It seems after a natural disaster that hindsight is 20/20 – the pundits mull over the ins and outs of what happened, what went right or wrong and how to prevent it from occurring again. The people whose lives are immediately impacted tend to the necessities; damage control, cleanup and rejuvenation. Hurricane Irene which started in the Caribbean in late August of 2011 and rode warm waters up the entire eastern seaboard into Canada, leaving destruction in its wake is just such a disaster. Early predictions of the hurricane’s route held true and savvy local governments were able to minimize damage to property and loss of life. New York City prepared for the largest head-on-hit from a hurricane in recent history, and one that occurred at high tide; fortunately the storm had less energy than forecast and damage was minimal.
What happens when the city is not so lucky? How can we adjust our urban design thinking to accommodate a warming world, where weather patterns are irregular and extreme? In the past year alone, New York City has had record snowfall, rainfall, and heat waves – according to predictions from climate change models, these “record” events will continue to occur with increasing regularity. The weather as we know it; and its influence on where and how we live, is changing dramatically. A futuristic vision of the climate-changed New York is presented in the project Sponge City, where the city is organized around its section, not plan, and the grid is less relevant than the 1/4 mile radius walking distance to a community center. Sponge City engages decentralized infrastructures to improve redundancy and decrease catastrophic power, water, and transportation outages. It envisions Boroughs Brooklyn and Queens with transitory watery edges and wetlands that improve water quality, communities that take advantage of tidal energy and mobilize ahead of a storm, neighborhoods that convert their waste into energy to desalinate their water, recycling and reuse of materials from construction, new typologies for urban lighting that senses and visualizes local environmental quality, and vertical zoning creating an interconnected web of uses within a densified city. We cannot predict the future any more than a climatologist can predict the path of a hurricane; but if we begin now, we can lay the urban design frameworks in place that will ensure New York’s resilience in the face of major change.