance, governance and coastal management on a regional scale, using pooled resources. In addition, the project will develop different types of information that better communicate risk and help people plan for the future.






StatenIsland _Water Portal Guide_5

SCAPE/Landscape Architecture will make Staten Island and Raritan Bay more resilient with protective breakwaters and tidal flats to slow water and lessen waves, including oyster reefs that also help clean the harbor waters. The project will create more recreational opportunities, and involve local communities and schools in stewardship/science-based programming.

Kate Orff, assistant professor at the Earth Institute’s Sustainability Management program and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, and a landscape architect at SCAPE, which she helped found, explained that a key part of her team’s concept is the pairing of social and physical resiliency. The idea is to not only implement physical measures to protect communities, but also to bring a better perception of risk into communities.

Staten Island once had a large shoal system with huge oyster beds that protected its shores. Over time, the area was dredged and the oyster beds were demolished, resulting in increased erosion at the shoreline edges. Consequently, Staten Island and Raritan Bay were ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.

“Our goal,” said Orff, “is to develop a long linear system of breakwaters and reefs with strategic breaks in it for navigation. Along the length of it, we will use different materials, heights and textures to test which are most effective and to see which attract different species.”


The breakwater units will be made of ECOncrete, a low pH mix that is friendly to marine life, combined with recycled glass. These “habitat breakwater” units will support oysters and mussels (not to be eaten) that will function as “biological glue,” strengthening the breakwaters and helping slow the water. In addition, the shellfish will filter out excessive nitrogen, improving water quality. Staten Island and Raritan Bay once had a thriving oyster culture, and another aim of the project is to reestablish a connection with that history.

The shoreline, much of which is now a barren vertical wall, will be restored to a living ecosystem. Constructed tidepools, made of ECOncrete and shaped like small pools, and habitat shelves will provide an intertidal habitat where rare species of birds and fish can flourish.

Also along the shore, water-based hubs will help residents think about water as a new park space, and enable them to develop more of a relationship with the water. The hubs will be centers for learning, meeting, renting kayaks, storing oyster restoration equipment, monitoring and scientific activities, and offer increased recreational opportunities. SCAPE’s partner, The New York Harbor School, already involves its middle and high school students in the active restoration and management of New York Harbor, and will incorporate activities such as oyster gardening and reef building into its curriculum.

In addition, Orff’s team is in the early stages of outreach and collaboration with many Staten Island community groups to ensure that their needs and concerns are addressed.

“Rebuild by Design has given us a great chance to rally all the people we’ve worked with over the last number of years, synthesizing and focusing our ideas,” said Orff. “We are working with issues that SCAPE has thought about since 2006, so this has given us an opportunity to advance ongoing thinking and present it to a larger audience.”


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10 years ago

Rebuild by Design has been named as one of CNN’s Top 10 Ideas with big potential to change the world: