Jan 08, 2018
THEME: Sustainability

Why Rebuilding Will Fail

I was three years into my career when, in the middle of doing some detailing for brickwork, I realized I wanted to do something besides the detailing for brickwork. I broke up with architecture so that I could pursue my love affair with cities—specifically New York, my ultimate crush. I didn’t live there, but I had always suspected that its color, bravado, and history made it the greatest place on earth.

These urbanist inklings were still forming when Hurricane Katrina landed on the Gulf Coast in 2005. Over the next two years of work with the Mississippi Renewal Forum, I worked side-by-side with people in small towns to help rebuild communities across the state. But that’s the problem right there—rebuilding was all we really did. It felt deceptive and one-dimensional to say that people were better off than they were before the storm hit. Sure, the new FEMA maps brought the towns slightly farther from the shoreline, and the houses slightly higher. But disaster planning shouldn’t be that simple. For climate scientists and planners around the world, Katrina was a massive signal that we can’t just rebuild.

By the time Superstorm Sandy took aim at the eastern seaboard in 2012, I was very happily living in New York. Since Katrina, we could no longer consider such storms a one-time event, and I knew the response to Sandy would be different. Whether it’s protection, adaptation, or retreat, our shorelines deserve a more systematic response. But that’s just one piece of the resilience puzzle. Rising temperatures will soon cause untold stress on our cites. And while we’ll never predict every result of this emerging reality, we need to plan for the full range of cascading consequences. Today, my work—as with New York’s Newtown Creek, above—tries to address those consequences by operating on three interdependent scales. At the broadest scale, we work to affect policy. Better policies facilitate our efforts to enhance communities. And more engaged communities mean buy-in for our work at the scale of buildings.

Looking back, I really am grateful for those bricks. They got me started on resilience early. And there’s so much work to be done!

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