Caleb Stratton

In the first of a two-part series by the chief resilience officer of Hoboken, he discusses guidance for enhanced city-level resilience outcomes.

One of the most iconic images from Superstorm Sandy captured a fleet of New York City taxis parked in Hoboken, New Jersey, submerged in saltwater, sewage and oil. As the waters receded, we came to understand that there would be long-lasting economic and social impacts associated with this disaster that extended beyond our city or our state.

Just like Hoboken, many smaller cities are connected across municipal boundaries to the ebb and flow of a regional anchor—but they may not have the necessary resources to effectively study adaptation or undertake meaningful mitigation. States are uniquely positioned to fill this gap and consider how design standards, problem solving and adaptation efforts can be approached in an uncertain climactic future with increasing resource scarcity.

As Hoboken recovered from Hurricane Sandy, a growing tension emerged between recovery and resilience. Our constituents demanded that the most basic needs of food, shelter, water and power be met, and rightly so. But there is a difference between expediency and effectiveness. Resilience, or the idea of building back better than what was previously there, required a more thoughtful and expansive solution set.

Making a blueprint for resilient design

As time wore on, we found value in providing a common set of expectations for the community. In 2015, the City of Hoboken adopted our Resilient Buildings Design Guidelines (RBDG), which standardized a conservative (higher) design flood elevation that better reflected current flood risk and greatly extended the regulated floodplain past the mapped boundaries on existing flood insurance rate maps, last updated in 2006.

More recently, Houston also suffered the consequences of relying on outdated flood mapping data when more than 89,000 structures were flooded outside of the regulated floodplain, following 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. They adopted higher regulatory standards this past spring, representing a major first step in a historically challenging regulatory environment.

The RBDG has streamlined the workflow for homeowners in Hoboken looking to comply with regulations administered by the International Construction Code (ICC), the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) and the Hoboken Flood Damage Prevention Ordinance. The RBDG also consolidated the vast body of material available in National Flood Insurance Program technical bulletins to provide guidance in best practices. Consistency and clarity in guidance helped expedite the process for those looking to recover.

The RBDG now acts as a blueprint for resilient design in our coastal floodplain, which encompasses more than 70 percent of the city. These guidelines serve as a tool for homeowners, businesses and commercial entities, both for preparation before and recovery from a disaster. The RBDG assists in identifying appropriate materials for the recovery process, learning how to appropriately document mitigation measures and informing which design interventions satisfy zoning and building codes.

We know it is not helpful, for instance, to hand someone a stack of FEMA technical bulletins, the construction code and the municipal land use law and walk away. It is, however, helpful for state agencies to identify which resources should be consolidated to help simplify, and thus expedite, the reconstruction process on the city level. Pre-disaster planning can to help municipalities adapt, build and respond in a more resilient way.

Seeing progress across the Hudson

In the spring of 2018, New York City issued the Climate Resiliency Design Guidelines, and the Waterfront Alliance—an organization advocating for resilient and accessible waterfront development in the New York City metro area—issued their Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines.

Each guidance document references the best available science, as well as thought leadership by design professionals working throughout the world. These documents represent a template for decision-making that impacts almost every facet of capital planning, serving as a consistent methodology for building and landscape architects, engineers and planners to design building and infrastructure projects that are resilient to changing climate conditions in the city. The guidelines offer step-by-step instructions on how best to supplement historic climate data with regionally specific, forward-looking climate change data into the design of city projects.

Beginning with the end in mind

A resilient design strategy addresses challenges not with a linear approach, but instead comprehensively, to combine and balance outcomes and requirements. In 1992, noted design and innovation professor Richard Buchanan analyzed design theorist and fellow professor Horst Rittel in Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. The essay presents a dilemma: So-called “wicked problems” of design thinking are difficult to solve among an excess of confusing information, conflicting values and blurred ramifications. Not only are wicked problems difficult to solve, but intractable issues are also often inaccurately categorized as “true or false” instead of “good or bad.”

In fact, there are no “wrong” approaches to design, just less effective ones. Resilient design problems are not like algebra—there isn’t a “right" answer or an exhaustive list of admissible options for enhancing resilience.

It’s heartening to see that states are acknowledging this challenge. On May 21, New Jersey unveiled its Resilient NJ program of resilience planning grants, which focuses on regional teams rather than discrete projects. This program is exactly the type of thought leadership that may help resolve complex, large-scale, regional design issues in the future.

In Hoboken, we know all too well how strong coordination and communication between different levels of government can support effective disaster preparation and rebuilding efforts. As states seek to support municipalities like Hoboken following a disaster, no one can afford to be the last frog that jumps out of the pot—nor can we downplay the high costs of inaction.

It is critical to establish and maintain effective engagement with state agencies and to have access to applicable state-level resources to ensure our cities and towns are prepared for the next Superstorm Sandy. The price of inaction rests on our shoulders. As Rittel keenly identified as one of the properties of wicked problems, we have “no right to be wrong…[and] are fully responsible” for our actions.