Innovative Ideas for Resilient Coastal Communities

Apr 3, 2014

The Big U is a proposed flood protection system for Manhattan that aims to incorporate environmental benefits and recreation.
Credit BIG TEAM / Rebuild by Design

Today, finalists in the Rebuild by Design competition present their ideas for rebuilding Sandy-affected communities. Organizers hope it is the start of a new conversation about coastal resilience.

Shortly after Superstorm Sandy pummeled New York and New Jersey, Shaun Donovan, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (and a native New Yorker), visited the Netherlands. While there, he toured some of that country's famous flood control systems with Dutch Acting Director-General of Spatial Planning and Water Affairs, Henk Ovink.

Together, the two hatched an idea for a competition that they hoped would generate big, new ideas for facing the challenges that inevitably arise when coastal communities face sea level rise and increasingly extreme weather. Ovink joined the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force as a senior advisor, and Rebuild by Design was launched last June.

On the morning of the proposal deadline, Ovink and Donovan were nervous. There were only two submissions. But, by that evening, they had 148 proposals from teams representing fifteen countries.

Donovan told this story of the birth of Rebuild by Design last October at an event where the finalists were announced. Ten multidisciplinary teams have spent the intervening six months refining 41 preliminary designs into ten final design proposals, which they are unveiling today in New York.

From creating a system of artificial barrier islands, to a comprehensive reworking of housing, infrastructure, and open space in Nassau County on the west end of Long Island, these are big ideas. One theme that runs strong through many of the proposals is engineering with nature, not against it. They feature human-constructed, semi-natural waterways and ecosystems - canals, dunes, islands, marshes, oyster reefs.

The other overarching theme of the competition is collaboration. The teams are comprised of planners, designers, engineers, and scientists. They've spent months meeting with local and state officials, touring Sandy-affected communities, consulting with scientists, and talking with residents.

Of course, big ideas come with big price tags. Some projects are estimated to cost more than $10 billion dollars. Congress appropriated approximately $50 billion to help rebuild after Sandy, and some of that money could go to Rebuild by Design winners, although winners are not guaranteed funding. Indeed, finding innovative ways to fund rebuilding efforts is another aspect of the competition.

At the October Rebuild by Design event, organizers stressed that this competition is about more than rebuilding a handful of communities in New York and New Jersey. Whether or not these proposals ever become reality, Rebuild by Design is about developing a new approach and exploring all the possibilities to help coastal communities face a challenging future.