The most moving architectural renderings I’ve seen lately show the New Jersey Meadowlands, not far from where I grew up, as beautifully restored natural wetlands. The Hackensack River, still crisscrossed by 20th-century artifacts like the soaring elevated stretches of the New Jersey Turnpike, is unexpectedly full of swimmers; the improbably bucolic scene is ringed with dense, well-thought-out urban neighborhoods. It looks nothing like the Meadowlands I once knew, famous in my childhood for its smoldering landfills and toxic waste dumps. Nor does it resemble the Meadowlands of today, dominated by a cluster of sports arenas surrounded by infinite acres of asphalt and accompanied by a hideous, unfinished shopping and entertainment center (with an indoor ski slope and water park) that was supposed to be called Xanadu, but has more recently been renamed American Dream Meadowlands.
The renderings in question were part of a proposal drawn up by a team of designers—led by MIT’s Center for Advanced Urbanism and Dutch firms ZUS and De Urbanisten—for Rebuild by Design, a New York–area resilience competition launched in 2013, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The New Meadowlands Project, as the proposal was called, was one of seven competition winners.
Rebuild by Design was the product of President Barack Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, but it was really the brainchild of the administration’s first secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Shaun Donovan, who had previously served as commissioner of New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. With graduate degrees from Harvard in both public administration and architecture, Donovan drew on his double-edged background to structure a competition that took a creative approach to making the New York region less vulnerable to future storms and that also motivated a broad range of public officials and community leaders to think deeply about the long-term project of resilience.
Today, most of Rebuild by Design’s winners are substantially funded and moving methodically from design to approval to construction. As the projects take shape, Rebuild has come to represent an unconventional but important approach to governance, demonstrating how enlightened political thinking can improve the built environment—a lesson that has taken on new urgency in the aftermath of the recent presidential election.
A Tour Guide with a Curious Title
In March, I sat in on an urban design seminar at Columbia University, led by New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, at which Donovan was the guest speaker. He said that as HUD secretary, he was sometimes frustrated by the fact that the role of the federal government in this country is so limited. Many of the decisions on things like land use and building code that are increasingly crucial as climate change brings more extreme weather are made not by officials in Washington, D.C., but by those in state and local governments.
Still, after President Obama had asked him to develop a long-term resilience plan following Sandy, Donovan made a side trip during a family vacation to Germany, visiting the Netherlands to learn what he could about that low-lying country’s long history with water management. “Henk Ovink was my tour guide,” Donovan told the Columbia students. “He had the most curious title I’d ever heard.” At the time, Ovink was director general for spatial planning and water affairs. Donovan spent a couple days touring the Dutch countryside with Ovink in a bus, learning about what resilience means in a country where 76 percent of it is at or below sea level. The two men talked about how to make Americans smarter and more conscientious about the risks associated with climate change. What they came up with was a device that would engage local officials—those willing to entertain and support unconventional solutions—and give them access to the scientific resources and deep pockets of the federal government.
The idea they arrived at was to respond to the devastation caused by Sandy with a design competition that would begin with multidisciplinary teams devoted to pure research, attempting to figure out the problems before contemplating solutions. It’s not an unprecedented model: At the Museum of Modern Art, for example, former architecture curator Barry Bergdoll mounted two exhibitions, “Rising Currents” in 2010 and “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream” in 2012, that were the outgrowth of extensive research. But an open-ended structure was highly unorthodox for a federal rebuilding program following a natural disaster. And this unusually cerebral experiment in governance wasn’t an easy sell.
“I toured him around,” Ovink, who is now the Netherlands’ special envoy on international water affairs, recently told me about his meeting with Donovan, “and we had this great conversation. A lot of the conversation was actually focused on: Can the federal government pull this off?”
One of the problems, from Ovink’s perspective: “A government is about security and not about risk,” he told me. “Innovation is about risk and not about security.”
The riskiest part about Rebuild was its philosophical basis, the research phase, which came without a set of deliverables and consisted of several hundred design professionals and scientists, broken into teams, pondering the vulnerabilities in the New York region that had been exploited by Sandy. The overall concept proved impossible for the feds, even at their most enlightened, to fund. Ovink, who worked closely with Donovan to coax the federal bureaucracy into embracing the strategy, recalls, “My discussion with the Office of Management and Budget at the time was, ‘So Henk, you want a billion dollars for a process where you don’t know what the outcome is.’ They asked me if some of the projects could fail and I said yes.”
To enable his dream of an innovative, open, free-spirited public sector, Donovan had to secure money from private funders. Rebuild began with a $4 million grant from a consortium led by the Rockefeller Foundation. After the winners were chosen and the projects were clearly defined, HUD put up $930 million to implement the designs (just a small percentage of the $60 billion Sandy recovery effort).
Living Breakwaters by Scape
Today, the New York–based landscape architecture firm Scape, one of the winners, is busy putting the finishing touches on a design for series of “living breakwaters” to be constructed (and cultivated) off the south shore of Staten Island. The structures will be made out of stones, concrete, and discarded oyster shells collected from local restaurants, but they will also be expanded and strengthened over time as successive generations of oysters create what the Scape team calls “biogenic build up.” Scape has been promoting the idea of “oystertecture” since the “Rising Currents” exhibition in 2010, but this is the firm’s first time implementing the concept. The job of the breakwaters is threefold: to protect waterfront neighborhoods from future wave action, to help the ongoing reintroduction of oysters and other sea life to New York City’s waterways, and to reconnect Staten Islanders with their local ecology and maritime heritage.
In Hoboken, N.J., meanwhile, a city that was largely underwater after Sandy, Mayor Dawn Zimmer has emerged as one of Rebuild’s great champions. Working with a design lead from the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, she will soon be bidding out construction on $230 million of infrastructure (in conjunction with neighboring Weehawken and Jersey City) that will, as the project title puts it “Resist, Delay, Store, and Discharge” water. As of late March, the project was in the process of obtaining an environmental impact statement and final approvals.
Some Hoboken residents have fought the project, protesting that the proposed sea walls would block their Hudson River views. But those walls will actually take the form of waterfront parks or outdoor restaurant seating or planters. “It’s a park, but it’s also built in a way where it can hold back the water,” Zimmer says.
Similarly, a series of new inland parks will act as sponges, absorbing stormwater. “We’ve got three resiliency parks that we’re working on that are going to be designed to hold back anywhere from 100,000 gallons to a million gallons of water,” Zimmer adds. In the name of resilience, Hoboken, just one square mile large, will wind up with nine new acres of parkland.
Zimmer hasn’t stopped there. “We’re adding resiliency into everything,” she boasts, “whether it’s doing road projects or doing park projects. And we’ve also changed legislation to make it easier for people to do green roofs. … Ideally, we want to get to a place where everyone is thinking about it. It’s not just what the city is doing, but it’s also people thinking about, ‘How can I make my own building more resilient?’ ”
The Meadowlands proposal, which came with a price tag of $850 million, has not fared as well. The project was only awarded $150 million, ostensibly for a “first phase.” Last year, at a conference in which winning Rebuild teams gathered to discuss their progress, the current design leader for the Meadowlands project, civil engineer Chris Benosky, a vice president at AECOM, explained that even if he took just one aspect of the original proposal, a 9-mile line of berms to protect low-lying towns from flooding, it would still cost approximately $35 million a mile, more than twice what the available funds allow. Referring to the current budget, Benoksy admitted, “It doesn’t do much.”
AECOM, working with some members of the original team and local stakeholders, had to completely rethink the project. Instead of a stunning natural environment ringed by berms and dense, skillfully planned new development, the New Meadowlands would be a lot like the Old Meadowlands, but with green slivers of flood mitigation infrastructure interspersed throughout the hodgepodge of residential, commercial, and industrial development that had been built atop marshes and flood plains. As Benosky framed it: “We pulled apart the concept and created a kit of parts.”
One AECOM kit, intended to offer protection from storm surges, includes a variety of berms, walls, and more decorative objects, like planters, that could act as sea walls. Another kit is designed to enhance drainage, using pumps and attractively landscaped open spaces that serve as bioswales to carry water away from residential areas. A hybrid option would include elements of both kits. On paper, the interventions look minor, but when I drove around Little Ferry and South Hackensack, it became clear that they would make a discernible improvement to communities that haven’t benefited from the sophisticated landscape design that’s now commonplace in many U.S cities.
Rebuild by Design's Hudson River project
Rebuild by Design has its critics, none of them more vocal than Bill Sheehanuxazyvvavydrfdxb, who 20 years ago founded Hackensack Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy organization that also offers “eco-cruises.” Sheehan says that the construction of the berms shown in the New Meadowlands proposal would violate Clean Water Act rules that forbid building over wetlands, that the dense development depicted didn’t make much sense either, and that even the diminished “kit of parts” approach is destined to have unintended consequences, perhaps protecting one town from a storm surge but inundating another community upstream. “Which means that the energy of that surge is going to move right up the wall that they build, and then when it gets to the end of that wall, it’s just going to spread out into Hackensack and Teaneck or whatever town is next in line,” Sheehan says.
I ask Dennis Reinknecht about this problem. An engineer who manages the Bureau of Flood Resilience for New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, he’s busy trying to get AECOM’s version of the New Meadowlands ready for implementation. His response, in essence, is that they’re working on it: “That’s all part of the analysis we’re doing right now. I think the questions you’re asking are ones we’re doing internally in the engineering. And those answers are going to have to come forward and we’re going to have to show them to everyone.”
But even if a solution emerges, Sheehan thinks the berms are just another way of eating up precious wetland acres. “I hear it from people all the time,” Sheehan says. “We never used to get flooded like this. And that’s because when you were a kid, the Meadowlands still had almost 20,000 acres of wetlands to absorb some of that water, so you never got a flood. But now that we’re down to 8,400 acres and we’re trying to hold onto them for dear life, we’ve got to do something.”
His preferred plan would be to buy out or otherwise dislodge those who’ve built their homes in the most vulnerable area. “I would say take all of the money that you’re throwing into this resiliency planning and use them to buy people out and move them on.”
Despite the disagreement over tactics, the Rebuild vision seems a lot like an appropriation of Sheehan’s Arcadian view of the Meadowlands. Which is as it should be, according to Donovan. In his recent lecture at Columbia, he expounded on the nature of innovation, arguing that it’s not the result of “an individual thinker with light bulb,” but rather that “most innovation is theft,” emerging from “a communal process of creativity.” In Donovan’s view, since the federal government is everywhere, it’s uniquely able to “see what innovative things are happening in communities” all over the country. The federal government’s job, then, is to encourage the theft of ideas, to take the best ones and disseminate them.
As HUD secretary and later at the federal Office of Management and Budget, Donovan developed “structures and processes” to do just that. For instance, he established the National Disaster Resilience competition, a streamlined version of Rebuild set up to fund worthy disaster-relief projects across the country, such as watershed management in Iowa and green infrastructure in Virginia. The end goal, according to Donovan, was to make federal programs that are not monolithic and top-down but instead respond to myriad local needs.
After the Columbia seminar, I asked Donovan what would happen post-Obama to programs like Rebuild and his mission to distribute innovation. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a Democratic ideal that federal government should be listening more to communities and spreading innovation,” he told me. “In some ways, it’s very consistent with the federalist view of the Republicans that the federal government ought to be a supporter of local communities rather than dictating to local communities.”
Arguably he’s right, although it doesn’t appear that the current administration agrees. Despite Trump’s talk of a massive infrastructure bill, Congress reportedly plans to eliminate funding for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants that pumped $5 billion into more than 400 transportation projects around the country. The only project that the president seems ready to implement is his much ballyhooed borderwall, a 2,000-mile structure that will cost upwards of $20 billion, decimate sensitive environments like Big Bend National Park and the Rio Grande flood plains, divide communities and farms that straddle the border, and require the purchase of thousands of acres of private property or the taking of that land through eminent domain. Trump’s wall is the diametric opposite of what Donovan was advocating with Rebuild: to identify, study, and fully understand a complex problem before proposing a solution.
Donovan’s achievement was to gather teams of design professionals, scientists, and public officials to craft radical new approaches to the threats posed by global warming. Cities and towns across the country will continue to find new responses to these challenges. But the answers won’t come as quickly, nor will they be as far-reaching, if Washington isn’t clever enough to facilitate and fund that innovation, let alone acknowledge the existence of the threat.