David Dixon, FAIA, knows a thing or two about disasters. The principal at Boston-based Goody Clancy helped to shape the AIA’s response to Hurricane Katrina and to prepare New Orleans’ post-Katrina Master Plan, a project on which he continues to work. Dixon shared what he learned in New Orleans and the demands that climate change and urban growth are placing on coastal cities’ increasingly vulnerable infrastructures at the New York Institute of Technology’s TEDxNYIT: Meta-Resiliency last Thursday. “We have already begun to pay a very considerable price for addressing resilience,” he told the audience, outlining a growing need for those tasked with building resilient cities to be malleable in their design approach. ARCHITECT talked with Dixon following his presentation about what he’s learned from his work helping to rebuild the city of New Orleans.
What did you learn about recovery and resilient design from the response to Hurricane Katrina that can be applied to Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts?
A society divided against itself has a difficult time responding to disaster. New Orleans wasn't a city where everybody came to each other’s rescue because there wasn't the sort of shared bond across neighborhoods that New York experienced. New Orleans has a fundamental racial divide and it wasn't so much the response or even the recovery but the escape from Katrina that took that form. New Orleans and the New York region also have different perceptions of the role of the public sector. When Katrina hit, there was already a tremendous amount of abandoned vacant property in New Orleans because of the city’s 20-year-long economic decline. That meant recovery had to happen one lot at a time, not one neighborhood at a time. A neighborhood at a time happens much faster than a house at a lot at time because it’s hard to invest in rebuilding your house when you have no idea if anybody else on the block will rebuild. The New York region had less of an issue with vacant property and is taking a much more aggressive approach towards working to make sure that neighborhoods come back.
Can you compare the architecture community’s response post-Katrina and post-Sandy?
Following Sandy, architects in the New York region took the lead in thinking about innovative approaches to housing and galvanizing urgency around resilience. But the recovery was more top-down, led by the profession and city and state government. I think that does many people a service. The architecture community in New Orleans is much smaller and has less of a tradition, compared to New York, of coming forward and arguing their case. Still, [those involved with] Sandy could learn a lot of lessons from those involved with Katrina. There are a number of individuals active in New Orleans’ recovery: David Waggonner, who launched the Dutch Dialogues that focused on how New Orleans can invest in resilience in ways that enhance the quality of life and make it a better city. Angela O’Byrne, FAIA, who founded [the nonprofit] City-Works, which is led by the design community and functions as a civic organization that values walkability, preservation, and innovative design.
I’m old enough to have planned all over the place, and the recovery planning we did in New Orleans had the least “NIMBYism” of any planning I've ever done. People were more civic and more committed to the sense that they were not so much a collective city but a neighborhood that needed to come back, and they were very realistic about how to do it. New Orleans’ neighborhood leaders were amazing. They showed up for meeting after meeting after meeting and engaged in very realistic ways. They didn't say, ‘We want a great park, a subway, and a new school,’ when they know that none of those could happen. They said: ‘We have tremendous problems throughout affordable housing here. We need job training as part of recovery. Here are the blocks that can come back first, so maybe we should focus investment on them.’ It was really fascinating. The grass roots are what brought New Orleans back.
You talked about ‘hard resilience’ during your TEDx presentation. Could you elaborate as to how it applies to the recovery efforts in New Orleans and New York.
Resilience is going to be a huge expense. Principles from the Dutch Dialogues weren't implemented immediately in New Orleans, but the program had a lot of influence on proposals such as Seaport City [from the New York Mayor's office]. What’s been at the core of them is the idea that we can make money [on the project] and skim off a premium that we can use for other things the city needs. Nobody was thinking about protecting the city until very recently. If you look at the literature, much of it says if the tide is coming in, pull back and leave a buffer zone that’s undeveloped. What Seaport City and HafenCity [the port of Hamburg] say is to build into it and protect it with really valuable development. With something like Seaport City, New York can build all the things that would be really hard to fit in Manhattan—it’s hard to imagine anything more profitable than to build more of Manhattan. Then if you attach a social agenda, we have dollars to do other things we need to do.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons user U.S. Navy/Gary Nichols via a Creative Commons license.