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Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary (2015)

Chapter:4 Transforming New York City

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Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
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4


Transforming New York City

The workshop’s third session focused on the public health efforts that have been part of the post–Hurricane Sandy rebuilding program in the New York City area. In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States, causing unprecedented damage. The economic losses were an estimated $65.7 billion, making Sandy the second-costliest storm in U.S. history. More than 650,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. The session’s single presenter, Nupur Chaudhury, Rebuild by Design’s senior project manager, described a subset of the competition’s winning projects and discussed how health considerations are being integrated into those efforts. In particular, she focused on an example of what she called “a community approach to postdisaster reconstruction.”

REBUILD BY DESIGN COMPETITION

In the aftermath of the storm, President Barack Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) diverted from the traditional approach to rebuilding and facilitated an international design competition to determine the best designs for rebuilding in the region affected by Hurricane Sandy. What made the competition particularly unique, Chaudhury said, was that at the beginning of the competition, the design teams were not asked to solve problems in any predefined area or to solve any specific issue; instead, the groups were tasked with codefining the problems, and only once they defined the problems did they come up with solutions for the problem or problems that they had identified. Before the process got started, HUD committed to using money from community development block grant funding to fund the implementation of the winning designs.

The competition was overseen by Rebuild by Design, a collaboration between various government entities—HUD and the governments of the

Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
×

states of Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York—as well as several essential private partners. “The competition was cocreated with the Municipal Art Society of New York, who is experienced in communities in New York City,” Chaudhury said. “The competition was also cocreated by the Van Alen Institute, who brought their experience in running competitions, specifically, design competitions. The Regional Plan Association was able to ground the competition in the relevant regional issues, and NYU’s [New York University’s] Institute for Public Knowledge provided the research base.” Chaudhury noted that the Institute for Public Knowledge is headed by Eric Klinenberg, author of the seminal work Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster, in which he discussed how a lack of social connectedness exacerbated the effects of the 1995 Chicago heat wave and led to far more deaths than would have occurred in a more socially cohesive place (Klinenberg, 2002). “So, having the Institute for Public Knowledge on the team was invaluable,” Chaudhury said.

The first step in the competition was a request for proposals, which was a call for interdisciplinary teams to address the question of how best to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. The goal was to find not only teams that were composed of creative and competent designers but also teams that were created and organized in innovative ways to facilitate thinking outside of the box and lead to innovative solutions to rebuilding the affected communities. One hundred forty-eight teams applied, Chaudhury said, and with no other information than that they would be working on the Sandy-affected region, they had to prove themselves and show that they were up to the task.

Of those 148 teams, 10 were selected. Those 10 teams were tasked with working with the communities in the Sandy-affected region to come up not only with an understanding of what the problems were but also solutions to those problems. From the very beginning, the teams were required to show that their proposed solutions had the support of the affected communities, Chaudhury said, “because these communities were the communities that were supposed to be protected by these projects.”

Over the course of 9 months, the 10 teams worked in the region to decide on a set of problems and come up with a set of solutions. “These teams consisted of architects as well as engineers, artists as well as scientists, urban designers alongside water experts,” Chaudhury said. “They were required to look at architecture. They were required to look at the landscape. They were required to look at the urban design issues as well as the urban planning issues that were at play in the Sandy-affected region.” Further, she said, they were required to look at the entire region and have an understanding of how the interventions, thoughts, and ideas

Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
×

that they would propose would affect the region as a whole rather than just one specific place.” The key to the Rebuild by Design competition, Chaudhury said, was the development of a coalition with the key stakeholders in the region.

The first 3 months of the competition were devoted to what Chaudhury described as a “research sabbatical,” in which the teams worked with members of the communities to codefine the problem. “Usually what happens is that the problem is already defined,” she said. “To have the teams selected and then to spend 3 months of the competition to codefine the problem itself was something that actually had never really been done.” The teams spoke with people in such areas as Asbury Park, New Jersey; Bridgeport, Connecticut; and Red Hook, New York, to understand what the effects of Hurricane Sandy had been and also to gain insight into the broader problems that the various areas faced.

“Some of the local mayors were a part of this research sabbatical, which was extremely rare,” Chaudhury said. “There were design teams that were actually working in soup kitchens to get an understanding of what the communities had to face and what they had to struggle with post-Sandy.”

After that research sabbatical, the teams engaged in a 4-month collaborative design process. Chaudhury explained what that process entailed: “These design teams created these comprehensive coalitions that consisted not only of traditional design teams but also local stakeholders. They invested a significant amount of time to make sure that they had the right stakeholders at the table to work alongside of them. They understood all of the previous plans and efforts in each of the communities. It wasn’t that they were just helicoptering in and coming in with an idea. They were required to look at all of the past plans, all of the planned past vision documents, and to really think about what was going on prior to Sandy and make sure that that was integrated—or at least acknowledged—for their final proposal.”

A significant part of the final score in the design competition depended on how much input that the community had in the design, Chaudhury said. The committee scoring the competition looked at the design proposals created prior to the community collaboration and at how much the proposals changed after the teams had worked with the community. “Having these design teams know that they were being scored as to how much they were collaborating really was a game changer for this competition,” she said.

Furthermore, the design teams were required to create nontraditional events for their community collaboration with the goal of capturing broad participation from these communities. In Hunts Point in the Bronx,

Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
×

for instance, the design team hosted a “slam bake” cooking contest. “Hunts Point is one of the major food distribution centers in the region,” Chaudhury explained. “It made sense to have a cooking competition there and have judges decide on what food is the best and then talk about what it meant for Hunts Point to be a food distribution center in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.” In Bridgeport, Connecticut, the design team hosted a bike tour and then had a discussion following the bike tour to engage young people in the community and hear their ideas concerning the future of Bridgeport. In Asbury Park, New Jersey, which Chaudhury described as a “heavily divided” community, the design team facilitated an effort in which the community worked together to create a parade from two different places within the neighborhood; after the parade the design team hosted a discussion in which people talked about what they thought the future of Asbury Park should look like.

In total, Chaudhury said, the 10 design teams collaborated with 535 different organizations, 64 communities, 181 government agencies, and 141 neighborhoods and cities.

Of the 10 teams, 6 of them were selected to continue developing their plans, with a total of $930 million from federal disaster funds ultimately being allocated. Chaudhury briefly described four of the winning proposals.

One was put together by a group called The BIG Team, which focused on lower Manhattan. “The question they were really trying to answer for lower Manhattan,” Chaudhury said, “is how is a wall not a wall? They engaged with multiple communities in the lower Manhattan area to think about how could they prevent walling off Manhattan and how this wall—or this berm, actually—could be a piece of infrastructure that responded to each of the communities.” In the submitted proposal, called “The Big U,” the wall served as a community space in one area, a bike path in another, and a park in yet another. Chaudhury said that what they did was take into account what each community wanted for its neighborhood and created a comprehensive strategy for that area.

A second team focused on the Meadowlands in New Jersey. The question that the MIT/ZUS Team asked was, “How could they turn the area’s backyard into its front yard?” The Meadowlands area consists of different towns and counties, all of which back onto a wetlands area. The goal was to recognize that area as an asset and find a way to have these communities turn toward the wetlands. “Their proposal proposed a berm that actually creates a mechanism for economic development and spurs new jobs, new housing, and thinking about a regional park,” Chaudhury said. One small part of that vision, for example, was the establishment of a fish restaurant that faces the water and serves local fish.

Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
×

Yet another team worked on the Jersey Shore to protect the tourist industry there, which is one of the area’s economic engines. “They created a comprehensive plan to move the tourism inland toward the Pine Barrens,” Chaudhury said, “taking off the pressure of rebuilding the shore itself, which essentially would be rebuilding in places that would be hit by a storm again in the future.”

A fourth team put together a proposal for Hoboken, New Jersey. In a big storm, Chaudhury said, Hoboken “essentially functions as a bathtub.” Thus, the team was looking to develop a comprehensive strategy to deal with water that would, according to the title of their project, “Resist, Delay, Store, and Discharge” water in moments of crisis.

Chaudhury also showed a 10-minute video describing the work of the design team that collaborated with the communities in the area of Hunts Point in the South Bronx, New York. South Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the United States, Chaudhury said, and it has the highest rate of asthma in New York City. But it is also a key distribution point for much of the food that is eaten by the inhabitants of New York City and parts of New Jersey and Connecticut. Even though so much food passes through Hunts Point, the South Bronx itself is a food desert, with the inhabitants of the South Bronx having much less access to fresh foods than people in the rest of the region.

Hunts Point was not damaged by Hurricane Sandy as much as other parts of the region were, Chaudhury said, but the hurricane still highlighted the area’s vulnerability. If Sandy had come through at high tide rather than low tide, much of Hunts Point—including the food that is kept there and the trucks that distribute it throughout the region—would have been under water, and the entire area’s food supply would have suffered because of it.

With all this in mind, the design team’s proposal—as influenced and directed by community input—focused on two overarching goals: protecting the physical infrastructure of the area in the case of another major storm like Sandy and helping improve the economy and health of the local communities.

The first goal was addressed through integrated flood protection and improvements in the maritime supply chain. The second was addressed through a two-pronged approach. The first prong was focused on livelihoods and providing good jobs in the community. To do this, the plan called for carrying out the project’s construction in a hyperlocal way, Chaudhury said. “What materials could actually be created in the South Bronx area? What types of construction would actually employ the local community?”

The second prong was focused on the health of the local communities. The high asthma rate in the area—25 percent of the schoolchildren in

Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
×

Hunts Point have asthma—is due to the huge numbers of trucks carrying food that come in and out each day. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 trucks go through the Hunts Point area on a weekly basis because of the food distribution center, Chaudhury said. So the plan examines a variety of ways to limit the effects of the trucks passing through. It also calls for keeping some of the fresh food—produce, meats, and fish—that passes through the area for the local population by creating local markets. “I actually think that the community itself, without actually saying it, was really talking about the social determinants of health,” Chaudhury said.

Concluding her presentation, Chaudhury said, “I think the biggest takeaway that I want to emphasize here is that because of the competition, it allowed for the space and place for the communities themselves to cocreate. Communities … not only know the problems themselves, but they actually know the solutions.” What is required, she said, is to find a way not only to highlight those community voices but also to have them lead the design and the proposals themselves.

DISCUSSION

Richard Jackson from the University of California, Los Angeles, spoke of how some local oysters and other seafood—which once made regular appearances on the region’s tables—are now off-limits because of pollution in many local bodies of water. He asked if the mitigation efforts in response to Hurricane Sandy might clean up the pollution enough that these local food sources once again become available.

Chaudhury said that, yes, that is a reasonable expectation. In particular, she said, one of the winning proposals was put together by a team that included a group called the Billion Oyster Project. That group worked with local oyster farmers to consider what is going on in the water off Staten Island and how to use the cultivated oyster beds to act as living breakwaters to help protect the coast from storm surges and sea level rise.

Lynn Goldman asked for more details about the competition and how the proposals were selected for funding. She also said that she would like to hear more about how Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York were able to put the funding together to hold the competition.

Chaudhury replied that the funding for the projects themselves—the $920 million—came from block grant disaster recovery funds from HUD, but the support for the process of selecting the projects came from a number of sources, including the JPB Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, and others. Now that the projects have been selected, the lead supporter for the implementation phase is the

Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
×

Rockefeller Foundation. That funding pays for Rebuild by Design staff to oversee the projects and, for example, make sure that they are true to their initial plan and design.

As for how the projects were scored and which projects were chosen as the winners, Chaudhury said that although there were closed-door deliberations, one major consideration was community engagement: How did communities cocreate? Was their contribution actually a piece of the final proposal? Another consideration was whether or not the projects could be replicated. The goal all along for these projects has been not only that they be successfully implemented in these six original areas but also that they provide the sorts of building blocks that can be applied in other places.

Jackson commented that the way the designers had to work with the community to develop the proposals represented a major cultural shift, because architects and other designers are used to figuring out what they want to do on their own and then telling others what to do to carry that out. Chaudhury agreed and described the sorts of encounters that this new approach led to. Imagine someone who has lived in this community for years and whose parents and grandparents have lived in the community for years sitting at a table next to a Dutch architect who has by his side a translator, who is next to an artist, who is next to a water engineer. All of these people must work together to think through the issues carefully, determine what the problem is, and then come up with a solution that can actually be implemented. That is a true culture shift.

One audience member asked Chaudhury what the plans were for keeping the community groups involved for the 5, 10, or 15 years that it will take to get these projects to their final stages. “The Rockefeller Foundation is not going to keep funding this forever. How are you going to keep that going for the long term?”

Part of the answer, Chaudhury said, is that the lead community group is THE POINT Community Development Corporation, which has been in the area for 20 years. “I don’t think they are going anywhere.” Because the residents and the various community-based organizations actually bought into the plans and had an integral part in their development, it is much more likely that they will remain motivated to make sure that the plans are true to the proposals that they helped create. Furthermore, she said, most of the community-based organizations had never really thought about resiliency until the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, but now, thinking about these plans has led them to integrate the concepts of resiliency and resiliency planning into their everyday work.

Next, Jack Spengler of Harvard University asked about the role of local wisdom in developing programs like the one that Chaudhury had

Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
×

described. While he acknowledged that such local wisdom is important, he suggested that it is also limited and cannot provide all the answers.

Chaudhury agreed and said that this observation points to one of the strengths of the competition. “It actually wasn’t just local communities saying what they wanted and designers and architects putting that together,” she said. “The cocreation of it actually meant that designers and architects who were experts both internationally and nationally were saying, ‘We did this project in the Netherlands, and here is what happened. Do you think that that would work here?’ or ‘We actually worked on a project down South. Here is what happened…. Do you think that would make sense in this community?’” The key was that the global knowledge and insights of the experts were combined with the local knowledge and insights of the community members to come up with solutions that were informed by outside experiences but guided by what the local people knew and what they wanted for their community.

An audience member who identified herself as working for a consumer products company commented that the company uses cocreation in the development of its products. “We rarely go into the lab anymore and create a product without an incredible amount of what we call ‘lead users,’ which I would call your citizens lead users, the people that live it, use it every single day.” But it is also important to keep these cocreators involved throughout the entire process, she said. “What we have learned in our space is that they are the best advocates. They are also your harshest judges, but you want them to judge you harshly. You want them to tell you the truth.”

Chaudhury agreed. “It is important to have these communities work alongside of you so that they can tell you like it is not just during the creation of it but during the implementation,” she said. So part of what the Rebuild by Design team is doing during the implementation phase is updating the communities at different key points in the process. The team also tries to keep the communities engaged as the projects move forward, recognizing that they were cocreators of the projects. Finally, the team is working to create a network of the competition-winning communities so that they can exchange information and lessons from their experiences.

In response to a question from Jackson, Chaudhury spoke about how such crises as Hurricane Sandy can turn out to be moments of transformation. In general, the plans that have been developed under Rebuild by Design do more than just come up with ways to create protection for the next storm that comes along; they also take the opportunity provided by this moment of crisis to rebuild stronger. An example is the proposal by one of the plans to create a farmer’s market that will be accessible to community members 6 days a week in an area where for years there had been only a large food distribution center that

Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
×

did not offer the local people any sort of access to fresh produce, fresh meat, or fresh fish.

REFERENCE

Klinenberg, E. 2002. Heat wave: A social autopsy of disaster. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
×

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Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
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Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
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Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
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Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
×
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Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
×
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Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
×
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Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
×
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Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
×
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Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
×
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Suggested Citation:"4 Transforming New York City." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2015. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization: Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/21831.
×
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A particularly valuable opportunity to improve public health arises when an urban area is being redesigned and rebuilt following some type of serious disruption, whether it is caused by a sudden physical event, such as a hurricane or earthquake, or steady economic and social decline that may have occurred over decades. On November 10, 2014, the Institute of Medicine's Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine held a workshop concerning the ways in which the urban environment, conceived broadly from factors such as air quality and walkability to factors such as access to fresh foods and social support systems, can affect health. Participants explored the various opportunities to reimagine the built environment in a city and to increase the role of health promotion and protection during the process of urban revitalization. Bringing Public Health into Urban Revitalization summarizes the presentations and discussions from this workshop.

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