Architecture 101> Harvard Students Tackle Policy and Design for Post-Sandy Resiliency

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A breakdown of Tramba and Johnson’s restructuring of the National Flood Insurance Program using Jersery City as a pilot site. (Courtesy Harvard GSD)

As the Rebuild By Design jury mulls over a winner of its resiliency-based design competition to re-imagine the East Coast in light of Hurricane Sandy, students in Harvard’s Graduate School of Design have been creating their own ways to protect against the Next Big Storm. While their studio, titled “Design and Politics,” was purely academic, it was modeled on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s official competition. The Dutchman in charge of Rebuild, Henk Ovink, oversaw the interdisciplinary teams of students, and representatives from half of Rebuild’s final ten teams served as jurors at the studio review.

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Adam Novack’s aerial view of the at-risk communities and drinking water supply in the Barnegat Bay Watershed. (Courtesy Harvard GSD)

But where the Rebuild by Design teams re-imagined the East Coast with bold interventions and flashy renderings, the GSD students took a much more, well, academic approach. Their proposals were less flare, and a whole lot more wonk. “We actually asked the students to design nothing at the beginning,” Ovink told AN. “We divided them into groups and they had to research the [local] ecology, water systems, energy, and economy.” Needless to say, the presentations were pretty technical.

Students Alison Tramba and Trevor Johnson, for example, laid out the shortfalls of the indebted National Flood Insurance Program and offered ways to get it back in the black. To do so, they plan to disincentivize waterfront living with higher insurance rates for those living along the coast, while providing subsidies to protect low-income residents from spiking rates. At the same time, they offer a host of incentives to increase the storm proofing of residences and businesses. It is not sexy stuff, but it is important.

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Tramba and Johnson’s explainer on NFIP. (Courtesy Harvard GSD)

Similarly, there were tax credits for “green” infrastructure in Jersey City, a smart-grid for Long Island City,  interventions to protect the drinking-water supply in Ocean County, and a wall to reduce runoff from a sewage plant in Newark.

The review was at its most fascinating—and challenging—when students grappled with the issue of relocation in the face of climate change. To Chris Donohue, there is too much residential and economic vitality along the Jersey’s coast to just force folks to pack it up and head inland. To protect them—at least in the short-term—he would create barrier islands to keep the storms back. Daniel Feldman took a different approach, opening development opportunities farther from the shore to move communities away from the sea.

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Pieces of a proposed smart grid by Amanda Huang, Grace Hao Di Xu, & Christine Sunchung Min. (Courtesy Harvard GSD)

Both of these students, though, understand that neither of these proposals are adequate given the daunting reality of rising sea levels. Because within a matter of decades, the entire Eastern seaboard could be gone. And with it will go all the dunes, berms, and seawalls that fought back for as long as they could. The question of what to do in the interim, then, is an entirely unanswerable one. But it is one that hangs about above all architects, planners, politicians, and those living on the water’s edge.

As for the official Rebuild By Design competition, Ovink told AN that an announcement about a winner, or winners, will be made in the next few weeks. “It could be that there’s a certain condition that asks for another year of research, study, and planning,” he said. “And it could easily be that we jump forward to a site specific implementation.”

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Chris Donohue’s barrier islands in New Jersey. (Courtesy Harvard GSD)

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