The US government is spending nearly $1bn on six projects to protect Greater New York from floods

An artists impression of the Big U park on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Image: Rebuild By Design/BIG Team.

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the north eastern United States. The storm plunged many of the region’s cities into darkness, left millions without electricity and several dozen dead.

Much of the worst damage done by the storm was the result of flooding, when waves three feet higher than had ever been recorded hit New York City. Among the many shocking images to come out of the disaster, perhaps the most striking were those of the city’s subway tunnels flooded with water.

And so, in the aftermath of the storm, the US Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) launched its “Rebuild by Design” competition. Its goal was to bring together architects, engineers, ecologists and communities to find ways of making the heavily populated coastal region less vulnerable to flooding.

In June 2014, HUD announced that six projects would be going ahead, and sharing $930m in government funding. Each seeks not only to improve the city’s flood protection, but to regenerate areas of its waterfront. And on Friday, Rebuild By Design is holding an event to celebrate its second anniversary and discuss how the projects are going.

So, what are these projects? Here’s a quick guide:

 

The Big U – Lower Manhattan

The Big U is named for the fact that it is, in fact, a Big U: a 10 mile “flood protection ribbon”, stretching from West 57th Street, round the tip of Manhattan, to East 42nd street.

The initial stage of the project will be a 24 foot berm (that is, raised strip of land) at the East River Park on the Lower East side. A key part of the scheme is improving the physical connections between the new and improved waterfront and communities inland, previously cut off from the park by a raised highway. That road, FDR Drive, will also be fitted with deployable walls, which can be closed when the flood waters rise, protecting the homes and businesses behind it.

The project will also feature the “big bench” – a strip of raised land, doubling as street furniture. Cool. Here’s a video:

Proposers: BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) with One Architecture, Starr Whitehouse, James Lima Planning + Development, Project Projects, Green Shield Ecology, AEA Consulting, Level Agency for Infrastructure, Arcadis, and the Parsons School of Constructed Environments.

 

Resist, Delay, Store, Discharge – Hudson County, New Jersey

This one is meant to improve flood protection on the Jersey Shore, west of Manhattan, and, well, it does what it says on the tin. The main interventions involved are:

  • “hard infrastructure and soft landscape” to improve coastal defences (resist);
  • exploring ways of slowing the path of rainwater runoff (delay);

  • introducing green infrastructure to hold and direct water (store);
  • and introducing water pumps and alternative drainage routes (discharge).

The idea of the project is both to both reduce flooding itself, and limit its impact when it does happen.

Proposers: OMA with Royal HaskoningDHV; Balmori Associates; and HR&A Advisors.

 

Living with the Bay – Nassau County, Long Island

This project starts with the obviously-true-but-mildly-depressing comment that there are no “silver bullet” solutions on offer to the problem of flooding in a coastal city. Boo.

 

Instead, though, it promises a series of connected interventions. In no particular order, that means:

  • creating new marshes and dikes; 

  • improving rivers to store and dispose of flood waters, and turning the areas round them into new public space;

  • creating new marsh islands in the wetlands;
  • and adding flood defences-cum-public amenities to the Barrier Island.

Interboro / Apex / Bosch Slabbers / Deltares / H+N+S / Palmbout / IMG Rebel with Center for Urban Pedagogy, David Rusk, NJIT Infrastructure Planning Program, Project Projects, RFA Investments, TU Delft.

 

Living Breakwaters – Staten Island

This one's fun, not least because part of it's called the “Billion Oyster Project”.

 

It promises a “reef street” of new breakwaters – new habitats for finfish, shellfish, and lobsters, which will double as flood protection.

 

In addition, there'll be a new network of “programmed waterhubs”, community centres where the locals can rent kayaks, hold meetings, or learn about the local aquatic habitat.

Proposers: SCAPE/LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE with Parsons Brinckerhoff, Dr. Philip Orton / Stevens Institute of Technology, Ocean & Coastal Consultants, SeArc Ecological Consulting, LOT-EK, MTWTF, The Harbor School and Paul Greenberg.

 

New Meadowlands – Bergen County, New Jersey

This one will combine transport links and ecology with a whole new development zone.

 

It'll create new wetlands in the form of the Meadowpark – a big natural reserve open to the public, featuring a whole system or berms and marshes. Behind that will sit the “Meadowband” (yes), featuring streets, a new Bus Rapid Transit line (woohoo!), and series of public spaces.

The plan is to replace single storey warehouses with a new, more urban zone: basically, it’s regeneration and property development, with added flood protection.

Proposers: MIT CAU + ZUS + URBANISTEN with Deltares; 75B; and Volker Infra Design.

 

Hunts Point Lifelines – South Bronx

This area is the food storage hub for much of New York City, but also one of the poorest communities in the region. The Lifelines project will protect it from future flooding by turning the underused industrial riverfront into a "waterfront greenway".

 

Once again, flood protection combined with new public amenities is the order of the day. The centrepiece of the project is a new open air market, to make more of the district's role as the city's bread basket and boost the local economy.

There’ll also be a “a Levee Lab of designed ecologies and applied material research”. So, there you go.

Proposers: PennDesign / OLIN with HR&A Advisors, eDesign Dynamics, Level Infrastructure, Barretto Bay Strategies, McLaren Engineering Group, Philip Habib & Associates, Buro Happold.


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All images courtesy of RebuildByDesign.org and the project teams.

 
 
 
 

Seville has built its entire public transport system in 10 years. How has it done?

Just another sunny day in Seville. Image: Claude Lynch.

Seville, the fourth largest urban centre in Spain, was recently voted Lonely Planet’s number one city to visit in 2018. The award made a point of mentioning Seville’s impressive network of bicycles and trams, but it neglected to mention that it’s actually their ten year anniversary. The city’s metro opened just two years later.

This makes now an excellent time to look back on Seville’s public transport network – especially because almost all of it was completed in the middle of the global financial crisis. So, is it a good model for modern public transport? Let’s find out.

Cycle Hire

Seville, like any good metropolis, features a cycle hire scheme: Sevici, which is a clever portmanteau of the words ‘Seville’ and ‘bici’, short for bicicleta, the Spanish for, you guessed it, bicycle.

The service, launched in 2007, is run as a public-private partnership. Users can pay a flat weekly fee of €13.33 (£11.81) for unlimited rentals, as long as all the journeys last 30 minutes or less. For the fanatics, there’s a year-long subscription for €33. This makes Sevici cheaper than the London equivalent (£90) but slightly more than that of Paris (€29).

However, the reason why the bike hire scheme has gained particular praise in recent years is down to Seville’s network of cycle paths, snaking around the town centre and into the suburbs. The sheer scale of the scheme, 75 miles of track in total, has prompted comparisons to Amsterdam.

But there is a meaningful distinction between the two cases. First, cycling culture is such a big deal for the Amsterdammers that it has its own Wikipedia page. In Seville, cycling culture is a growing trend, but one that faces an uphill struggle, despite the city’s flatness. Around half of the cycle paths are on a pavement shared by pedestrians; pedestrians often ignore that the space is designed specifically for cycles.

A Sevici station in the town centre. Image: Claude Lynch.

Surprisingly, cyclists will also find exactly the opposite problem: the fact that bicycles enjoy the privilege of so many segregated spaces mean that, if they dare enter the road, motorists are not obliged to show them the same level of respect – because why would they need to enter the road in the first place?

This problem is only compounded by the Mediterranean driving style, one that takes a more cavalier attitude to objects in the road than that of the northern Europeans. While none of this makes cycling in Seville a write-off – it remains the cycling capital of Spain – budding tourists should bear in mind that the cycle paths do not extend far into the old town proper, making them a utility, for the most part, for budding commuters.

Metro

The metro system in Seville consists of a single metro line that travels from Ciudad Expo in the west to Olivar de Quintos in the east. It has three zones, which create a simple and straightforward fare system, based on the number of journeys and number of “saltos” (jumps) between zones, and nothing more.

The need-to-know for tourists, however, is that only three of the metro stations realistically serve areas with attractions: Plaza de Cuba, Puerta de Jerez, and Prado de San Sebastian. Given that a walk between these is only a few minutes slower than by metro, it shows the metro service for what it is: a service for commuters coming from the west or east of town into the city centre.

Some of the behaviour on the network is worth noting, too. Manspreading is still dangerously common. There are no signs telling you to “stand on the right”, so people queue in a huff instead. Additionally, there is no etiquette when it comes to letting passengers debark before you get on, which makes things precarious in rush hour – or if you dare bring your bike on with you.

On the plus side, that’s something you can do; all trains have spaces reserved for bikes and prams (and they’re far more sophisticated than the kind you see on London buses). Trains are also now fitted with USB charging ports for your phone. This comes in addition to platform edge doors, total wheelchair access, and smart cards as standard. Snazzy, then – but still not much good for tourists.

Platform edge doors at Puerta Jerez. Image: Claude Lynch.

The original plan for Seville’s metro, launched in the 70s, would have had far more stations running through the city centre; it’s just that the ambitious plans were never launched, due in equal measure to a series of sinkholes and financial crises. The same kind of problems led to Seville’s metro network being opened far behind schedule, with expansion far down the list of priorities.

Still, the project, for which Sevillanos waited 40 years, is impressive – but it doesn’t feel like the best way to cater to an east-west slice of Seville’s comparatively small urban population of 1m. Tyne and Wear, one of the few British cities comparable in terms terms of size and ambition, used former railways lines for much of its metro network, and gets far more users as a result. Seville doesn’t have that luxury; or where it does, it refuses to use it in tandem.

You only need to look east, to Valencia, to see a much larger metro in practice; indeed, perhaps Seville’s metro wouldn’t look much different today if it had started at the same time as Valencia, like they wanted to. As a result, Seville´s metro ends up on the smaller side, outclassed on this fantastic list by the likes of Warsaw, Nizhny Novgorod, and, inexplicably, Pyongyang.

Seville: a less impressive metro than Pyongyang. Intriguing. Image: Neil Freeman.

Tramway

The tram travels from the high rise suburb-cum-transport hub of San Bernardo to the Plaza Nueva, in the south of the Seville’s old town. This route runs through a further metro station and narrowly avoids a third before snaking up past the Cathedral.

This seems like a nice idea in principle, but the problem is that it’s only really functional for tourists, as tram services are rare and slow to a crawl into the town centre, anticipating pedestrians, single tracks, and other obstacles (such as horse-drawn carriages; seriously). While it benefits from segregated lanes for most of the route, it lacks the raison d'être of the metro due to the fact that it only has a meagre 2km of track.

The tram travelling down a pedestrianised street with a bicycle path to the right. Image: Claude Lynch.

However, staring at a map long enough offers signs as to why the tram exists as it does. There’s no history of trams in Seville; the tracks were dug specifically for the new line. A little digging reveals that it’s again tied into the first plans for Seville’s metro, which aspired to run through the old town. Part of the reason the scheme was shelved was the immense cost brought about by having to dig through centuries-old foundations.

The solution, then, was to avoid digging altogether. However, because this means the tram is just doing the job the metro couldn’t be bothered to do, it makes it a far less useful service; one that could easily be replaced by a greater number of bike locks and, maybe, just maybe, additional horses.


So what has changed since Seville’s transport revolution?

For one thing, traffic from motor vehicles in Seville peaked in 2007 and has decreased every year since, at least until 2016. What is more promising is that the areas with the best public transport coverage have seen continued decreases in traffic on their roads, which implies that something is working.

Seville’s public transport network is less than 15 years old. The fact that the network was built from scratch, in a city with no heritage of cycling, tunnels, or tramways, meant that it could (or rather, had to) be built to spec. This is where comparisons to Amsterdam, Tyne and Wear, or any other city realistically fall out of favour; the case of Seville is special, because it’s all absolutely brand new.

As a result, it’s not unbecoming to claim that each mode of transport was built with a specific purpose. The metro, designed for the commuter; the tramway, for tourists; and cycling, a mix of the two. In a city with neither a cultural nor a physical precedent of any kind for such radical urban transportation, the outcome was surprisingly positive – the rarely realised “build it, and they will come”.

However, it bears mentioning that the ambitious nature of all three schemes has led to scaling back and curtailment in the wake of the economic crisis. This bodes poorly for the future, given that the Sevici bikes are already nearing the end of their lifetime, the cycle lanes are rapidly losing sheen, and upgrades to the tramway are downright necessary to spare it from obsolescence.

The conclusion we can draw from all this, then, appears to be a double-edged one. Ambition is not necessarily limited by a lack of resources, as alternatives may well present themselves. And yet, as is so often the case, when the money stops, so do the tracks.

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