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July 2016

As the threat of rising sea levels is imminent, architects and urban planners look for innovative solutions that protect people and cities around the world.



Most of the world’s important cities like New York, Singapore, and Hong Kong are situated on the coast of a sea or ocean or at the heart of a major river like London and Paris.  All are exposed to sea level rise, which means all may experience destruction related to excess water flowing past barriers that no longer suffice at some point in the coming years. Because no one can predict accurately when, preparations have to be made by city planners and architects for the tsunami, super storm, or other black swan that can cause disaster in a few hours.

To prepare for black swan crises caused by water, drought, migration, and other risk factors, in 2013 the Rockefeller Foundation created the 100 Resilient Cities programme. By November 2015 the 100 cities had been selected. Although they cover every continent and face different kinds of problems, they are united in readiness to prepare for future problems before they happen.

100 Resilient Cities

The 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) were selected from among 1,000 cities that applied. They include Accra, Bangalore, Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Christchurch, Jakarta, Kyoto, London, Miami, New York City, Panama City, Paris, Ramallah, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, Rotterdam, Seoul, Singapore, Sydney, Tel Aviv, Toronto, and Vancouver.

On the 100RC website, the tag line is “Crisis is the new normal for cities in the 21st century.” Crises may be caused not only by the black swan “shocks” but also by “the stresses that weaken the fabric of a city on a day to day or cyclical basis,” such as high unemployment, violence, chronic food and water shortages.

Role of Chief Resilience Officer

A few years ago, the title didn’t exist, nor did the concept of a city’s resilience as something that could be studied, analysed, and improved. On the job for less than a year, Jim Murley is the first Chief Resilience Officer in Miami Dade County. Miami Dade encompasses the City of Miami, the cities of Miami Beach, Coral Gables, Doral, and a host of neighbourhoods with a total population of 2.7 million.

That means many people face potential risks.  As Murley told a reporter for the Miami Herald, “We’re on a peninsula surrounded by water … That defines the very issue that we have to deal with as we think about sea-level rise and climate change.”

In the short run, Murley says, the city is focusing on projects with multiple benefits. “We protect the infrastructure as we upgrade it.” The water and sewer system in one district is being expanded and deepened for greater capacity.  A waste treatment plant is being upgraded to withstand a Category 3 storm surge. “Each time we look at major infrastructure such as the port or the airport,” explains Murley, “we build in resilience … so that we make no-regrets changes,” and adds, “we’re adjusting our processes to do that.”

Role of architecture

Illya Azaroff is an architect with +LAB in New York, a studio with the mission “to explore, build resilient capacity and advance goals for a sustainable future.” He’s also Regional Representative to the American Institute of Architects’ National Strategic Council.

Azaroff considers sea level rise “the imperative of our time” that “impacts all aspects of the built environment, where people live and work as well as transportation, infrastructure, culture, and beyond.” He points out that most of the world’s people live in cities at risk. “We have a great deal of the GDP and cultural capacity of the world in these areas of risk not to mention some of the most vulnerable populations in the world.”

The devastation caused in New York City and surrounding counties by Super Storm Sandy in 2012 led to the creation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development of Rebuild by Design, a competition announced in 2013 for adding resilience to communities victimised by Sandy. Seven of 10 winning projects are under implementation.

The Big U in Manhattan

The Big U from the Bjarke Ingels Group has received the most publicity and is the most ambitious. The design encompasses raising streets and parks around the tip of Manhattan to create more public sports and entertainment areas as well as protect the area from future sea level rise.

Getting the Big U and the other projects from rendering to reality requires extensive communication with local communities and input from many stakeholders, which slows progress but guarantees buy-in from groups that might tend to fight a project perceived as coming from the outside.

The Panel on Climate Change in New York City collects documents that are available to architects working there. “To project forward for sea level rise, models are available, or climate action plans that have been developed by cities,” says Azaroff. “There is science available for projecting a future that can be tied to the lifecycle of a building to inform how to design and where to build.” The architect has to understand “site location, conditions of current risks such as periodic flooding, mapped flood zones as well as potential inland flooding sources from upland rain, snow melt,” and so on.

Monad Terrace in South Beach

Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel from Ateliers Jean Nouvel in Paris has designed a condominium residence in South Beach for JDS Development Group that he calls a “reflection machine.” Rather than building to keep the sea out, Nouvel brings it into the design of Monad Terrace. Two mid-rise towers of 14 and 7 storeys are separated by a lagoon open to South Beach Bay and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

Monad Terrace will provide 51 residences with high ceilings, water views, and natural light as well as tropical foliage and the unfettered sea. In an exclusive interview with critic and author Alastair Gordon published in the Miami Herald, Nouvel said, “We are working to accommodate the water rise through the landscape itself.” On the land side, Monad Terrace is bounded by West Street where the city has been raising street levels and upgrading pumping stations to control endemic flooding after strong rains.

Cities at risk

“Think of any city on the water that was a major harbour for trade and commerce historically, and you have your answer,” says Azaroff. In addition to New York, “the entire Boston-Washington Megalopolis is at risk,” – comprising 20 percent of U.S. GDP – “and around the world, London, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Rio, Shanghai, Sydney, the list goes on and on.”

Everyone should be thinking about “resource stresses” due to sea level rise, Azaroff believes. Global migration will increase to 200 million people by 2050 and over 550 million by 2100…It is the role of architects and planners to recognise these concerns and plan for them, advise communities and governments as well as design for a better future,” he concludes.

It’s a huge job but someone has to do it.

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