Building for an Uncertain Future

Building for an Uncertain Future

Hurricane Sandy damage in Queens, New York.
Courtesy NYC DCP


Streetscape diagrams showing an enclosed front porch (left), landscaping (center), and a turned stair (right).

“Descending on the city during the course of these studies, Hurricane Sandy served as a stark reminder that climate risks are not just a concern of the future,” said Burden in a statement. “Our design guidelines for buildings in the flood zone, along with our proposed zoning changes in public review, provide a roadmap for flood zone construction that supports the vitality and character of neighborhoods.”

Diagram of NYC’s building code requirements. Click to enlarge.

The flooding from Sandy caused severe damage to thousands of buildings sitting along and near the city’s 520 miles of waterfront. According to Bloomberg’s plan, the storm surge reached up to 14 feet above ground level in the Tottenville area of Staten Island. In response to the unexpected and colossal impact of Sandy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) revised its flood maps to include twice as many residents within the 100-year flood plain. Home and business owners in flood zones will be required to elevate the first occupiable floor above FEMA’s new base flood elevation, and add one or two feet of “freeboard”—additional height, just to make sure. As New Yorkers go through the process of rebuilding, architects and urban planners must negotiate between FEMA’s new regulations and the qualities that shape and enhance the urban landscape, which may at times prove contradictory.

While new to the public, the DCP’s report has been in the works for over a year. Prior to the storm in March 2012, the DCP organized a charrette with members of the Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) New York Chapter to brainstorm a variety of design strategies to comply with flood regulations while not forsaking the features that contribute to the feel of a neighborhood. Sandy created a new sense of urgency. In February, the Post Sandy Task Force organized a second workshop with the AIA New York chapter. The workshop assembled a group of urban planners, architects, landscape architects, and representatives from several government agencies to delve into some the challenges that the flood protection standards pose to the design quality of the public realm.

Hurricane Sandy damage in Staten Island.

“Sandy was a new context to our work. It will continue to inform our work going forward,” said Thaddeus Pawlowski, an urban designer at DCP. “I think a lot of the ideas and thinking began before Sandy and we were in the process of formulating them, but now Sandy formalized them.”

A significant portion of the report is dedicated to setting up an understanding of effective design principles that mold and improve New York City’s neighborhoods—from visual connectivity and active street frontage to facade articulation and inviting access—in light of the new flood regulations. The second half of the report consists of policy-driven recommendations. The DCP provides specific amendments to zoning aimed at facilitating good design practices that comply with flood protection standards, such as allowing for additional space for mechanical equipment on rooftops and yards or permitting building owners to implement landscape and architectural components—such as plantings, porches, or decks—to their homes and property.

“I think the report is essential to cities all over the world that are rapidly urbanizing in coastal areas,” said Pawlowski. “How do we make a vibrant urban environment that can withstand climate changes?”