Opinion, Essay, Resilience, Sustainability, New York, Lifecycle
Conversations around resiliency today seem to imply that planners and designers might be capable ofâ€”might even be expected toâ€”save every building and public space at risk. The sad truth is, however, that we cannot, and perhaps we should not. Climate change and its attendant sea level rise will radically redraw urban edges, forcing us to make difficult decisions. Even if we had the vast sums of money required to protect the precarious status quo, that might not be enough to stave off the inevitable.
So, then: What are our priorities? How do we choose what to save? How do we responsibly chart this uncertain future? I believe the answers to these and similar questions should begin with an honest assessment of three essential considerations:
(1) Consider the useful life of buildings, structures, and public spaces. When thinking about how to apportion funds for resiliency and risk assessment, the â€śuseful lifeâ€ť of a facility should be a key determinant in what is saved (note that I do not say â€śprotect,â€ť a potentially more accessible goal). Every structure and public space is designed to have a â€śuseful lifeâ€ť: an anticipated life span based on design and construction. This is usually determined by clients, but it should be a significant consideration for designers, too. For example, hospitals are designed for, at minimum, a 100-year existence, even if internal mechanical systems require upgrading to keep pace with technological advances.
Sadly, housingâ€”particularly standalone and attached residencesâ€”typically falls far below this threshold. One of the major challenges for this sector is that we largely construct these buildings with concrete, which is also true for infrastructure. Exposed-concrete structures, such as bridges and tunnels, have an approximate 50-to-60-year life span. In other words, New Yorkâ€™s Robert Moses-era infrastructure has now reached the end of its viability. Steel structures are also limited, if they are not regularly inspected and monitored for rust and deterioration. As a result, in the future, hospitals located near or in flood zones might warrant saving, but at-risk housing and infrastructure might not.
(2) Evaluate their worth to society. Every structure and space should be considered in terms of the value to people of its ability to withstand the impacts of a physically disruptive occurrenceâ€”i.e., the ability to recover from a traumatic eventâ€”and supported accordingly. Critical facilities include hospitals, food storage and delivery systems, and infrastructure such as bridges, roads, and telecommunications that provide evacuation and emergency response opportunities. Among these, facilities considered highly critical should be evaluated based on their capacity to integrate redundant systems that will enable them to function immediately following a catastrophic event. For example, following Hurricane Sandy, a number of major facilities along New Yorkâ€™s Upper East Side â€śHospital Rowâ€ť lacking in-built redundancy had their mechanical systems overwhelmed by flooding, which resulted in weeks of disruption to crucial medical care.
Considering public spaces, one might ask whether parks, for example, are â€ścritical infrastructure.â€ť Clearly, they are not vital to oneâ€™s ability to recover or survive a catastrophic event, but are they critical in terms of daily life? I would argue that they are. So what level of risk are we willing to accept for parkland? And if this parklandâ€”125 of New York Cityâ€™s 525-mile-long coastline, for exampleâ€”is within a zone of vulnerability from storms and sea level rise, then will we slowly see the disappearance of it as seas rise and storm frequency accelerates? Should we be planning to replace that parkland elsewhere? Should we relocate (â€śretreatâ€ť) people from coastal communities so that we can build replacement parks at a higher elevation (a highly unlikely option)? Or do we simply accept this â€śtakingâ€ť of parkland by natural forces? On the other hand, when is a â€śfloodable parkâ€ť no longer usable? When it floods monthly, or weekly, or diurnally with the tide? All of these elements come into consideration when evaluating the investment value of resiliency interventions in these spaces.
(3) Officially categorize structures and spaces and take action based on risk management and climate change considerations. The NYC Mayorâ€™s Office of Climate Policy an