Post-Hurricane Sandy: Solutions for a Resilient City

Sandy Aftermath

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, as communities band together to clean up the devastation and utility companies work tirelessly to restore the infrastructure that keeps New York City running, planners and policy makers are debating the next steps to making the city as resilient to natural disaster as we once thought it was. We have at our hands a range of options to debate and design and the political leverage to make some of these solutions a reality. The question now is, which option or combination of options is most suitable for protecting New York City and its boroughs? Follow us after the break for more.


The event of Hurricane Sandy reminds us that we are not immune to disaster. Lower Manhattan is built precariously on dirt and rock, its most precious assets jutting out into the tides of New York Bay. Hurricane Sandy proved that our infrastructure is not resilient, natural disasters are not biased and that, with our current measures, we are wholly unprepared for a similar occurrence. It’s true that scientists have called Sandy the “Frankenstorm” – a combination of worst case scenarios that turned the Category 1 hurricane into a thousand-diameter monster storm that reaped devastation all along the Atlantic Coast of the Americas. High Tide and a cold front fueled Sandy’s already powerful winds and caused unprecedented storm surges, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 19th century, along Jamaica Bay across Brooklyn and Queens and Manhattan’s exposed coast.

Here are some suggestions that have been addressed by New York Governor Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bloomberg, and various environmentalists, architects and engineers:

The solution that has gotten the most attention in the past few weeks is the introduction of sea gates into New York Bay. Following in Amsterdam’s footsteps, the sea gates would protect the low lying areas of NYC from flooding by creating a barrier that would stop water from flowing into the rivers during a surge. There are several missteps in this strategy: the sea gates will only protect New York Harbor leaving Jamaica Bay, the Rockaways, and Brighton Beach as exposed as they were during the storm. Many experts agree that this expensive and intrusive solution is not practical for the geography of New York City. Other ideas that have made headlines is a five-mile gateway that would protect parts of Long Island and New Jersey, operating as a series of gates and dikes, similar to a strategy employed in Amsterdam.

But environmental concerns about sea gates and barrier strategies in general have also surfaced. Philip Orton writes in the New York Times that such a move could compromise the ecosystems in the area: “[the] plan that has been presented would reduce exchanges of our city’s estuarine waters with the ocean, degrading water quality and changing temperature and salinity. This would have complex effects on our rebounding ecosystems and coastal fisheries”. If we are to choose, a solution that must be balanced between resilience and sustainability, there must be other options out there. Our modern infrastructure follows a methodology of resistance; our policies and strategies try to control and combat nature. But what we are seeing is that we cannot prepare for every natural disaster without compromising elements of our environment. Many environmentalists agree that a better strategy is to adapt and prepare, working within the realm of nature to protect our cities.”

Manhatten Waterfront Post Sandy

So what solutions are out there? Some architects are devising plans to make the city more adaptable and resilient to such events. Architect Stephen Cassell of Architecture Research Office suggests using nature itself to respond to rising sea levels by extending Manhattan with wetlands that absorb the water and reduce its force as it approaches the city’s streets. Architect and Landscape designer Kate Oroff suggests a similar strategy using reefs and creating habitat for oysters within New York Harbor and off the Brooklyn/Queens coast. Such natural habitats can filter water and mitigate the force of a storm surge in a way that is similar to wetlands.

Small measures such as these have become more viable among planners and designers that can visualize a solution that is within reach and is within a framework of small steps that help protect against disasters and allow a city to rebound much more quickly. Waterproofing utility systems, watertight adaptations to subway entrances, and building codes that ban placing water heaters and electrical systems in cellars, are just a few small scale measures that could have greatly reduced the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy. Some more extreme suggestions is “managed retreat” which calls for moving people away from coastal areas altogether.

So as engineers, designers and planners, how do we defend ourselves for the next onslaught of unprecedented weather events? For every proposal, there is an argument that warns of its negative impacts and inefficiencies. The solution will likely be a combination of measures, preparedness being a top priority, and will entail collaboration on the part of politicians and scientists, engineers and designers, infrastructure and nature.


The Danger of the Zoning-Free Approach in Developing Nations

Despite the romantic notion about cities that develop organically have a rich diversity of form and function, we cannot overlook the deadly side effects of negligent city planning. As Christopher Hume of the Toronto Star points out, last month’s tragic fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas is a grim reminder that planning has a time and place and its ultimate utility resides in the initiative to protect residents and make for healthier communities. The tangle of bureaucracy associated with planning, zoning and land use regulations can give any architect or developer a massive headache. In some cases, the laws are so restricting that diverging from bulk regulations becomes very limiting.



According to Hume, Texas prides itself on having a zoning free policy towards urban development, and while this contributes to its low real estate rates, we cannot ignore the dangerous follies that result from this approach. Surely there is a middle ground. Perhaps it lies in a long overdue overhaul of outdated planning approaches that are more receptive to the kind of development we would like to see in our cities without sacrificing public health.


In many ways, it comes down to economics and real estate values. Profit driven developers will always prioritize income over design. So where do we draw the line between rampant growth, and moderate and considered design? How anarchist can we be about diverging from our zoning codes and planning regulations? How do we determine the boundaries between strict land use regulations and intuitive organic growth?


Post-tsunami housing for kirinda, Sri Lanka by Shigeru Ban

It seems that whenever disaster strikes, Shigeru Ban is summoned to the scene to help – and now he is one of 20 designers nominated for the 2013 Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Although Ban could have been recognized for a whole host of humanitarian projects, this year the architect was recognized for designing 100 small homes for Sri Lankan villagers who were displaced after the 2004 tsunami leveled the village of Kirinda.

After consulting with locals about the preferred layout of their new micro homes, Ban designed the 31 square meter homes with a bathroom and kitchen that is separated by the living area. This last stipulation was government driven. In order to help boost the local economy after the tsunami’s wholesale destruction, Ban made use of local labor and materials.

Each of the 100 homes has walls made with earth bricks, while partitions and finishings are comprised of local rubber tree wood. A shared entertainment space is covered, allowing for community activities. The homes are specifically attuned to the local climate and the entire complex has an area of 3,195 square meters.

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Microgrids key to energy security?


Large natural disasters severely damage power infrastructure and hundreds of minor storms regularly disrupt power networks around the world. As we face a future made less certain by the effects of climate change, I believe microgrids can help us keep the lights on.

Microgrids are localised, integrated energy systems that supply power to communities of various sizes, from a small residential cluster to providing the energy needs of a large conglomerate. They consist of distributed energy resources (including photovoltaics (PV), fuel cells, combined heating and power (CHP) and wind), electricity storage (such as batteries or liquid air) and electrical loads operating as an autonomous grid. Microgrids act either in parallel to, or islanded from, the local electricity distribution network.

Crucially, microgrids can continue to operate independently of the wider grid infrastructure. If this is damaged, the microgrid will still operate and provide power to the local loads.


During the devastation caused by the Fukushima Tsunami, a microgrid at Tonoku Fukushi University continued to provide essential heat and power to the facility when the wider macrogrid was down. During Superstorm Sandy, operations at the US Food and Drug Administration’s White Oak facility continued uninterrupted by the macrogrid’s complete loss of power.

So what’s the catch?

The main barrier to mass deployment is the upfront capital costs. A microgrid is much more than just an emergency power supply and requires specialised planning and design. It has to operate as a self-contained grid, managing the delicate balance of supply and demand while providing the necessary electrical safety functions.

Microgrids also require significant investment in generation and storage, with the generation operating continuously so it can transition seamlessly to ‘island mode’ when the wider grid goes down.

There are also regulatory challenges and technical issues to overcome with the local electricity utilities. The ability to separate from the macrogrid when desired is a whole new operating regime for utility companies to get to grips with.

But microgrids have benefits even when the wider grid is still working. They can eliminate issues of power quality that can severely affect sensitive electronic equipment. Because they store electricity, microgrids can also help the grid to accommodate increasing renewable generation, which is intermittent by nature. And by using distributed, renewable generation, the energy generated by power from microgrids can be cheaper than the unit cost of grid energy.

Ultimately, microgrids can increase energy security by ending dependence on the wider grid and it will be interesting to see how the market for these specialised grids grows over the next few years. Outside of the military I’d expect to see campus settings, power-hungry businesses such as data centres, small island nations and rural areas prone to outages around the world taking advantage of microgrids.