Eight Go-To Sources on Climate Change and Urban Resilience

By Steve Wolf, senior designer
The back-burner issue of resilience planning has rocketed to the top of political agendas in coastal cities around the US as a result of Superstorm Sandy. As we were putting together our post about the need to keep urban design at the center of that planning (below), we found ourselves, um, flooded with Web links and resources. We share the best of those here and plan to expand this list as we find more.

  • Rising sea levels in New York Bay proved a key ingredient in the huge storm surges that washed over all five boroughs during Sandy. We’ve seen no clearer introduction to the science behind sea level rise in New York and globally than this interview with NASA Goddard Institute climatologist Cynthia Rosenzweig, posted at NOAA’s Climate Portal. It manages to convey the gravity of the challenge New York faces in the next century without sensationalism—no small feat.
  • Architecture 2030 offers a wealth of information on the threat climate change poses to American cities and effective strategies for shrinking the carbon footprint of the built environment. Its unfussy interactive map feature shows the impact of higher sea levels on dozens of coastal communities.
  • One of the best overviews of climate-change impacts globally comes from a report released in 2007 by the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). It ranks the 20 most-vulnerable cities in 2005 in terms of population and cost of potential damage from 1-in-100-year flooding (a standard that will soon require dramatic recalibration, as back-to-back Hurricanes Irene and Sandy showed in New York), and provides a comparable list for 2070.
  • The Urban Climate Change Research Network focuses on urban areas worldwide and released a useful comprehensive report on the topic in 2011.
  • The relatively young Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast focuses on risk and adaptation for Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and will eventually broaden its scope to include smaller coastal cities from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. It comprises researchers at UMass, Columbia, CCNY, Stevens, and Drexel—a happy coincidence for us, since we recently completed a 30-year master plan for the Drexel campus.
  • The post-storm chatter about protecting New York’s infrastructure turned reflexively to engineered solutions, from massive storm barriers to Texas-sized inflatable plugs that might have kept seven East River tunnels dry. Mainstream thinking, however, increasingly includes approaches that enlist natural processes in creating cheaper and lower-maintenance solutions. Next American City pulled together a good sampling of these “soft” proposals.
  • During our creation of the post-Katrina master plan for New Orleans, we had the good fortune to take part in the provocative Dutch Dialogues organized by Waggonner & Ball architects. The provocative series offers an excellent model for rethinking a city’s relationship with water and for reimagining water-control infrastructure as urban amenities—precisely what we mean when we argue that urban design must play a central role in resilience planning.
  • As for those engineered approaches, the reliable Yale Environment 360 features contributions from faculty and researchers at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. This post offers a thoughtful look at surge barriers, one of the “hard” solutions most commonly cited after the storm. It reviews how barriers could protect New York Bay and notes their increasing use in cities from Providence to St. Petersburg.
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In Sandy’s Wake, More Resilience…and More Urban Design

by David Dixon, principal-in-charge of planning and urban design, and Steve Wolf, senior designer
Hurricane Sandy’s banal name belied its dramatic impacts. The morning after the storm’s passage we learned just how vulnerable large American cities have become to the impacts of climate change—and New York found itself, as usual, at the center of the action, with seven East River tunnels filled with water, Manhattan below 34th Street without electricity, and flooding in every borough.

“New weather patterns…and old infrastructure,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, with uncharacteristic understatement, “are not a good combination.” He asserted, however, that a new generation of resilient infrastructure designed with rising seas and fiercer storms in mind offered New Yorkers a singular opportunity to “build this city back stronger and better.” His words should resonate around the globe; the assets at risk from coastal flooding in the ten most vulnerable cities worldwide equaled 5% of global GDP in 2005, according to the OECD. That proportion will nearly double over the next 60 years as cities grow and sea levels rise.

Although no scientist argued that climate change directly caused Sandy, climatologists almost universally agree that it amplified the storm and its impact (for instance here and in an excellent and accessible discussion here). Record-breaking water terperatures fed energy into the system, extra water in the atmosphere boosted rainfall, and above Greenland a “blocking front” linked to polar-ice loss forced the storm inland rather than allowing it to take a typical offshore course toward the North Atlantic. Crucially for New York, rising sea levels exacerbated storm damage. In the 20th century, New York harbor has risen nearly a foot, creeping gradually up the seawall built around lower Manhattan at the start of the 20th century. The outlook for the 21st century makes that increase look like chump change: By 2100, melting polar ice and thermal expansion will push the world’s oceans to a much higher new normal. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) projects that sea levels will rise between 7 inches and 2.5 feet, but other models that factor in more significant melting of polar ice project rises of up to 6 feet. Additionally, New York sits in a sea-level “hot spot” running from North Carolina to Massachusetts where currents, water temperatures and other conditions could add as much as another foot to that total.

After Hurricane Katrina (our previous “once-in-a-lifetime” storm), New Orleans taught us that America lacks the financial resources and the political tools to relocate entire communities threatened by rising seas to safer ground. The reality of more and increasingly destructive storms like Sandy means that coastal communities will need to focus  on rising seas. Governor Cuomo’s call for “stronger and better” suggests that the billions of dollars communities will spend to protect themselves can, with smart planning, also enhance those communities. Protection from rising seas does not have to mean a  design driven by engineering.  Urban design that assures walkability, sense of place, human scale and delight will need to play a starring role in building resilience.

New York has already studied raised ventilation grates to block subway flooding, in the process reconceiving them as voluptuous street furniture. Solutions like this suggest how urban design can guide climate-change response, here delivering subway protection below ground and a more walkable environment above. In fact, a 2010 show at the Museum of Modern Art suggested a suite of imaginative (and more sweeping) physical interventions in the harbor that would both build the city physically and dampen the destructive power of storm-driven waves. (Also here.)

As noted, New York hardly stands alone. The OECD projects that by 2070, 150 million people in coastal cities—primarily Asian capitals like Calcutta, Shanghai, and Singapore—will regularly encounter what we now call 1-in-100-year flooding. (Several US cities besides New York show up on this list of global misfortune, including Miami, Virginia Beach, and New Orleans). Outside the US, cities have already begun to respond to climate change, building seawalls that become waterfront parks, the foundations for expanded financial districts, or found land for performing arts centers. The Netherlands has for decades pioneered ways of transforming water-control measures from potential infrastructure nightmare into valued community-building assets—creating barrier islands as beach resorts, inventing new ways to use water as an urban amenity, and looking to rising seas as a new source of energy.

As Americans and their elected officials reframe the discussion about resilience in the wake of Sandy, we will need to look at best practices around the globe for models. And the best ones have almost uniformly turned to good design and urban planning to turn their response to climate change into the building blocks of stronger, healthier, more appealing cities.

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Planning Basics: Building in Walkability

by Phil Schaeffing, urban designer and planner

Among urban planners and the general public, “walkability” describes a key desired characteristic of existing neighborhoods and new development.  A growing body of research associates higher levels of daily physical activity with improved health outcomes. Since walking is the perfect way to integrate more activity into a daily routine, how can urban designers and planners make it a more attractive option for people?

A variety of factors contribute to an area’s walkability, including land use mix, distance to destinations, and pedestrian infrastructure like crosswalks and connected sidewalks. The quality of the physical environment also makes a significant difference in people’s willingness to walk and how enjoyable the experience is. Shade in summer, protection from biting winds in winter, a stimulating visual environment, and the presence of other pedestrians all help encourage people to walk. Planners can do their part by designing sidewalks that promote all these elements and by retrofitting existing sidewalks to incorporate them.

The example in the photo—which could be from almost any city in the US but is, in fact, Atlanta—offers no shade to provide relief from the summer sun, and the parking lots adjacent to the sidewalk create dead areas with nothing interesting to look at. Other pedestrians are a rarity at most times of the day because there is little reason to walk there.

How could this sidewalk be improved? The narrow width makes planting trees a challenge, but reconfiguring the roadway to eliminate a travel lane and replace it with a wider sidewalk and/or bike lane is one option. Another is to build bulb-outs into the on-street parking and plant trees in the resulting new space, increasing shade without obstructing the sidewalk. Encouraging infill development on existing parking lots would eliminate voids, increase visual interest, and provide more destinations for pedestrians. Such new development would need to hug the sidewalk, as the older buildings on the right do (although they could leave a few extra feet for swales or a small active space in front of a restaurant). As these incremental changes take place, more people will be drawn to the area, further increasing the attractiveness of walking.

Existing streets and sidewalks provide plenty of opportunities for this type of creative re-thinking of the public realm. Getting more people walking delivers many benefits: it increases physical activity and can foster a sense of community when pedestrians begin to see the same people every day. Encouraging walking can also act as an economic development tool, since walking is free and operating a car costs money that could be spent locally. Planners can play a key role in this process by advocating in their communities for more funds for these types of walkability enhancements that have multiple benefits.

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Update: Shared Spaces

by Steve Wolf, senior graphic designer

When I wrote last February about shared spaces I didn’t realize that they had an actual inventor, freethinking Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman. The always-useful Cap’n Transit Rides Again blog corrected that oversight in today’s post, which offers a succinct analysis of how not to design a shared space (or woonerf, as its intellectual father would have called it). The Captain’s analysis includes an insight that I dismissed in my February post but which actually cuts to the heart of why woonerven work. Discussing intersections in the New York borough of Queens, he notes that removing stoplights “calms traffic by replacing rules (follow the light) with negotiations (communicated through eye contact).” When drivers are forced into negotiations, they see pedestrians differently than they do when rules make it possible for them to operate without thinking about their surroundings. In essence, rules elevate driving above all other activities on the street—even though planning and even political thinking have moved well beyond that habit of mind.

Massachusetts, in fact, has experienced the benefit of favoring negotiation over rules, thanks to a spate of signs in crosswalks (and I mean literally in crosswalks, on stanchions) pointing out that state law requires motorists to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. That law isn’t new, but the signs are, and my own experience suggests that they’ve made motorists a lot more aware, if not completely respectful, of pedestrians. (NB: The link to the Wilson Quarterly article on Hans Monderman comes via the Cap’n Transit post.)

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Hall of Fame Award from Residential Architect magazine

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Building a Better Campus for Drexel

by Kat Maines

A recent column by Inga Saffron, architecture critic for the Phildalphia Inquirer, highlights the improvements already under way since adoption early this year of our master plan for the Drexel University campus. Saffron credits the bottom-up planning process we conducted for the relatively limited push-back from surrounding neighborhoods over a plan that considerably increases the density of the campus. Our Planning and Urban Design group typically works to engage all components of the community in developing a plan. In this case, we focused not only on improving areas around the campus for all stakeholders but on meeting the university’s goal of fully embracing its urban setting — something it had avoided for many decades. The review highlights projects such as new dorms and small infill buildings that create a more urban and interesting streetscape designed to engage pedestrians fully in the spaces around them. Architectural Record reprinted Saffron’s review on its blog, which added a satisfying (if implicit) stamp of approval. CLICK HERE to read the article and HERE to see the slideshow.

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Parsing the Atlanta Transit Vote

By Steve Wolf, senior designer/Urban Century editor

In the last week countless commentators have picked over the entrails of the T-SPLOST referendum in metro Atlanta (all regions in Georgia held similar votes, but Atlanta’s high-stakes contest drew national attention). Voters rejected a measure to raise the sales tax by a penny in the city and ten surrounding counties; over its ten-year life, the surtax would have raised roughly $8.5 billion to fund 157 specified road and transit projects.

Fighting an urge to lay some of the blame at the feet of an acronym that sounds like a hot beverage spilled on your shirt, we waded through the post mortems and found two that shed a lot of light on the outcome of the vote. Continue reading

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‘The Car is No Longer King’

Steve Wolf, senior designer/Urban Century editor

Serendipity! We thought this slogan, which appears on some newer Hubway bikes, nicely captures this past week’s bikesharing zeitgeist (or is it zeitbike? Or maybe bikegeist?). We’ve seen no small amount of parochial chest-thumping as Hubway officially expands today into Brookline, Cambridge and Somerville (the tattooed and ironic-fedora-wearing Brooklyn of Boston). Some locals can’t seem to resist crowing over the fact that New York City can’t get its bikeshare system rolling, while Hubway has zoomed past all projections for its first year of operation (360,000 rides, more than triple the projections). Ultimately, of course, when New York’s 10,000-bike system does start up it will dwarf Boston’s in scale, but for now the provincial capital preens in the glow of successful early adoption. In other bikeshare news of the past week, Charlotte’s B-cycle program officially launched with 200 bikes spread among 20 Uptown stations; Houston announced that its pilot bikeshare program would expand to 20 stations and 205 bikes this fall; Nashville announced plans for a 20-station downtown system, possibly as early as this fall (those nearly identical 20-station/200-bike starter sets might be due to the fact that B-cycle will run all three of these systems); and Cincinnati’s nascent system has turned to crowd-sourcing to help it site its stations.

http://www.boston.com/lifestyle/2012/07/06/boston-the-endgame/FPGsR99VKIpD56IShM8ENM/story.html

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Atlanta’s Next Olympic Moment

by Phil Schaeffing, urban designer and planner

Today is the big day. Residents of Atlanta and the surrounding ten counties vote on whether to approve the Transportation Investment Act (TIA), a ten-year, one-penny sales tax to fund a defined list of regional road, transit, bike, and pedestiran projects. Atlanta’s traffic congestion is well-known: the metro ranks fourth nationally in total hours the average commuter spends on the road daily. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority is the country’s only major transit system not funded at the state level. The Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (T-SPLOST) would raise $7.2 billion (in 2011 dollars) over its ten-year life for transportation projects in a state that ranks 48th in per-capita transportation spending, while creating or retaining 200,000 jobs and generating a 4-to-1 return on investment.

The debate over the sales tax has been intense. Like any proposed tax in 2012, it faces intense scrutiny—and skepticism. Depending on who you ask, the list of TIA projects either devotes too much to transit (52% of funds) or it relies too heavily on Atlanta’s road-building tradition ($2.9 billion allocated; an additional 15% of the money raised would flow to municipalities to spend on priority local transportation needs). Opponents have questioned the choice of specific projects and whether the final list of projects even-handedly allocates transportation investments across the region. Some groups have opposed a sales tax hike on principal, and, counterintuitively, opponents include the DeKalb County NAACP, which cited equity concerns, and the Georgia Sierra Club, dismayed by the limited number of bike and pedestrian projects. Proponents include Republican Governor Nathan Deal, Democratic Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, the Atlanta Regional Commission, and two dozen environmental groups. Atlanta’s business community has acted as a leading and vocal proponent.

The T-SPLOST vote is being promoted as a congestion-reduction effort, but it will likely reshape economic development and housing choices if it passes. Passage would signal that the region is actively addressing its transportation challenges to keep pace with competitors like Charlotte, Houston, and Dallas, which have all recently invested in transit. More transit would create more opportunities for transit-oriented development that can reduce the cost of getting to work, increase the number of accessible jobs for residents, and create more livable, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

T-SPLOST will not solve all of the region’s transportation problems, but it would begin to shift transportation priorities toward those of young and educated workers who represent a key component of economic growth. Surveys show that many don’t want to sit in traffic every day, and growing numbers prefer to take transit, walk or bike to work. Atlanta’s success does not ride on any single decision, but success or failure of T-SPLOST could significantly influence perceptions—and the reality—of the region’s future growth. Stay tuned for the results.


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Update: The High Line’s Outsized Influence

by Steve Wolf, senior designer

From our Synchronicity Department: Today the ASLA’s excellent blog The Dirt observed that “Everybody wants a High Line” and provided more examples of cities looking to replicate the New York park (I neglected to mention Toronto or London–which is just starting a High Line-type planning process, and which reminds me that I should have credited Paris’s long-established Promenade Plantée in my original post). The Dirt quotes Cultural Landscape Foundation president Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, who argues that cities looking to create a High Line should  design around the assets and infrastructure they already have. In an essay for The Huffington Post he praised the park design team’s “holistic approach,” which focused on working within the site’s context and pursuing high-quality urban design. The park’s immediate popularity and global reputation represent “a big win for design ingenuity over the more commonplace tabula rasa approach that results in bulldozed sites and the eradication of cultural narratives.”

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