Cities, water, and climate change

Climate change and sea level rise have begun to reshape our shorelines. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the US federal government created a yearlong competition exploring ways to strengthen coastal communities. Called Rebuild by Design, it invited multidisciplinary teams of designers and researchers from around the world to submit ideas.

One of the ten finalists selected was a proposal for the Jersey Shore led by Massachusetts-based firm Sasaki, in partnership with Arup and Rutgers. I spoke with Sasaki principal Jason Hellendrung about the project.


One of the main themes of the project for us was what our changing relationship to water means to our profession and the places we live. That’s been a common thread in Sasaki’s work for decades, really going back to the ’50s. In the 1970s, a lot of our projects started to be about transforming old industrial waterfronts in cities into places where people live or work. And in the last six, seven, eight years we’ve been starting to see more response to climate change and sea level rise.

In about 2008, we were hired to do a riverfront masterplan for Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which was struggling with Midwest brain drain. They were focused on how they could transform and energize their downtown to create to help them better retain and attract people in the city, and keep young people, young professionals, there.

We found that one of the key things which was unique about the city was the river that ran through it. We thought about how they could improve their relationship to the river and start to organize new natural systems that could link neighborhoods together, but then also program it with new active spaces.

And while we were there working on the master plan, they had a historic flood, so we were re-tasked with taking a whole different approach to how the city could rebuild and recover from this dramatic disaster. I’ve just seen new data that shows their long-term recovery is going to be approaching $7 billion. Arup was on our team for that and worked with us on evaluating recovery and resilience strategies from a sustainability perspective.

Flooded street in Cedar Rapids, 2008.

Flooded street in Cedar Rapids, 2008

That was before resilience was a buzzword. Resilience seemed to emerge probably in 2009 and 2010, and then it went viral in 2013. It was climate change, and this phenomenon of more frequent storms and more violent storms — these storms that were supposed to be once every 100 years — that’s led to this body of work.

Around the same time, we started doing work on the Missouri River, where they had dramatic flooding in about 2011. We designed this park right across from downtown Omaha. It was supposed to have some periodic flooding once every 25 years, and all of a sudden it was under water for four months. We keep seeing this over and over.

Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park, with Omaha in the background

Fast forward and we’re doing work in Bridgeport, Connecticut in about 2011, and they start feeling the effects from Hurricane Irene. It was another case of this postindustrial city with this changing relationship to water, experiencing storm surges and flooding and all these different water-related issues that are just hampering cities now.

And then Sandy hits in 2012.

Which takes us to Rebuild by Design, which was organized through the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force to look at innovations in resilience: how can you make communities more resilient to these threats which are going to be more frequent? How do we do it regionally? Because water knows no boundaries. It doesn’t care what state you’re in, what city you’re in; all it does is follows landform and topography. It doesn’t matter if you’re a red state or a blue state or who your governors are, it’s going to impact you the same way.

How did you approach the Rebuild by Design research?

We did ecological analysis of coastal typologies with our partners at Rutgers. We basically broke the coast down to three different zones: the bays, the headlands — where land meets ocean, and then areas that are protected by barrier islands.


We effectively extended that up and down the entire Atlantic seaboard and started understanding what areas are more vulnerable, what areas are more resilient, where should we be investing in communities.

Within all of this work, our approach was to ask, because the Jersey Shore is so important to so many people, what can it mean to people in the future? What can the culture of the Jersey Shore be? It’s obviously come to be defined by MTV generation lately, but what does it mean to people that experienced it in the ’20s or ’40s or ’60s or ’80s?

It’s evolved for different generations, and will evolve in the future. How can we create a new identity for it? How can we add that new chapter of cultural resiliency and maintain that economic and ecological resiliency?

From Sasaki’s Rebuild by Design submission

So we looked at areas like Asbury Park and said, let’s take this cultural icon of the boardwalk and reinvent that, adding another layer to the culture of the shore but also making it start to work structurally.

If the plan can reinforce and help build dunes that can help protect the community from future storm threats, it can create ecological value also. So there are areas where you can make subtle changes to increase resiliency.

And you can contrast that to other areas that are extraordinarily vulnerable, like the barrier islands, where with just one to two feet of sea level rise, they go under water. And so there we said, we do need to start thinking about facilitating the movement of people to more resilient areas on the mainland, because barrier islands want to move. That’s what they do.

It’s interesting to see some of the response from Rebuild by Design. Some of the media have started to pick up on these ideas. The New York Times interviewed [former] HUD [US Department of Housing and Urban Development] secretary Shaun Donovan a few months ago, and he talked about walking through the neighborhoods of Cedar Rapids that we had worked on, neighborhoods that had been in a floodplain and been destroyed. Through the planning that we had done, these areas were being turned back into greenways. We’re basically making room for that river to flood areas that it naturally has done over the centuries. It’s just in the past 150 years or so that settlements moved in there.

So it offers a glimpse of what’s coming. There are more areas that are going to need to address that. And with sea level rise, repetitive losses could be what we start to see in some of these different areas, potentially, on the Jersey Shore. We really need to start to look to the future of making investments in safer areas.

How did you end up working these ideas into your proposal?

I talked a little bit about the cultural aspect of Asbury Park — taking this icon of the boardwalk and starting to reinterpret that in a new way. In a similar way, with some of the barrier islands, so much of that is defined just by that ribbon of sand along the beach.

We thought, how can we start to get people to think about the idea of being deeper than the beach? We’ve coined that phrase in all the work that we’ve shown through Rebuild by Design; this idea that it’s not just this ribbon of sand along the ocean, but all these ecological systems that feed into it — the bays, the coastal lakes, and streams and creeks that reach into areas like the Pine Barrens. Today this represents a $28 billion tourism economy on the Jersey Shore. How can we make that economy more diverse and less susceptible to a major disaster in the future?

Our thought is to start leveraging some of these ecological assets that are inland, like the Pine Barrens. The Pine Barrens represent a million acres of federally protected lands in the center of New Jersey that include all these state parks and ecological resources.

Instead of people just going to the beach from Memorial Day to Labor Day, how can we actually start to diversify this and grow this into nine, ten months out of the year by attracting people to more resilient areas where they can go hiking or biking or explore the folk music culture?

Kayaking in the Pine Barrens

We thought about ways to make that $28 billion economy larger, but less susceptible to major storms because it’s not all dependent on tourism on the beach.

Note: Rebuild by Design has become a model for the National Disaster Resilience Competition, a larger national initiative announced by the White House and HUD last month.

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