Saturday, September 3, 2011

The False Illusion Of Safety: The Need For New Architecture 2

Some proposals for a new kind of architecture that will live in harmony with nature and save cities from being overcome by it.

If Irene were to repeat in 2021 insteado of 2011, we could very likely be writing a different story-because in 2021 the average seal level in New York Harbor will be an inch or so higher than it is today, assuming trends continue. New Yorks One Inch Escape From Hurricane Irene
It is clear that there is no magic bullet that will make large urban centers able to withstand the maladies of nature.  A combination of solutions will have to be used.  Indeed, a new outlook will have to be adopted by its inhabitants.  This was discussed in the previous article in this series.  Are there radical architectural directions that must be taken in order to preserve cities like New York from the threat of rising sea levels as well as hurricanes?  Yes.  But they will be expensive, and in some cases require a radical change in the mind set of the people living in those cities.

This article does not claim to be an attempt at an exhaustive solution to the problem, only some suggestions.  As an example of what most major urban centers are doing in western countries, we cite New York City's PlaNYC.  It is an attempt to visualize what New York City might look like in the year 2030.  We present for you a video produced by the city of New York to put forth its revised 2007 plan.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:
"We are going to seize this opportunity to lead the way forward and create the first environmentally sustainable 21st century city." Michael Bloomberg

The plan appears rather ambitious, tackling issues on many fronts.  New York City is expected to add one million people to its population by 2030.  So part of the plan is to increase not only the amount of housing but reduce its cost.  The plan covers housing and neighborhoods, parks and public spaces, so called brownfields (polluted sites), waterways, water supply, transportation, energy, air quality, solid waste, climate change, public health food, natural systems, green buildings, waterfront, economic opportunity, public engagement, sustainability indicators, and implementation.

The city seems to understand they have had a hand in creating the present problem that exists.
New York City has remarkable natural assets. We are situated on a great tidal estuary, sculpted with gentle hills and rocky outcroppings, and conditioned by four distinct seasons. But building New York involved leveling hills, burying springs, and felling trees. While we are proud of the great city we built, we have paid a price for burying nature. 
The natural systems we discarded performed essential functions. The trees and vegetation allowed the rain to percolate into the soil; now we spend billions on infrastructure to prevent flooding. The wetlands protected our coasts, cleaned our waters, and provided marine habitat; now we need seawalls and jetties, and import our fish from distant waters. The trees and vegetation provided shade and free cooling; now we rely on air conditioning. 
However, our view of the relationship between city and nature has begun to shift, and the edges between the two have begun to blur. We better understand the workings of natural systems, and can engineer such systems within an urban setting. Weaving through the Plan are initiatives that recreate effective natural systems, coexisting within the broader urban context. We are planting a million trees, which will cool our city and slow down stormwater. We are restoring our wetlands, which will protect our coast and clean our waterways.
...gauges at the New York City Battery indicate that sea level in the 2000s is 4 to 6 inches higher than in the early 1960s. The New York City Panel on Climate Change found that as global temperatures have increased, the regional sea level has risen more rapidly in the past 100 to 150 years than during the last 1,000 years. NY State Sea LEvel Rise Task Force Report 2010
Green Codes
New York City is implementing a series of "green codes."  These codes, placed under the supervision of  the "NYC Green Codes Task Force."  The city has even set up a blog for the purpose of explaining and discussing the proposals and legislation. As of July 6, 2011, out of the original 111 recommendations to changes in building codes, 56 are in the process of legislation.  According to this blog, sustainability is seen as "mission critical" by all of the city agencies that would deal these issues.

To the legislators and city agencies these new building codes, represent a long line of improvements that were made to building codes since the great shirt factory fire of 1911.
The codes regulating the construction and maintenance of buildings were developed in response to serious threats to health and safety, and include requirements for structural integrity, fire prevention, emergency egress, and access to light and air. In particular, many provisions of the New York City building code arose in direct response to disasters or epidemics. The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire led to requirements for fire drills and automatic sprinklers, and widespread problems exiting darkened stairways during the 2003 blackouts have brought about enhanced requirements for emergency lighting in those stairways. Similarly, epidemics led to New York’s tenement laws, which require access to light and air. These core functions are enshrined in the pre-amble to the building code, which lays out the intent of the code as the protection “of public safety, health and welfare.”
The report goes on to give interesting examples:
For example, the energy crisis of the 1970’s spurred the adoption of energy codes in order to protect against spiraling prices and the threat of shortages. Today, a group of issues, including energy consumption, indoor air quality, and storm water run-off, are commonly seen to impact public safety, health, and welfare at the broadest scale. These concerns, which generally encompass “environmental protection”, are critically impacted by the way buildings are designed and constructed. For example, in New York City buildings are responsible for 75% of carbon emissions, 85% of water use and over 60% of solid waste. In response, environmental issues are rapidly being added to the Construction Codes, but in a piecemeal fashion. The impact of environmental issues -- including the imminent threat of climate change -- on human health, safety, and welfare, combined with the vast impact of buildings on the environment, means that it is time to place these issues on a more solid intellectual footing by adding “environmental protection” as a core principle of the Construction Codes.
New York's estimates for climate change are dire. 2008, out of New York City’s more than one million buildings, there were only 26,862 structural fires, yet the Fire Code makes up an entire book of the city’s administrative code. In comparison, every person in the city will likely be exposed to unhealthy levels of volatile organic compounds and suffers if droughts are exacerbated by wasteful water use. In the medium-term future, New York will be subject to extreme weather events that will stress our infrastructure and affect every building and every resident. The New York City Climate Change Adaptation Task Force predicts that in New York in 2050 sea level will rise 7-12 inches, temperatures will be 3–5° F hotter, precipitation will be 10% greater and there will be more extreme weather events.
How NYC could have looked with
Hurricane Irene
But these predicted changes are not universally agreed on.  A lot of these predictions depend on how fast the polar lice sheets will melt. Since the beginning of the 20th century sea levels have risen by a foot around the New York City area.   Thus if the cataclysmic weather events that hit New York in the 20th century hit it in the 21st century, six other events would have equalled the 1992 Nor-easter storm which did so damage to NYC.  But we if follow the projected sea level rise (2 feet) at the start of the 20th century, New York would have experienced 30 "critical events" in connection with weather.

Of course, all of these code reforms depend on the financial interests at work in local politics.  The last time the building code was modified in any substantial way before 2007 was in 1968.  There is a movement towards updating buildings built before 2007 to this new code.  This was finally legislated in 2009.  The reasons are quite justifiable.
This new code, however, contains a major loophole: existing buildings constructed under the 1968 building code can still, with certain exceptions, renovate under the standards of this outdated code or earlier codes. Since 85% of the buildings currently in NYC will still be here in 2030, this means that the vast majority of the city’s buildings would effectively be exempt from many modern standards of the 2008 codes. It also means most buildings would be exempt from many enhancements to the building code resulting from the recommendations NYC Green Codes Task Force. As such, addressing this loophole is essential for NYC buildings to become environmentally responsible and healthy places to live and work. In keeping with this proposal, the Energy Code enacted in December 2009 specifically includes existing buildings.
How Holland Tunnel could have
looked with Hurricane Irene
If this 2009 legislation had not been passed, only 15% of the buildings in New York City would have been updated.

All this sounds very impressive.  But the PlaNYC has its critics.  Some think it is all smoke and mirrors, without any real substance.  Some think New York City's approach is more interesting in protecting the ecosystems of New York rather than the people of the state.

Protection vs. Adaptation
The New York State Sea Levels Rise Task Force presented a report in December 2010 to the New York Legislature.  A response to the report by Douglass Hill, a civil engineer  criticized the report.  The thesis of his criticism is that the report does not put any significant emphasis on engineering fortifications to protect New York.  He disagrees with the reports' statement that, "Non structural solutions can reduce or eliminate the long term threat of flooding at a much lower long-term cost with fewer impacts to natural systems."  Mr. Hill'e view is that,
At a March 2009 conference sponsored by sections of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the New York Academy of Sciences1, the hydrologic feasibility of protecting much of the metropolitan New York - New Jersey metropolitan region with storm surge barriers was demonstrated by the results of modeling studies at Stony Brook University and HydroQual, Inc. The technical feasibility of barriers was established with conceptual designs by four major engineering firms - Arcadis, Camp Dresser & McKee, Halcrow, and Parsons Brinckerhoff - and geotechnical studies by Mueser Rutledge. Against this substantive body of work supporting the concept, the Task Force report presents a single opinionated, condescending, undocumented and misinformed paragraph dismissing storm surge barriers.
click to enlarge
NY bight underwater
The issue seems to lie in what is called the NY bight.   This is a small area of water which becomes a funnel when a storm surge approaches.  This bottleneck can increase water levels dramatically in the New York and Raritan Bays.

Some of the proposals for storm barriers have already been visualized.  Arcadis, an international consulting and engineering company has produced a detailed proposal for such a storm barrier in three places, the Verrazano narrows, the East River and the Arthur Kill.  These barriers would not stop the critical tidal flow for wildlife and their habitats.  The cost is estimated at $6.5 billion with maintenance budget of $75 million a year.  Camp Dresser & McKee another engineering company based in Massachusetts, would build the Arthur Kill storm barrier.  The engineering Parsons Brinckerhoff, wold build the East River storm barrier.
Verrazano Narrows Storm Barrier
East River Storm Barrier

A simpler solution is proposed by Halcrow, Inc.  They propose one storm barrier at the critical New York bight area which would protect all of New York and Raritan bays.  This proposal would build two storm barriers - one at the Sandy Hook Channel and the other at the Ambrose Channel.
NY bight storm barriers

The cost of these two storm barriers would be $5.9 billion, $1 billion going towards the 5 mile long causeway that would have to be built across the entire bight.

We post some videos on what NYC might look like without any protection in the case of a serious hurricane as well as the proposal by the first engineering company as to what the Verrazano Narrows storm barrier might look like.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

So far, the city of New York has not shown any real interest in building these structures.  Although, this is still up in the air.

In our next installment in this series, we shall examine more specifics working in the adaptation side of the equation on how NYC may be protected from sea rise and weather disasters.

1 comment:

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