Six years ago, Alexandros Washburn ’84 and his family found themselves in a neighborhood whose streets, basements and first floors were rapidly losing ground — to the Atlantic Ocean.
Their home was in the waterfront area of Red Hook, Brooklyn. That’s in the swath of where Hurricane Sandy delivered devastation to thousands, all along coastal New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. When it was done, the storm had claimed at least 147 lives in North America and the Caribbean.
The storm surge two miles from Red Hook, at the Battery in Lower Manhattan, was the highest on record. Overall, the flooding in New York was more than 3 feet above the records set by the 10 worst hurricanes in the city’s history since 1851.
Last year’s hurricane season brought havoc to Houston, Miami, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where the government recently increased the death toll from Hurricane Maria from less than 100 to almost 3,000 to account for those who died in the aftermath. The toll in terms of property damage and lost productivity has been estimated at $150 billion to $200 billion. This year, Moody’s Analytics has put the damage from Hurricane Florence that hit North Carolina and neighboring states at upward of $17 billion; the death toll had reached 53, including 39 in North Carolina, by late October.
A year after Sandy, Washburn published The Nature of Urban Design: A New York Perspective on Resilience (Island Press 2013). The book examines how cities build (or fail to build) resilient communities, with examples from Seoul to Singapore to New York, that helps cities prosper even in uncertain climatic times.
Washburn had been New York’s planning department’s chief urban designer for seven years, previously working in politics as a public works adviser to the late U.S. Sen. Patrick Moynihan. He was the founding director of the Center for Coastal Resilience and Urban eXcellence, or CRU(x), at the Stevens Institute of Technology in waterfront Hoboken, N.J. He has now launched a business, DRAW Brooklyn LLC; the acronym stands for Design Research Alexandros Washburn. The company says it “works at all scales from a row house to a new island in New York Harbor to create a better city.”
The Review talked to Washburn about his thoughts on resilience in the face of natural disasters.
What have you learned in the years since Sandy about recovering from such disasters?
We’re moving into uncharted territory. If climate change causes water to rise enough, it’s not a linear process; we will go through a phase change. People in some areas will lose; others will win. That is going to put enormous stress on climate migrations. But it’s important to keep at least a perspective of optimism here. I’m impressed to see so many world examples of “quick cities” — Singapore, Dubai, Pudong and others have risen and changed rapidly. This shows that people can build tremendously urban cities in a very short time, which I take as a very positive action in human development. As things change, some regions may be unlivable — we may need to build new cities at a rate faster than ever in history. Also, regarding phase change, the most important part of resilience in the future will involve brotherhood.
What observations do you have about the hurricanes of 2017, the type of damage done and the recovery work and strategies underway?
Here’s what we learned: Those of us hit by Sandy now understand storm surge. Those hit by Harvey now understand deluge — the rain aspect. So what happens when you get both?
Having both is, to some extent, a day-to-day problem in coastal places. Those include Rotterdam, Netherlands, in a country where 60 percent of residents live below sea level; and Brooklyn, New York, and my own neighborhood of Red Hook in that borough. Such places are … often dealing with 19th-century sewage systems that allow sewage to flow into coastal waters when rain is at all heavy. In Brooklyn, high tide covers the sewer system — causing it to back up and emerge in the city as puddles. With so much happening all the time, we are working to understand the complete hydrology of areas.
Moody’s, the bond credit rating business, recently told coastal communities they must build resilience. Do you think this will help?
It is a great wake-up call. Nothing happens without politics, finance and design. Finance will suffer unless the design is approved, and Moody’s saying that is a great callout to politics.
The general goals in building a city are social and economic, but now they can be resilient, too. For instance, Hamburg, Germany, has developed new neighborhoods in its 19th-century Dockland. Knowing that flooding occurs in the area, planners established a flood level and made parking garages that allow water to flow in and out. Buildings are like trees, rooted in the ground; they don’t just hover like houses on stilts. It is important when we design that there is a counterbalance that makes a building more stable, not less so.
How did you become interested in cities and design?
I grew up in Washington, D.C., experiencing the unique design of that city: Its streets and parks were laid out by the French-born Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who grew up in the gardens of Versailles and wanted nature to figure in every view. With my Greek-American mother, I also was able to play in the ruins of an archaeological site on a visit to Santorini, Greece, as a small boy. I wandered among ancient two-story buildings, complete squares, windows and shop fronts. As a child, I imagined the people in the city. I realized later, that’s urban design — if you imagine the people in a city and how they live there.
At UNC, I majored in biology because my first choice, architecture, was not available. [Biology] gave me the fundamental idea that cities are part of nature, that they are a habitat for nature. My favorite class was “Unsolved Problems in Cell Biology,” where students discussed questions such as, “How did a zebra get its stripes? How did that pattern come about?” I guess I’m still looking for the answers to such questions, to how patterns develop in cities and in nature. How, for instance, does water work as it moves from the sky to the sea and passes through a city?
When water stood in the streets of Red Hook during what was one of the nation’s most costly hurricanes, I understood that Sandy was part of nature. Climate affects cities; the city affects climate. I’m grateful to my biology program at Chapel Hill, among other things, for having taught me that very well.
— Catherine Arnold