Deborah Gans, professor, School of Architecture, and principal architect of GANSstudio who has been an advocate of coastal resiliency projects and serves on New York City’s Build It Back program, comments on lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy and where our focus should be in preparing for the next storm.
Three years later, how is New York City more prepared for (coastal) damage than before Hurricane Sandy?
If a storm hit today in a particular way, in terms of direction, wind strength, phase of tide, and other factors, we are not yet truly prepared. It takes a long time to put water management policies and infrastructure in place, as well as to create an informed public who supports them. It took the Dutch 50 years to achieve the efficiency and coastal resiliency for which they are renowned. It is important to note that the Department of City Planning's “Vision 2020: New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan” has begun the larger conceptual work with a comprehensive waterfront plan, along with the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (SIRR) report and the thinking funded by Rebuild by Design, a federal program. On a more immediate and building-by-building scale, we have new city codes in place that facilitate the elevation of buildings above flood level in relation to our city streetscapes. While we have a long way to go, this is a step in the right direction.
How did recovery from Hurricane Katrina inform New York City’s efforts after Sandy?
The lesson learned is the importance of the intermediate scale, especially that of our neighborhoods. We are better at developing house-by-house solutions or emphasizing major infrastructural thinking. We aren’t so good at thinking of sustainability in economic and social terms, along with physical dimensions at the intermediate scale. As part of the RAMP (Rebuild Adapt Mitigate Plan) curriculum that I teach at Pratt, I have been working with students at the block-level scale in Sheepshead Bay on the infrastructural challenges facing the neighborhood, and the city has adopted those concerns, as a result of our two years of work.
Pratt’s School of Architecture has a large focus on community engagement. How has that helped prepare students for addressing the impact of climate change on our most vulnerable coastal areas?
Impacts are a tangle of social, economic, and physical parameters. The city’s Build it Back recovery program, with which I am working professionally, is constantly confronted by large swathes of homeowners resistant to raising their homes because they will lose necessary rental income. The joint Architecture and Planning Department efforts in Pratt’s Recovery, Adaptation, Mitigation, and Planning (RAMP) curriculum have not only sensitized our students to this complexity, but produced inventive design approaches to a future that is beautiful, green, and equitable.