Come along with The Verge for the second season of Detours. We’ve traveled across the country to find the people, groups, and companies that are solving America’s problems in new and unconventional ways.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy destroyed homes, wasted businesses, flooded tunnels, and submerged subways. The storm brought tens of thousands of lives to a halt, and revealed New York City’s vulnerabilities to severe climate conditions and rising waters.
“I saw the devastation,” says Henk Ovink. “But, I also saw the opportunity Sandy brought.”
Ovink is the former director general of water planning in the Netherlands, a country that’s been dealing with flooding and water management on a huge scale for centuries. In the aftermath of Sandy, Ovink brought his knowledge Stateside and joined the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) initiative to rebuild and reinforce the New Jersey and New York coastline.
"We have to prepare for the next storm and not simply respond to the past storm."
Ovink stresses the importance of understanding a region’s attributes and vulnerabilities, and finding creative solutions to difficult challenges. "We have to prepare for the next storm and not simply respond to the past storm." At HUD, he conceived and led Rebuild by Design, a contest in which architects, designers, scientists, engineers, and recovery specialists submitted proposals for a smarter and more resilient infrastructure along the region’s waterfront. Ovink encouraged teams to build coalitions with the coastline communities they were designing for. "Find the stakeholders to work with," Ovink told the teams. "Don’t design for them, but work with them."
In July 2013, the proposal phase of the competition closed with 148 entries. Almost one year (and many jury presentations) later, six winners were announced. One of the winning proposals was Bjarke Ingels Group’s Big U. It’s not simply a big wall — at nearly 10 miles long, the system would wrap around the southern half of Manhattan and mix different kinds of spaces, from parks to community areas, with infrastructure designed to fight flooding.
Developed in conversation with residents, developers, businesses, and city officials, the Big U is a continuous protective structure that blends and adapts to each neighborhood it passes through. In the Lower East Side neighborhood, a raised stretch of land known as the Bridging Berm acts as a natural dam, but also provides recreational green space for residents in the neighborhood. Panels installed on the underside of FDR Drive will be lit and decorated by local artists, creating a space for a seasonal market. But in times of emergency, those same panels can be flipped down to create a floodwall. Ovink calls the features "a chain of pearls." But, he insists, all the components are "tied with one strong strategy of protecting Manhattan." Big U was awarded $335 million dollars to start on implementation.
Other winning proposals address other flooding threats in the region, from Long Island and the Bronx, to Staten Island and New Jersey. Each project requires further funding and coordinated effort between local governments and communities. But the radical solutions that emerged from Rebuild By Design have already inspired similar design initiatives. "President Obama announced the National Disaster Resiliency Competition based on the success of Rebuild by Design," Ovink says. "Another billion dollars of disaster recovery money is now attached to it."