From the Editors: Build It Back Smarter

Lower Manhattan, October 29, 2012. Photo by Eric Chang via The Atlantic.
“I’m hopeful that not only will we rebuild this city and metropolitan area but we use this as an opportunity to build it back smarter. There has been a series of extreme weather incidents. That is not a political statement; that is a factual statement. Anyone who says there’s not a change in weather patterns I think is denying reality… We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns; we have an old infrastructure, and we have old systems, and that is not a good combination. That’s one of the lessons that I am going to take from this, personally.” —Governor Andrew Cuomo, October 30, 2012

The scale of destruction of Superstorm Sandy is now clear, no matter how it is measured. In loss of life, the destruction of homes and possessions, the suspension of mass transit, the number of households without power, the damage to the economy. In the number of regions affected, from the hurricane’s deadly ravaging of the Caribbean to the winter storm’s continued effects in the Great Lakes. In the size of the storm itself, 900 miles wide. Or, in the horrors of isolated tragedies closer to home – the devastating fire in Breezy Point, the harrowing evacuation of NYU Langone Medical Center in darkness, the unprecedented damage to subway tunnels, the washing away of homes along the shores of New Jersey and Staten Island – that have made heroes out of neighbors and family members as well as first-responders.

L: Evacuation of NYU’s Tisch Hospital on October 29, 2012. AP Photo/John Minchillo, via The Atlantic | R: Flooding in the East Village. Photo by Jesse Shafer/Greg McHale via On the Real.

But whether we think of scale by weight (physical or metaphorical), by dimension, by proportion, or by dollar amount, we also find ourselves thinking about scales of government. Disaster response requires a level of immediate coordination among different scales of government that day-to-day business does not. Some of the most obvious examples of coordination take the form of communication (or lack thereof) between officials. There were the recriminations between Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, and Lorenzo Langford, mayor of Atlantic City, after the National Guard had to rescue dozens of people from a flooded shelter in Atlantic City. Governor Christie angrily accused Mayor Langford of undermining his mandatory evacuation of the city by offering shelters of “last resort” within city limits to those who did not heed the warning and failed to leave the barrier islands while there was still time. Meanwhile, Governor Christie has been making a point of his approval of President Obama’s leadership and availability during the crisis, comments that have lit up the Twitterverse with speculation about their political implications in light of next week’s presidential election and Christie’s history of fierce criticism of the president. The commentariat’s political analysis has hinged on another question of governmental scale: Governor Romney’s comments about (and Congressman Ryan’s proposed budget cuts to) FEMA, and the candidate’s belief that states and municipalities are more efficient and effective at managing first-responders than any federal agency. Most efficient of all of course, in Romney’s account, is the private sector, a realm whose territorial scale isn’t municipal, state, or federal, but – as natural disaster re-insurers in Bermuda and Munich attest – as global as, um, global warming.

West Street entrance to the Battery Park Underpass, October 30, 2012. AP Photo/Louis Lanzano via The Atlantic.
L: Flood waters enter the Long Island Rail Road’s West Side Yard. Photo: MTA Long Island Rail Road. | R: Staircase under water at the South Ferry subway station. Photo: MTA.

In government, a lot of the scale conversation boils down to money. Part of why Governor Christie is grateful to President Obama, besides the president’s availability and open lines of communication, is his prompt signing of emergency orders for New Jersey and New York that make it easier for state and local governments to access federal money for relief and rebuilding. But the scale of financial need in the disaster’s aftermath points to another scalar question, that of long-term infrastructure planning. Urban Omnibus has examined how fragmented New York City’s infrastructure management is (to close the bridges to Manhattan on Monday required the sign-off of three separate agencies – the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the New York State-led Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and the New York City Department of Transportation – each of which controls different bridges and tunnels). And we have aired calls for more forward-thinking investment in infrastructure. But also on these pages, we have sounded more optimistic notes: highlighting the work of a wide range of creative practitioners working on different aspects of modifying our physical environment with green infrastructure to make the hard surfaces and edges of our city more flexible and resilient.

Of course, retrofitting impervious streetscapes with permeable paving (to absorb some of the stormwater flooding down streets and rooftops and overwhelming our sewage systems) will not save coastal homes from destruction or prevent saltwater storm surge from infiltrating and corroding subway or utility tunnels. But, as a category of urban innovation, green infrastructure speaks to a responsive turn in the philosophy of urbanism, wherein mixed-use doesn’t just mean ground-floor retail. Instead, all public spaces are asked to perform in multiple dimensions and across multiple scales: parks must offer more than fitness and recreation, streets must become more than transportation networks, and shorelines must be more than the sites of transforming post-industrial landscapes into waterfront views. All of these spaces must continue to carry out their basic functions, but they must also produce environmental benefits. Thus, responsive urbanism requires an expanded notion of public infrastructure and its under-appreciated role in addressing climate change, an expanded understanding of what it takes to create and maintain the public goods we hold in common, whether it’s the street tree — which sequesters carbon dioxide, and can, like the new street tree bioswales recently installed along Dean Street in Brooklyn, mitigate combined sewer overflows – or the subway system – the biggest piece of public transit network responsible, in part, for New Yorkers having some of the nation’s smallest individual carbon footprints.

Breezy Point, Queens, October 30, 2012. Photo: Mike Groll/Associated Press, via
Tuckerton, NJ, October 30, 2012. Photo: US Coast Guard via

No single weather event can be attributed to climate change. We’ve had big storms for centuries. The increasing frequency of these strong storms, however, can. As Governor Cuomo quipped to the president, “we have a hundred-year flood every two years now.” And with climate change – just like disaster relief and recovery – questions of scale complicate the conversation. Climate change is not really one challenge, but a series of overlapping ones that include consumption habits, settlement patterns, energy production and distribution, manufacturing and supply chains, and infrastructure investment. The scope of the challenge is so planetary that the role of the community is often obscured. We know what we’re told as individuals about lightbulbs or gas mileage or plastic bags; and we know what we hope for from nation-states regarding carbon emissions standards or energy production. The urban and community scales are a little harder to define in the climate crisis conversation. Recently on Urban OmnibusShin-pei Tsay posed the question: if federal governments aren’t going to step up with coherent climate change policies, how can municipal governments leverage their unique assets – whether those assets are municipal infrastructure or an engaged citizenry – to make change?

Change needs to happen across scales. The “new reality” that Governor Cuomo invokes is one of an aging infrastructure unequal to the challenge posed by the stronger and more frequent storms that climate change promises. But this “new reality” also includes a pernicious and growing distrust in public works. Even if this distrust is belied by states’ and municipalities’ instinctive turn to the federal government for help when disaster strikes, it is a real factor in our public life, and it obstructs our ability to address the challenges we face.

Photo by NASA

The kind of coordination we have seen between federal, state, and local officials over the past few days points both to pathways and to pitfalls on the road towards multi-scalar collaboration. Financial, political, and practical collaboration will be vital to creating an infrastructure commensurate with the challenges ahead. The investments necessary won’t come top-down from the federal government in our current political climate. Nor can we rely exclusively on the DIY, bottom-up efforts of community groups and individual citizens to build the infrastructure of the future. Both national leadership and community stewardship will be necessary, mediated by the policies, investments, and interventions of states and cities. To “build it back smarter,” as Governor Cuomo has called for, will require a shift in understanding what infrastructure means, how it performs, and how – when it’s well designed, resilient, and responsive – its public benefits extend outwards across multiple and nested scales of citizenship, from community, to state, to nation, to planet.

Cassim Shepard and Varick Shute are the editors of Urban Omnibus.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Kian Goh November 5, 2012

Thanks for this incredibly important post. Some of the key issues certainly lie in between different kinds of scale, as you point out — the scales of political boundaries and regulations (city, state, federal), and as well the scales of planning (from streetscape to seaboard), and the tensions between these. Another tension: in the face of increasingly severe weather events, there will correspondingly hard decision on where and how to rebuild. We need to pay attention to the constructed “natures” of cities, the geographic histories of places. Check out my blog post on New York City, Hurricane Sandy, and the resilience of cities. With maps, even.