How to marry design thinking and public input for resilient infrastructure

Design-Led Urban Infrastructure - A'18

An hour-long session on urban infrastructure at A'18 explored what it means to create public-benefiting resilient infrastructure projects.

Architects at A’18 prioritize innovation and community involvement for the resilient infrastructure projects of tomorrow.

There have been 900 federal disaster declarations in the United States since 2002. In the face of future inevitabilities due to climate change, like bigger storm surges and more aggressive heatwaves, architects are asking themselves how they can bolster public infrastructure in high-density urban areas while still giving local community members a seat at the table.

Amy Chester, managing director of the New York nonprofit Rebuild By Design, talks about the chain reaction resulting from extreme weather events that people don’t always take into account when tallying the damage, from widespread power outages to snarled public transportation. This year, as the contiguous United States had its warmest May on record, children in public schools without air conditioning were forced to sit at their desks through unseasonable heat.

“We’re going to start realizing that there’s lots of different cascading effects,” Chester says, “from subways being broken down—which they are, a lot of times, on really hot days—to people who are seniors who don’t have air conditioning, to school children that can’t be inside.”

At “Design-Led Urban Infrastructure: Realizing A More Resilient Public Realm,” an hour-long session at AIA Conference on Architecture 2018, Chester and architects Stephen Engblom, AIA, Jamie Torres Springer, and Jeremy Segal explored what it means to create resilient infrastructure projects that place the public’s needs first.

Proposed projects like Bjarke Ingels Group’s “Big U” for lower Manhattan—a “social infrastructure” project than won a $335 million award from Rebuild By Design (which is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation)—aim to shield the city from floods and guide storm surge from the river out of the city, while providing social and environmental benefits and prioritizing “individual neighborhood typology, as well as community-desired amenities,” according to its designers. Sections of the project like the Bridging Berm in East River Park would provide protection from floodwater while also offering a public amenity: a bike path along the top of the berm itself.

“For cities like San Francisco, and Manhattan, that have development right up to the waterfront, we’re going to need to be a lot more creative about what we do in our waterways.” - Amy Chester

In terms of funding these types of resilient infrastructure projects in the future, Torres Springer emphasized the need for collaboration between federal money and city capital to work proactively to prevent things like major flooding events to happen in the first place, rather than relying on federal agencies such as FEMA for aid after the disaster has already occurred.

“Major appropriations are not sustainable based on the increasing level of risk,” Springer said during the presentation. The Bay Area Challenge, a project of Rebuild By Design subsidiary Resilient By Design, emphasized the need to give local communities a seat at the table during the planning phase. Rebuild By Design uses tools and roleplaying games to engage with stakeholders and help them play a more active role in the design process. Chester prescribed a “make it fun, leave something behind” approach, citing projects like a “Citymaking Bridgeport” series of events in Bridgeport, Connecticut, that wedded a “Design Your Ideal City” workshop with a group bike tour and live concert. Games, she holds, are “a really interesting way to watch and see how people share what’s important to them.”

When it comes to utilizing aid money and other funds that come to communities after natural disasters occur, all four presenters agreed that incorporating workforce development and training for local residents into spending was an essential part of building more resilient communities. For example, much of the $16 million awarded to San Juan, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria is likely going back into the pockets of mainland contractors.

The theme of the untapped potential of social capital and social resilience ran throughout the session. Chester cited the Chicago heatwave of 1995 that led to the deaths of over 700 people, pointing out that there were fewer deaths in areas where neighbors lived in closer proximity to each other, because friends and family provided whatever assistance they could to those in need.

Social capital was also an essential tool in the public participation stage of the design of Superkilen Park in Denmark, one of the city’s most ethnically diverse (and socially challenged) neighborhoods. The half-mile-long urban space serves as a giant collection of “global found objects” that come from 60 different nationalities, all of which inhabit the surrounding areas. Pedestrians can find everything from a Moroccan fountain to palm trees from China to Israeli sewage drains while wandering through the park.

It’s creative thinking like this, in partnership with community input, that is most likely going to be one of the most important tools for architects and urban planners going forward, even as they face challenges that are much more urgent than designing a park or hosting a group bike tour.

“We’ve got to think about how we’re going to start protecting ourselves,” Chester says. “And for cities like San Francisco, and Manhattan, that have development right up to the waterfront, we’re going to need to be a lot more creative about what we do in our waterways.”

For more on resilience, including AIA's efforts and programs, visit aia.org/resilience.

Katherine Flynn is a writer/editor at AIA focusing on industry trends and emerging ideas.

Image credits

Design-Led Urban Infrastructure - A'18

Todd Winters

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