Three battle plans in the resilience war

Miami skyline

The City of Miami, which was selected for 100 Resilient Cities in tandem with Miami Beach and Miami-Dade County, must brace for rising seas with an immediacy that exceeds most other American cities.

How AIA chapters are using the visibility of 100 Resilient Cities to bring urban challenges to the forefront

As the global population swells and urbanization rapidly increases, our built environment stands to suffer. Existing city systems for transportation, water, and sanitation will not be able to handle the projected influx of residents, not to mention the intensifications in heat and precipitation brought about by climate change. Floods caused by rising sea levels will cripple the foundations of our buildings and structures. And economies on a local and global scale will be further crippled by calamities that increasingly occur with no warning; in 2015 alone, natural disasters cost the United States roughly $26.4 billion.

All of which combine to make the 100 Resilient Cities program so important. Pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) aims to bring the world's cities together by emphasizing the need for collaboration, communication, and strategizing around their shared physical, social, and economic concerns. Recognizing a common goal, the AIA signed on as a platform partner in 2013; over the years that followed, AIA component leaders from cities like Miami, San Francisco, and Boston—all 100RC members—have seen the value in shining a bright light on projects and initiatives that will propel our urban centers into the future.

Bettering Beantown

At the same time, those cities haven't exactly been waiting around for their issues to find a worldwide stage. Boston was selected for 100RC in late 2014 and hired a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) in 2015, but the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) has been concentrating on different elements of resilience for years now.

"We are unique, I think, in our approach towards 100RC and resilience," says Gretchen Rabinkin, AIA, director of civic design for the BSA, "in that we're focusing on social equity."

Boston has long had a troubled history with racism; its desegregation of public schools through busing led to a series of conflicts throughout the 1970s that linger to this day. And in the minds of the BSA, the city can't tackle issues like rising sea levels and disaster recovery without leveling the playing field for its citizens first.

"In particular, we're looking at East Boston," Rabinkin says. It is home to over 40,000 people; a low-to-moderate income, predominantly immigrant neighborhood. It's also originally five islands that were connected via landfill during World War II, in large part to expand the city's Logan International Airport. When the seas around Boston rise, it's an area of town that will suffer from both a social and an infrastructure standpoint.

In terms of geography, East Boston is Boston's immediate neighbor. But when extreme weather rears its ugly head, traveling between the two becomes almost impossible.

"BSA has partnered with the Neighborhood of Affordable Housing," Rabinkin says, "to work on community-based resiliency efforts in East Boston, including vulnerability assessments, halting the proliferation of food deserts, and bringing the area into closer communication with the rest of the city."

The role of Boston's architects has included taking stock of the neighborhood and talking with renters and owners, builders and real estate agents, youth and the elderly to develop a personal as well as analytical understanding of local needs and priorities, ultimately creating a menu of actions that residents can take today to make their homes and businesses more resilient to sea level rise and extreme temperatures.

The latter is an issue this area already struggles with, as Boston has never been a stranger to bad weather. When the city floods from too much rain, its subway system goes down and East Boston residents are often temporarily stranded. When it snows—and that’s a regular winter occurrence—some can't make it to work at all and lose their jobs. And that'll only get worse when severe weather becomes even more of a threat to everyday life, which makes this an issue beyond the physical elements of design.

"What we're driving at, from an architectural perspective, is not only how we best place strategic seawalls but how they provide a larger benefit for our community," Rabinkin says. "Not only a wall, but also a park, or a grocery store, or a shade structure. It's about properly leveraging our investments to create a neighborhood that is a better place to live, work, and play."

The seas are coming

While Boston is trying to cast its gaze as wide as possible, other cities don't have that luxury. The City of Miami, Miami Beach, and the rest of Miami-Dade County are perhaps more vulnerable to sea level rise than any other part of the United States. It's an issue AIA Miami has been dealing with for quite a while; unlike other parts of Florida, there's little argument here that the water is rising.

"Miami Beach, in particular, is way ahead of the curve in terms of resilient and sea level rise efforts," says Cheryl Jacobs, EVP of AIA Miami and the Miami Center for Architecture & Design. "And AIA Miami itself has had a sea level rise task force for and a year and a half now."

But Miami's complications stand out. While everyone looks at the Atlantic Ocean looming on the east, Jacobs notes that Miami-Dade County gets its fresh water from an underground aquifer. And there's already saltwater intrusion in their wells; as the sea rises, the city will likely flood from both the west and the east.

"Even if we built a big wall on the beach," she says, "it's not going to do any good."

"It's about properly leveraging our investments to create a neighborhood that is a better place to live, work, and play." - Gretchen Rabinkin, AIA

For now, AIA Miami is engaging its architects in as much related programming as possible. Miami-Dade County has hired a CRO, as has Miami Beach, but there's a need to be proactive instead of reactive. As hundreds of new condo towers begin to dot the local skyline—zero of which have designs that've factored in sea level rise—and owners of single-family residences start to worry about their futures, the time is now for those with design prowess to step in and make an impact.

"There are still a lot of issues in the community that we're figuring out how to handle," Jacobs says. "We've done a lot in the last few years with pumps, but that's short-term. Now the task force is working on the long-term issues, and our sustainability committee working on a toolkit for what single-family homes can do, how they can adapt and push the city to make changes. But changes to codes, and to land use, will be the hardest but the most beneficial."

And so much is linked to raising awareness, which is where a national initiative can really make an impact. "When it's a grassroots effort, it all comes back to constant conversations with elected leaders," Jacobs says, but 100RC brings with it publicity and an important opportunity to press politicians on where they stand. It makes the drumbeat loud and consistent, which can only benefit the work chapters have already done.

By the bay

San Francisco was one of the first cities selected for 100RC; it was also the first city in the world to hire a CRO. While the influx of Silicon Valley dollars has made it a haven for new money, a laundry list of present and future complications still plague the Bay Area: seismic issues, climate change, storms, sea level rise, social inequity, and unaffordability.

Fortunately, this is not a city that sits on its hands. Any increased support for resilience programs has just served to augment what AIA San Francisco and the city's AEC community had already begun.

"We've decided to leverage the visibility of 100RC by layering in resilience for the programs currently going on," says Jennifer Jones, the executive director of AIA San Francisco. "Rather than developing something completely new, we're leveraging new resources in an effective manner."

San Francisco, a diverse city defined by its neighborhoods, will turn to education on all matters resilience to combat inequality, disasters, and flooding.

This includes the Architecture and the City Festival, presented by AIA San Francisco and the Center for Architecture + Design, which will take place throughout the month of September. The Festival will have an added resilience twist for 2016, with a new focus on public education and how designers are working on making the city responsive. Local libraries and community centers will also be preaching this same message in tandem, presenting a comprehensive series of ideas that each area of San Francisco can digest in its own way.

"This is a city of neighborhoods," she says, "and each will have a different part in all these challenges. While some may more affected by sea level rise, others will focus on aging infrastructure and social inequality."

And as these issues become more well-known, chapters will find themselves in a unique position to gather members and build community engagement through the power of collaboration and networking.

"From our perspective," she says, "no matter the size of the [AIA] chapter or funds, there are ways to educate architects on how they can leverage the conversation, get work, and build their practice and diversify."

The critical challenges that cities can expect to face going forward will require design thinking and problem-solving, two specialties of architects. To properly leverage those particular talents, chapters must continue organizing to identify resilience issues of local relevance and connecting with networks like 100RC, community stakeholders, local government officials, and fellow design professionals to build multi-faceted coalitions and meet these problems head on.

Steve Cimino is the digital content manager at the AIA.

Image credits

Miami skyline

vgm8383 via Flickr

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