Credit: photo: William Stewart

One of the more indelible images of 2012 was the video clip of a New York high-rise resident lowering a plastic jug to waiting hands on the street below in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. With no electricity, elevators in the building (and many like it) were paralyzed. Residents trapped inside had no fresh water, leaving them no choice but to repel plastic jugs down from their apartments.

What was at best an inconvenience for this apartment dweller was a matter of life and death for other New Yorkers who lived in high-rise senior centers and assisted living facilities. In rooms cold and dark, with elevator service nonexistent, they, too, were trapped. This was for me a sour note in an otherwise positive story that’s received publicity in the past few years: reverse migration. People are moving back to the urban core. Although the largest group of urban migrants is young, a significant minority of the elderly is likewise returning to the nation’s downtowns. Often the reasons are the same: convenience and easy access to cultural institutions. For the elderly, there is also the allure of nearby medical facilities. The phenomenon has come wrapped with a bonus: Urban density makes more efficient use of energy.

But what happens if the power goes off?

If the only means of egress in an emergency is a dark flight of stairs, urbanites are likely to be at a serious disadvantage compared to their suburban and rural neighbors. As urban density increases, climate change ignites a growing number of severe storms that can bring down a city’s often aging infrastructure. It’s clear that architects and those who legislate public policy have to collaborate as never before to design resilience into high-density urban developments. This is not simply a matter of code-mandated building systems. Operable windows are also called for. And the building’s skin should itself be a source of energy, which has the extra benefit of, yes, being more sustainable.

But these are tactics, not strategies, and they will come about only if government, developers, architects, and the design and construction industry invest research dollars into developing resilient buildings. Taking the lead to promote the design of attractive, affordable, and adaptable high-density residential architecture won’t come easily or cheaply. But, as Hurricane Sandy showed us, the alternative is unconscionable.

Mickey Jacob, FAIA, 2013 President