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Eyeing Hurricane Matthew: NJIT Professor Talks Disaster-Minded Urban Planning

Having already claimed hundreds of lives, Hurricane Matthew—the strongest storm to hit the Caribbean since Felix struck in 2007—pummeled Haiti and intensified over the warm waters of the Bahamas to become a Category 4 hurricane with Florida, Georgia and South Carolina in its crosshairs.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the Northeast region in 2012, killing 37 people in New Jersey and destroying nearly 400,000 homes, NJIT continues to lead the way locally, nationally and internationally in fostering discussion about ways to explore resiliency through applied research, experiential learning and civic engagement.

“As designers we have the responsibility to our fellow citizens to come up with solutions that will establish communities that are vibrant, that work and at the same time will be able to bounce back from a future event,” says Urs Gauchat, Dean of the College of Architecture and Design.

With Matthew’s deadly storm surges, damaging winds, flooding rainfalls and surmounting death tolls dominating headlines, conversations about climate change resiliency, disaster-planning policies and risk reduction have already begun.

“We face incredible challenges related to climate change: sea level rise, an increasing number of storms, draught, fire, the list goes on and on,” says College of Architecture and Design professor Georgeen Theodore, who directs NJIT’s Master of Infrastructure Planning (MIP), an intensive, yearlong studio-based program that develops and equips professionals with the tools to make cities more equitable and sustainable.

Theodore, who leads a design team that won $125 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to protect the South Shore of Nassau County from storm surges and rising sea levels, is principal and co-founder of Interboro Partners and worked on the first neighborhood redevelopment plan of the Booker administration in Newark. “We absolutely need to plan for these events, and this includes what to do before, during and immediately after a disaster.”

Here, Theodore discusses the evolving role of the disaster-minded urban planner, how environmental challenges affect design—and why focusing less on the built artifact and more on the design process will help people prepare for storms in the future.

You have a passion for coupling planning initiatives that mitigate risk with spatial projects that improve quality of life.

Too often we plan and design things that address certain risks but then have unintended negative consequences. Look at certain types of sea walls. They will likely protect an area from a storm surge on the one or two days when there is an intense storm, but every other day, it will cut off views and access to the sea. There is a unique role for designers to develop synthetic solutions that do "double-duty" by both mitigating risk and improving quality of life. For example, instead of the sea wall I described before, a dike that incorporates a jogging path, is an infrastructural element that reduces flooding and creates a recreational use that enhances everyday life.

How have recent environmental challenges presented by globalization and urbanization affected the design process?

One way environmental challenges have affected design processes is that architects and planners really need to engage time, that is to use time as one of their dimensions and to develop ideas with time in mind. For example, scientists predict certain rises in sea level in 50 years or 100 years, and we need to incorporate that into our work. This means that we have to design for variable and changing conditions. Incorporating time, and change over time, requires us to be less obsessed with the built artifact and more attuned to processes, which I think is a positive direction in the profession.

Your work as a practicing urban planner and professor at NJIT is rooted in strategies that include on-the-ground analysis, interdisciplinary research and collaborative team-based design. Why do you think this all-hands-on-deck approach is best when designing for the effects of climate change?

Well, a good example to discuss these issues is Rebuild by Design, an initiative spear-headed by President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. In 2013, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development under then-housing secretary Shaun Donovan looked for innovative approaches to post-Sandy rebuilding. They selected 10 interdisciplinary teams to develop such approaches, thereby acknowledging the crucial importance of interdisciplinary thinking rather than exclusive reliance on engineering solutions. But not only were the teams all intensely interdisciplinary, but they were also all led by designers.

Why designers?

I believe that this indicated the secretary’s expectation that designers would be best equipped to deal with challenges as complex as those presented by rising sea levels. Designers are not specialists in anything particular, but they are trained to creatively synthesize many different—and sometimes contradictory—fields of knowledge, to deal with many different actors and forces and, most importantly, to deal with uncertainty and contingency. So yes, an all-hands-on-deck design approach that synthesizes local on-the-ground analysis with multidisciplinary scientific research is what I believe is needed when tackling complex problems such as these, and this is the approach I am fostering in both my practice and in the MIP program.

How have you developed the MIP curriculum for future planners, who are now tasked with the optimization of land in the midst of frequent storm surges, rising sea levels, global warming and land migration?

Our agenda in the MIP program is to train future professionals to tackle the most pressing issues facing urbanized areas. But like I said before, this means not only thinking about how to design conditions that mitigate risk, but also create places that improve the quality of life for inhabitants. Students have to be able to understand, unpack and visualize complex urban conditions; research and visualization play a big role in the curriculum. Strategic thinking and planning is also central, since we are working to "match up" the demands of different systems and constituents in order to develop synthetic and robust solutions.

By Shydale James
sjames@njit.edu