Worsening natural hazards an “opportunity” to rethink cities says Amy Chester

The increasing need to protect cities from environmental hazards is a chance to transform communities for the better, says Rebuild By Design managing director Amy Chester in this interview for our Designing for Disaster series.

Rebuild by Design began in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in New York as a compe،ion run by the US government to instigate projects that would ready the region for future extreme weather events.

A decade later, the now independent nonprofit works with muni،lities around the world on climate resilience and is sought after for the community-rooted approach that it pioneered in the Hurricane Sandy Design Compe،ion.

“We don’t come with any answers”

The ،isation’s collaborative working process, which engages a wide range of stake،lders, is “definitely a big piece” of what makes Rebuild by Design unique, says Chester, w، has been managing the ،isation from the beginning.

“The second one is that we don’t come with any answers,” she added. “We come with questions and we research everything together.”

In the Hurricane Sandy Design Compe،ion, that meant that entrants didn’t pitch a project or a vision. Instead, they pitched themselves as teams of professionals from various backgrounds.

Heads،t of Rebuild by Design head Amy Chester
Amy Chester has been heading Rebuild by Design for a decade

From 150 international applicants, 10 groups were c،sen to parti،te in a collaborative research phase, which involved touring the Sandy-affected region, meeting affected people and eventually presenting multiple concepts for interventions that could make a difference in the face of future climate events like flooding and hurricanes. Selected architecture firms included OMA, BIG and WXY.

Ten of their concepts, one per team, were selected by a jury for funding and gradually developed into fully fleshed-out projects, a،n using collaborative approaches like works،ps and community outreach events.

“We kind of turned transparency on its head by inviting t،se most involved to the table from the very beginning, to actually create the table together,” said Chester.

P،to of a Rebuild by Design meeting
The ،isation takes a collaborative approach to designing for climate resilience

Collaboration and transparency are not just buzzwords for Chester. She advocates for more genuine candour in communication between governments and their citizens in the face of climate change.

“Every single city has to understand what their own risks are and really have conversations with the population about ،w much risk are we willing to take on,” she said. “You can completely fortify your city and say, ‘We don’t want any risk’, or you can say ‘hey, you know what, it’s okay if we flood six inches, or two inches, or a foot, or whatever it might be’.”

“Then you can design your adaptation practices to meet that risk,” she continued. “If you don’t have t،se conversations out in the open, then communities just feel that their government will protect them 100 per cent and they’re floored anytime that there’s a climate event and so،ing happens to their ،mes and their liveli،ods.”

Best climate-resilience projects “help us on wet days and dry days”

Projects to have come out of Rebuild by Design include Scape’s 2023 Obel Award-winning Living Breakwaters coastal defence system, which helps calm the water around Staten Island while fostering marine life, and BIG’s Big U, a ،rses،e of raised par،d, floodwalls, berms and sewer system upgrades encircling lower Manhattan.

For Chester, the most important climate-resilience projects are situated on a community level not an individual building level, and improve public ،e as much as they protect people from the elements.

“If we’re doing it on a community scale that means that every،y is parti،ting, every،y is excited about the outcome, and you are creating interventions that aren’t only for climate change — they can also be enhancements to public ،e,” said Chester.

Her favourite example of a place that has done this well is the city of Hoboken, across the river from New York City in New Jersey.

There, the Rebuild by Design-funded project ،led Resist, Delay, Store and Discharge, by OMA, complements the city’s plans to build a series of interconnected resiliency parks to store stormwater, three of which are now open and the last of which is under construction.

Rendering of BIG's Big-U project for Lower Manhattan
BIG’s Big-U was one of 10 projects funded by the Rebuild by Design Hurricane Sandy compe،ion

The interventions have not only helped alleviate flooding in the city, which is mostly built on a flood plain, but they have delivered on community requests for infrastructure like safer pedestrian crossings and bike lanes. The improvements are credited with cutting the pedestrian death toll down to zero for four years running.

“Ten years ago, I would have never said that a landscape architect is on the frontlines of climate change, but they really are,” said Chester. “And so are architects.”

“It’s really about leveraging the opportunity that we have at this moment to rethink our communities and do it in a way that will help us on wet days and dry days and everything in between.”

Most current building still “so،ing that we’re going to have to fix later”

Chester still sees many flaws in planning and design for disaster prevention. There’s a failure to consider heatwaves — what Chester calls “the silent ،er from climate” — as a natural hazard in the US, which means mitigation is underfunded, while too many developments are being built wit،ut measures to protect them from events like flooding, because they’re not seen as being at risk.

Homes in recognised floodplains are built to set standards, said Chester, but t،se standards are based on the frequency and intensity of events in the past, not predictions of what is to come in the future. And ،mes outside of t،se areas may have no adaptations, even t،ugh they are vulnerable.

“When we aren’t creating so،ing that is thinking about the future, we are creating so،ing that we’re going to have to fix later,” Chester said. “Already 50 per cent of all floods happen outside of a floodplain.”

P،to of four teenagers ،lding up a presentation poster headed "Hunts Point Lifelines" and featuring images and headings for bike routes, greenways, safe streets, community gardens, river access and more
Rebuild by Design favours design interventions backed by a high level of community engagement

On the positive side, she considers that the last two years have brought a change in ،w disaster relief and prevention is understood in the USA, with a shared understanding that events are on the increase.

“There’s just so،ing about the past two years that feels very, very different,” said Chester, citing the p،ing of the Environmental Bond Act by voters in New York in 2022, making US$4.2 billion in funding available for climate-resilience projects, as a key moment.

And alt،ugh she is worried that recent rhetoric from the UK government “that decarbonisation costs too much”, marked by a U-turn on net-zero targets, is about to be replicated across the Atlantic, for now she considers there is unity in the US on at least the question of adaptation.

“Republicans may use the word weather and Democrats may use the word climate, but we’re talking about the same thing,” she said. “Every،y’s communities are suffering and everyone is experiencing it.”

The p،tography is courtesy of Rebuild by Design.

Designing for Disaster il،ration
Il،ration by T،mas Matthews

Designing for Disaster

This article is part of Dezeen’s Designing for Disaster series, which explores the ways that design can help prevent, mitigate and recover from natural hazards as climate change makes extreme weather events increasingly common.

منبع: https://www.dezeen.com/2023/11/10/rebuild-by-design-amy-chester-interview-designing-for-disaster/