Crafting the Resilient Urban Landscape: Post Superstorm Sandy

Joyce Klein Rosenthal and the GSD are at the forefront of a collaborative initiative, involving the design community, public policy leaders and urban planners, to innovate a more environmentally and socially resilient urban landscape in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy’s devastating impacts. Through her Master of Design Studies track in Risk and Resilience, in partnership with Professor Diane Davis, Assistant Professor Rosenthal is leading the effort to examine and design solutions to help urban centers respond to and prepare for severe weather disruptions resulting from a rapidly changing global climate. Rosenthal has convened a distinguished group of designers and architects, policy-makers and forward-thinking students to craft their vision of a livable urban environment that is simultaneously resilient to large-scale disasters and promotes social and environmental welfare. Achieving the radical urban transformation necessary to create a resilient urban landscape will require the innovative talents of designers and urban planners to reverse the cumulative effects of shrinking municipal budgets, compromised natural environments, and an outdated and insufficient urban infrastructure.

As part of the Risk and Resilience program, on February 21 Rosenthal collaborated with GSD Alumni Relations and the Harvard Club of New York to organize and moderate a discussion on the social welfare, structural and environmental design challenges that will need to be addressed in order to create a more robust, environmental and socially just urban environment. She was joined by a distinguished group of architects, designers and public policy advocates, including Abby Suckle (MArch ‘77), founder of Abby Suckle Architect; Walter Meyer (MLAUD ’03), Founding Principal of Local Office Landscape Architecture; Thaddeus Pawlowski, Associate Urban Designer for the Office of the Chief Urban Designer of the City of New York’s Department of City Planning; and Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. Suckle, Meyer, Pawlowski and Bautista described both the weaknesses endemic to existing infrastructure that impede its resiliency to catastrophic weather events, and the highly innovative solutions that can reshape the urban landscape for enhanced resilience to disruptive environmental change.  

Professor Rosenthal framed the discussion by describing how Sandy’s impacts on the densely populated and highly visible metropolitan New York City and New Jersey regions attracted the country’s attention to the consequences of legacy social and environmental planning policies. The storm’s aftermath underscored the inadequacy of disaster response systems to withstand such large-scale damage, and put into stark relief the fault lines of a society where the unequal impacts of environmental devastation are visited upon its poorest members. Increased scrutiny of the disproportionate effects of the storm on the New York City region’s poorest residents, and the convergence of environmental, public health and economic threats in the area’s most economically disadvantaged areas, has spurred an urgency to fundamentally rethink the composition and functionality of the metropolitan center during disruptive events, according to Rosenthal. 

On May 13, Rosenthal’s Risk and Resilience students presented their design solutions for transforming New York City post-Sandy at an all-day forum focused on seven key issue areas: policy and funding, architecture, infrastructure, mapping/wayfinding, social support, shelters and ecology. With the generous support of the Harvard Club of New York City (HCNYC) and the GSD, Rosenthal’s Master in Design Studies students, along with GSD urban planning, urban design, landscape architecture and architecture students, studied New York City neighborhoods to articulate plans, designs and new approaches to prepare for and manage the impacts of rapid change on the urban landscape. The students’ plans for reimagining the urban landscape encompassed a broad scope, from preserving social memories about the destruction suffered in the wake of the storm, to designing houses with adjustable-height floors, and reclaiming and restoring critical wetlands ecosystems. They also demonstrated a keen understanding of the need for dramatically new thinking about the form of the built environment.

The outcomes of the GSD’s Post-Superstorm Sandy design and planning research, including a course book titled Creating Resilient Cities, will provide critical lessons and development opportunities for the world’s twenty-first century cities. While some of the challenges facing New York City in devising a socially and environmentally resilient landscape are unique to its cultural and historical legacy, in many ways the city’s difficulties are emblematic of great urban centers around the world. New York City offers a highly visible microcosm in which to study these design challenges, both for urban planners and for the post-professional students of Rosenthal and Davis’ Risk and Resilience program at the GSD.