Credit: Viktor Koen

Friedrich Nietzsche’s line from Twilight of the Idols, “What does, not kill me makes me stronger,” is about individual fortitude. But the notion feels just as acute for larger swaths of the global population these days as weather events grow in severity. Disaster mitigation requires a grasp of complex systems and a willingness to jettison assumptions that, say, floodwaters should always be kept at bay rather than accepted as part of an ecosystem’s wont. “Nature does not respect political boundaries,” says Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, president of AIA New York and co-chair of its Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee (DfRR). Architects like Brown working in the area of disaster mitigation have begun to focus less on sustaining a way of life, regardless of nature, and more on what it means to live in a resilient community.

Worst-Case and Better-Case Scenarios
Hurricane Katrina not only altered the lines of New Orleans but revealed the city’s infrastructural, political, and socioeconomic fragility. “The city’s response to Katrina was a case of leadership failure up and down the line,” says Kristina Ford, former director of city planning for New Orleans. “It should have not been rebuilt with any expectation of re-creating the city that had bankrupted itself long before Katrina.” Ford, who currently teaches in the School of International and Public Relations at Columbia University, points to Mayor Ray Nagin’s tenure and Katrina’s arrival as the perfect storm of incompetence, ill-preparedness, and an outmoded and unrealistic evacuation plan.

“The New Orleans example is only marginally understood by the rest of this country,” adds David Waggonner, FAIA, a principal at Waggonner & Ball, who led that city’s Dutch Dialogues project and Living with Water plan. “We’ve got a degree of federal support, but it wasn’t support for change. It was support to build [the city] back the way it was, which did not incentivize the smart moves that need to be made to adapt to local soil, hydrologic, and climatic conditions.”

Superstorm Sandy inspired a different set of responses in New York, whose agencies and municipal departments have pursued the change-with-nature ideal that Waggonner endorses. In 2013, New York City’s Department of City Planning produced Designing for Flood Risk guidelines, the Department of Buildings revised its building codes, and the NYC Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency issued the report “A Stronger, More Resilient New York.” Mirroring those efforts, the AIA Regional Recovery Working Group held a series of workshops in 2013 and 2014 to address coastal resilience, Brown’s DfRR co-sponsored a series of risk seminars in the same period, and in June the multiagency Rebuild By Design competition awarded more than $1 billion in HUD grants to interdisciplinary design teams to pursue resilient strategies, rather than merely recovery tactics, throughout the region.

Resilience specialists recognize that so-called “100-year storms” now occur more frequently, and that the difference between temporary challenges and systemic collapse depends on detailed impact analysis. There have always been floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and fires; but events associated with climate change, now amplified in frequency and severity, call for a distinction between resilience in the simpler engineering sense—a material’s ability to reassume its original state after a stress—and a new definition that involves interdependent systems of infrastructure, resources, transportation, security, and culture.

Design Storms and Solutions
The Dutch polder system combines land reclamation policies, as well as economic agreements between cities and landowners, to be an effective tool for land management. For Waggonner and others who look to the Dutch for guidance, resilience has to address the severity of weather events and the overall impact of infrastructure and buildings past, present, and future.

In South Florida, Waggonner observes, where elevations are low and geological strata include porous limestone, storms involving surge are what he calls “design storms,” noting the futility of building flood defenses where water can rush beneath the foundational level. “Your design storm,” he says, “depends upon the storm itself and on the way the storm is juxtaposed against the land and against the flood systems.”

New York City and Hoboken, N.J., on the other hand, require a different response based on two conditions: Manhattan schist on the east side of the Hudson River and softer soils conducive to structural sinking on the west side. Some New Yorkers have argued that Hurricane Irene in 2011 enlightened citizens and officials about the urgency of storm preparation, enabling them to mitigate some of Sandy’s more extensive destruction. Resilience, in this view, is defined by a stressor/adaptation cycle. Each disaster proffers lessons, even if the next disaster is different in severity and scope, and lessons lead to strategies that can continue to adjust accordingly. “Given the time required to retrofit our infrastructure, as compared to the increasing frequency of chronic and acute events, communities must undertake both the long process of analyzing these stressors on responsive systems while making short-term accommodations to address immediate needs,” says Janice Barnes, who chairs the Resiliency Task Force at Perkins+Will. “It’s about building muscle memory, in a sense. Communities must be ready to both react to the next hurricane season while simultaneously making long-term capital improvements in their critical facilities.”

Kristina Ford, however, offers a note of caution about the stress-adaptation model. “I don’t think there is such a thing as a wakeup call—except for its literal meaning in hotels,” she says. “In New Orleans, with each passing year in which there isn’t another devastating hurricane, people go back to thinking, ‘Well, it really was a 100-year occurrence so we must now have 94 or so years left before there will be another one.’ ” That isn’t how probability works, but it’s a common inference from the term “100-year storm,” one that she considers misleading—along with terms like “sustainability” and “resilience” themselves.

“ ‘Resilience’ has stolen a march on ‘sustainability,’ and before sustainability it was ‘smart growth,’ and before that it was something else,” she says. “Those phrases stop conversation right at the point at which conversation should begin, by establishing what each person thinks the phrase means. My ‘sustainability,’ for example, is undoubtedly different from yours.”

In place of conversation killers, she favors concepts that communicate specific ideas, such as the four land categories outlined by the Urban Land Institute in 2013 as part of a report titled “After Sandy”: coastal transition zones, coastal impact zones, coastal transformation zones, and smart growth receiving zones. In that order, each zone indicates increasing levels of safe habitability. “There was a way to capture redevelopment ideas and figure out which ideas go into which kind of zone, so that we don’t lose them in an effort to come up with an all-encompassing strategy for what we should do in the future,” Ford says.

Another strategy outlined by the Congress of New Urbanism is the so-called transect system, says Douglas Farr, FAIA, principal at Chicago’s Farr Associates. “It’s about applying the right tool in the right place, and the first step is to calibrate your transect,” he says, “which means not just downloading the default approach and assuming that it somehow applies. You need to walk the city.”

“In a downtown, when you have zero-lot-line buildings,” adds Farr, “please don’t require a detention pond. And while solar power is appropriate everywhere, wind turbines should be used chiefly for rural locales, where they are incredibly efficient, rather than trying to strap incredibly itty-bitty, token-contributing wind turbines to the top of the Willis Tower.”

Coming up with a universal definition of recovery is “a copy-and-paste reconstruction approach,” says Henk Ovink, senior adviser to former HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and the Netherlands’ former director general for spatial planning and water affairs. “The problem with rebuilding,” Ovink told an AIA New York audience in March, “is that you need time to think.”