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 and the project teams.


Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.


In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?

Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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