Hurricane Sandy: Reform by Design

Hurricane Sandy left a big mark on the North East region of the USA – the biggest metro region in the USA and a great economic power – destroying and damaging more than 650,000 houses and hundreds of thousands of businesses. Sandy unveiled the social and physical vulnerabilities of this region and their interdependencies. In the Newark floodplain, the industrial facilities flooded, as did the Agent Orange storage facility and the adjacent low-income and social housing complexes, requiring the closure of the playgrounds because the soil lit up at night. In the Rockaways, on Staten Island and all along the shore and coast, homes and lives were and still are at risk. Sandy destroyed thousands of homes on the barrier islands, washed them with sand and water from the ocean and then again from the land-side bays. Manhattan flooded, and some say the tunnels for transit and cars prevented an even bigger disaster, arguing that the tunnels actually worked as storm surge storage capacity. True, the tunnels have the capacity to store the water, but there is no science in place that proves there was less flooding because of it.

Sandy highlighted the region’s vulnerability, it exposed its tensions, the disconnect between politics and people, and emphasised that there was no clear path forward. The socially vulnerable live in the most vulnerable places, where they were hit hardest by the storm’s devastating power, and were fully dependent on others to get back on their feet. Some say resilience is all about the capacity to bounce back after a disaster. But that is not enough: resilience is a progressive term, it is about bouncing back differently and smarter, through collaboration, innovation and the best of science. Sandy not only connected the social with the physical, it also revealed the manmade ecological disaster we are actively provoking. As yet, there is no true understanding of this ecological downfall and its impact on our economy.

How can we better understand the issues of climate change, their connection with our economy and the overall impact on this particular metropolitan region? And how are we to respond when there is no clear direction? Understanding what is really at stake and what really did happen informs a path forward that could re-establish the connection between the social, the economy and the ecology. This is not about making a plan, this is about changing a culture.

In the midst of this turmoil, the Sandy Task Force started Rebuild by Design. Why? Because we had no choice!

A better understanding
It is all about the ‘region’. But politics is bound by borders defined by jurisdiction and not by the right response. The well-being of the people that elect the mayor, the governor or even the President is not defined by political borders. It is defined by the ecological and economic developments and processes, and their regional interdependencies. These cut across nations, states and cities. Understanding this complexity, perceiving the issues on this larger scale, is where good politics starts.

We have to take the time to gain a real understanding of what is going on. But taking time is perceived as hesitant, and research is perceived as a handicap to response, not an asset. When Hurricane Sandy hit the New York-New Jersey region, it was all about fast response, getting help and assistance on the ground as quickly as possible. Next came repair, and only then came rebuilding.

When thinking of the future, the past and present are mostly dominant; rebuilding becomes a cut-and-paste of what was destroyed, or at best a re-imagining of it. We fail to exploit our disasters. We need true resilience to infuse our thinking, and we need courage and new knowledge to rethink the rebuilding effort from tomorrow’s perspective, all the more since we know that tomorrow will always be different. Scientific reports address climate change, rising sea levels, demographic and economic variability, and cultural change as the big and certain challenges of our time. Constant change is the new paradigm, and brings with it a lot of uncertainty in how best to respond. Change is often hard to embrace – but it is also our most vital asset when it comes to development and growth. Embracing change as a way towards greater resilience opens up a range of opportunities.

Rebuild by Design
When Hurricane Sandy hit, it created facts on the ground that we cannot ignore. Moreover, it showed that our physical challenges are very much tied to our social and cultural needs. A regional and comprehensive understanding is a necessity when it comes to defining the right responses, and this understanding can only be developed by a strong coalition of partners. Partners of all backgrounds and with both the best professional skills as well as specific regional ties and personal convictions, who are dedicated to this collaboration aimed at getting the best understanding possible.

With Rebuild by Design, just such a large and inspired coalition of stakeholders joined forces, with the ambition to set a new standard for resilient development. Ten teams were selected – teams of engineers, scientists, architects and activists from all over the world – and joined forces with agencies from all levels of government: federal, state and local. Supported by research partners and a group of dedicated funders such as the Rockefeller Foundation, Rebuild by Design became more than a programme: it evolved into a movement for resilience.

This movement of ‘reform by design’ has over 250 professionals working collaboratively, supported by dozens of partner organisations, together with an active network of universities, community groups and funders. Instead of looking for quick answers to local problems, Rebuild by Design started looking for the right questions on this regional scale. Organised by New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge and its Research Advisory Group, the research phase became a complete exploration of the region in science and practice, connecting the places and people with the data and research, and envisioning these insights in maps and graphs, making tangible what is hard to address in words. Rebuild by Design talked and worked with community groups, citizens and politicians. This process of interaction, the research by design, and the collaboration across all disciplines in the region, delivered viable responses for intervention.

The research phase resulted in one comprehensive regional survey out of which the ten design teams selected 41 opportunities for possible intervention. Each team was then tasked to develop an innovative design approach for one intervention, working with a strong and local community-based coalition on an innovative yet feasible plan for implementation. Supported by the Municipal Arts Society, the Regional Plan Association and the Van Alen Institute, the teams worked on their designs. For the implementation, the Federal government allocated so-called disaster recovery block grants (CDBG-DR), but only for those designs that really created a new reality on the ground, in terms of policies, politics and culture, and that aimed to bring about reform on all levels. $920 million was dedicated to six winning proposals that, over the course of the next few years, will become the examples – the facts on the ground – that showcase the resilience of a comprehensive regional approach.

The process of Rebuild by Design started from the acknowledgement that complexity needs to be embraced to get a better sense of how to deal with it. And that design, research and collaboration go hand-in-hand with politics, policy development and investment strategies. There is only one world to work in for innovation, resilience and reform – and that is the real world.

Governance by design
Rebuild by Design created alliances for change, pushed for research by design and connected with real projects, linking design to politics and advocating reform through new perspectives and cultural change. These collective actions are no frame or set boundaries but more of a movement, like a school. This school is no metaphor but real; it is the cultural change through strong coalitions, a network within institutions and the design world, that can create better places and policies through design and collaboration, and a process of reform. Governance in the most adaptive and robust way possible, connected with people and places, inclusive in both process and outcomes, and through this process and its collaborative capacity also informed by the people and informing politics. It is governance on the edge of all stakeholders, people and organisations, that adds time to think, room for progress without negotiation and a frame for decision-making. This is not about a free ride for all, nor for back-room plans. This is governing by design, through a collective, inclusive, collaborative approach.

Rebuild by Design has created its own political space. With the launch of the National Disaster Resilience Competition, we take this approach all across the US, to tap into talent on the ground and connect it with the talent of the world, and to build a US alliance for resilience reform. The Grand Challenge we launched with USAID and the Rockefeller Foundation brings this approach to the world, starting in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and parts of Asia. The model of reform by design is no blueprint, but adaptive, based on the described principles of inclusiveness, collaborative power, design drive and production. The research network of Design and Politics that launched this September – with the help of politicians, designers and scientists on all continents – will develop this approach further and will connect politics and design to build coalitions for resilience across the world for a new culture of reform. Reform by design.

Henk Ovink is Principal of ‘Rebuild by Design’ and Senior Advisor to the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and the Executive Office of the President of the United States.