By Lynn Englum, City and Policy Manager for Rebuild by Design.

On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the New Jersey coastline and swept into the New York City Metropolitan Region as a tropical storm. It unleashed flooding and destruction in its wake and became the second costliest disaster in U.S. history with $65 billion in damages.

The storm brought the region to it’s knees, crushing critical infrastructure, damaging and destroying homes and killing at least 186 people. Several elements contributed to its destructive nature including rising sea-surface temperatures (2012 was the hottest year on record at the time) and a full moon which increased the storm’s surge levels with higher than average sea tides. Ultimately, Hurricane Sandy exposed the physical and social vulnerabilities the region faced from extreme weather and a changing climate.

When facing the aftermath of a disaster, it’s hard to focus on the future. There is a strong desire to return to “normal” as quickly as possible and rebuild back to the previous state. U.S. government disaster spending is geared toward maintaining the status quo. Legal and administrative barriers often impede rebuilding with an adaptive approach that considers future impacts and a changing climate and environment. Instead of building back to the status quo, which had been standard operating procedure in the United States, Rebuild by Design was an experiment in building “forward” to what communities will need for the future.

Seven months after Hurricane Sandy, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) partnered with The Rockefeller Foundation, NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge, Municipal Arts Society, Regional Planning Association and Van Alen Institute to launch Rebuild by Design. It was an experiment in utilizing government allocated disaster funds (nearly a billion dollars) coupled with philanthropic funding to support an innovative process for addressing both current and future risks. Rebuild challenged federal disaster-spending norms and set a new precedent for a different approach.

The Rebuild by Design competition brought together global talent and an interdisciplinary set of experts to investigate the physical and social vulnerabilities facing the region. This competition took a different approach to a typical design challenge. Instead of asking for solutions, the competition called for teams of experts with various approaches to problem-solving and infrastructure and community building. The goal was to create interdisciplinary teams that brought multiple sectors together and contained a diverse set of expertise—from architecture, design, policy, climatology, and sociology to urban planning, history and hydrology. Ultimately, ten teams were chosen and led through a discovery process to uncover the problems and interdependencies of the impacted region.

The competition had two principal stages—collaborative research and design. The objective of the research stage was to develop a holistic understanding of the social and physical vulnerabilities facing the entire region, while the design stage utilized the research discoveries to develop innovative, implementable solutions. Ultimately, the competition produced ten projects and seven were chosen for funding.

The Rebuild process created project plans that are forward thinking because they address future impacts, are holistic and solve for multiple issues at once. While the chief competition objective was addressing flooding and developing storm surge protection, resulting proposals included a plethora of co-benefits, including ideas for enhanced biodiversity, improved transit options, greater connectivity, safe waterfront access, additional employment opportunities, improved recreational space, wetland restoration and the protection of low-income communities.

As these projects move from conceptual designs to physical projects, The Rockefeller Foundation, Rebuild by Design and the Georgetown Climate Center collaborated on a report — Rebuilding with Resilience — to capture the policy lessons that are being learned throughout the region. These projects provide important lessons about how officials at all levels of government can design and construct infrastructure projects that deliver multiple community benefits and enhance a community’s physical, economic, social, and environmental resilience.

Align multiple streams of funding & administrative requirements
Implementing large-scale, multi-benefit projects will often require several funding sources. Governments should coordinate administrative requirements, where possible, and allow different funding streams to be combined. This will generate more comprehensive resilience projects that can deliver better, more holistic solutions.

Achieving comprehensive resilience requires a long-term approach
Large-scale resilience projects will often have to be constructed in stages due to budget constraints and uncertainty in future changes especially the scientific understanding of the effects of climate change. The most viable projects will be designed so that they can be progressively implemented over time as funds become available or as the impacts of climate change become more severe. Phased construction allows governments to develop long-term solutions without being overwhelmed by the large initial price tags of the needed investments. This example can be seen with the East Side Coastal Resilience Project, also known at the Big U. There are three compartments for building coastal protection all along the lower tip of Manhattan. These are being phased in over time as money becomes available. However, each compartment can stand on it’s own in terms of protection.

Encourage coordination across agencies and levels of government
Complex resilience projects require unprecedented coordination across jurisdictions, agencies, and levels of government to permit, construct, and maintain these projects. The Hurricane Sandy projects utilized technical coordinating teams and demonstrate how permitting agencies can create vehicles for improving coordination at all stages of a project’s lifecycle. These projects also demonstrate the need for regional coordination across jurisdictions to ensure that resilience projects are implemented at the scale needed to be effective.

Create more flexibility for disaster recovery funding
U.S. Federal disaster recovery programs are not well suited for broader community rebuilding efforts. Federal agencies and Congress must find ways to give cities and state governments more flexibility to use disaster recovery dollars in ways that allows them to rebuild in more holistic ways with climate change in mind instead of merely reacting to the last disaster.

Design for and encourage projects that provide multiple benefits
With a changing climate, increasing urbanization, and budget constraints, infrastructure projects can no longer be built to only serve a single purpose. Governments need to demand that new infrastructure meets multiple challenges and provides a variety of economic, social, and environmental benefits. For example, many of the competition’s projects include “berms with benefits”— flood control structures that not only reduce flood risks but also provide environmental and recreational benefits.

Robust public engagement and participation during project design
Broad, meaningful, and continued public participation and engagement throughout all stages of project design and implementation has led to broad public support for the Rebuild projects and has improved project design. Community organizations and local stakeholders informed the design of the projects and, as a result, have proven to be important advocates. Governments should encourage officials to move beyond historical practices of “checking” the public outreach box and instead treat the public as an important partner in the design and implementation of projects.

The communities impacted by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and the powerful 2017 storm season have an opportunity to rebuild for the future. These lessons, that the City of New York and the States of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut are experiencing, are instrumental for policymakers at all levels of government as they reconsider disaster planning and response in light of climate change and other stressors and as they work to develop successful urban resilience plans, policies, and projects.


Lynn’s work focuses on identifying and addressing policy barriers to resiliency implementation and working to promote governance structures and regional coordination that allow communities to better prepare for a changing climate. She is also working with partner cities to utilize Rebuild’s process for solving select challenges.

Previously, Lynn worked at the World Wildlife Fund, focusing on climate change, renewable energy, resiliency, and cities. Lynn’s commentary has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post, Indianapolis Star, Climate Progress, and Sustainable Cities Collective. Lynn started her climate career at the Center for American Progress, researching climate and energy. She received her MA in Global Environmental Politics from American University and her BS in Public Affairs & Environmental Management from Indiana University.

About: Rebuild By Design is reimagining the way communities find solutions for today’s large-scale, complex problems by processes for working with a mix of sectors – including government, business, and the non-profit community – to gain a better understanding of how overlapping environmental and human-made vulnerabilities leave cities and regions at risk. Rebuild convenes local communities and experts to drive systemic change, transforming our built environment in ways that are equitable and design-driven.