Preparedness & Recovery

Innovative Plans Help Cities Effectively Live with Water

New York City and New Orleans are taking a collaborative approach to addressing a water and hurricane-intensive future, including a focus on working with water rather than trying to pump it all away.

by / September 9, 2014
New York City is examining potential projects to make it more resilient to flooding. One project, the Big U, would create a protective system around Manhattan, shielding it from storm water. (The Big Team/Rebuild by Design)

If predictions about weather patterns and sea-level rise prove correct, living with large amounts of water will become an inevitable part of the future.

New research from the Niels Bohr Institute predicts a tenfold increase in the frequency of hurricanes if the climate becomes just two degrees warmer. And Benjamin Strauss, vice president for climate impacts and director of the Program on Sea Level Rise at Climate Central, predicts that both Florida and Louisiana could be significantly affected by sea-level rise by the end of this century. In New York, scientists predict a sea-level rise of 11 to 24 inches by 2050.

Some states, particularly those that have been hit with major hurricanes in the last several years, are taking action to prepare for a water and hurricane-intensive future. Recently both New York and New Orleans announced broad new water management plans. But unlike previous plans, these innovative tactics involve a more collaborative approach, including working with Dutch water management experts and a focus on working with water rather than trying to pump it all away.

New Orleans’ Urban Water Plan

In 2012, Louisiana state officials released a $50 billion, 50-year coastal master plan to address the state’s overall vulnerability and sea-level rise. In late 2013, Greater New Orleans Inc., a regional economic development organization, added an additional piece to that effort — an Urban Water Plan for Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes.

“We need to address our water issues in a comprehensive way, recognizing that one solution alone is not going to work,” said Robin Barnes, chief operating officer of Greater New Orleans Inc.

According to Barnes, the Urban Water Plan is a multi-pronged approach that focuses on managing water rather than simply pumping it out of the city.

“We don’t talk about the Urban Water Plan instead of the levees, but as a way to expand our resilience,” she said. “It’s a three-legged stool: levee protection, investment in coastal restoration and implementing the Urban Water Plan inside the perimeter. It’s about a whole new system for a city that effectively lives with water.”

Barnes said the plan incorporates forward-looking, urban design elements and smart retrofits, and overall re-envisions New Orleans as a flexible network of systems relying heavily on natural processes rather than a city hiding behind higher and higher levees. The overall objective of the plan, which was created by Waggonner & Ball Architects, is to create an “urban landscape dotted with rain gardens and bio-swales and connected with new or upgraded canals and ponds.”

“The region’s diverse flora and fauna already store, filter and grow with water,” the report said. “Integrating these natural processes with mechanical systems enhances the function, beauty and resilience of the region’s water infrastructure and landscape.”

The Urban Water Plan also addresses another issue previous strategies have not: Pumping large amounts of water out of New Orleans often results in subsidence — a gradual sinking of an area of land.

“Subsidence causes enormous damage to infrastructure, so we had to address the issue of how to counter that,” Barnes said. “Pumping reduces flooding in the streets, but it doesn’t address subsidence. Doing so requires innovative approaches. There may be places where it may be appropriate to install permeable pavement, for example.”

The Urban Water Plan comprises seven initial demonstration projects, including a park on Mirabeau Avenue, sites along the Canal Street Canal in Old Metairie, streets in Lakeview, the Lafitte Greenway project, gardens in Elmwood, a “water walk” near Lake Forest Boulevard in eastern New Orleans and a wetland near the Forty Arpent Canal.

The seven demonstration projects have a price tag of $6.2 billion, and the city’s main challenge now is securing the resources to fund them. Greater New Orleans Inc. is examining a variety of partnerships and working closely with local government agencies to identify funding mechanisms that could be leveraged to enable implementation of the plan. The organization also believes the plan has a cost benefit and that it could reduce flood damages by more than $20 billion over the next 50 years.

The Urban Water Plan was developed in partnership with Dutch consultants, who are seen worldwide as experts on water management. According to Barnes, Greater New Orleans Inc. began working with the Dutch just after Hurricane Katrina. The Dutch Dialogues — a series of meetings and conferences on water management — evolved from those discussions, and some of the key elements of the Urban Water Plan incorporate parts of that work.

“The Dutch were a key component of this plan,” said Barnes, adding that the Dutch have also learned new things from the partnership.

“The Dutch have done a remarkable job of keeping the North Sea out of their country, but they don’t have the dramatic storms we have, so they don’t deal with rainfall in the same way,” she said. “I think it’s been an interesting experience for them to hone some additional skills. We have learned from each other, and we look forward to joint partnerships moving forward.”

New York’s Storm Protection Plan

In June 2013, then New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $20 billion Storm Protection Plan designed to make coastal communities more resilient to powerful storms. The report details a total of 250 recommendations, including widening or elevating beaches, reinforcing sand dunes, lining exposed shorelines with massive rocks, and placing breakers offshore to blunt the force of waves and help prevent flooding. Because a study conducted after Hurricane Sandy found that much of the worst damage occurred in buildings erected before 1961, the plan also calls for $1.2 billion to be made available to property owners in older buildings along the coastline. Those funds will target renovations such as upgrading foundations and reinforcing exterior walls.

Storm protection plans continue under Mayor Bill de Blasio. Earlier this year, de Blasio created the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency to manage these issues.

“Hurricane Sandy certainly highlighted our vulnerabilities, and we responded by looking at not just what hurricanes and coastal storms might bring to the city, but also a wide range of climate risks,” said Dan Zarrilli, director of the office. “The plan itself is comprehensive — it’s about strengthening our coastlines, upgrading buildings, reinforcing critical infrastructure and supply chains, and generally making neighborhoods safer.”

Zarrilli said the plan involves a number of different technologies tailored to local conditions and risks in various neighborhoods. It also incorporates continuing to work with the Army Corps of Engineers on a number of more traditional responses like armored levees and floodwalls. And like New Orleans, the New York City plan incorporated input from the Dutch.

“The Dutch have 800 years of water management experience, so when we were developing our plans we looked closely at what they have done. We also looked at plans in other parts of the world in an effort to bring a number of best practices back to New York,” Zarrilli said. “But one thing we learned was that you can’t just pick up someone else’s solutions and apply them in New York. Different places face different risks.”

Part of the New York plan includes a $3.6 billion coastal protection plan, of which nearly half is funded at this point. Zarrilli said the city will need to keep sourcing additional funds, continue to work with communities to develop projects, and generally expedite flood protection efforts in every way possible.

“One big challenge we’ve run into is the perception among some that there is a silver bullet solution out there,” said Zarrilli. “But we’ve learned that the risks are way too varied. We need to advance a broad range of strategies, which is exactly what we’re doing.”

Power of the People

The federal government is also getting involved in helping cities like New Orleans and New York better prepare their infrastructures for an influx of water. One effort, led by U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, is using a crowdsourced approach to generate innovative ideas. Dubbed Rebuild by Design, the project is aimed at connecting the world’s most talented researchers and designers with businesses, policymakers and local groups in areas affected by Hurricane Sandy to “better understand how to redevelop their communities in environmentally and economically healthy ways.”

“Rebuild by Design encourages collaboration of talent from around the world,” said Henk WJ Ovink, senior adviser for Donovan. “Its objective is to promote better understanding of vulnerabilities and to develop projects that become examples for other communities and help foster cultural change to prepare cities for the uncertainties of the future.”

Under the Rebuild by Design program, groups of design teams embarked on intensive, community-based design-driven research, analysis and outreach, led by New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge, in August 2013. The teams examined critical infrastructure, ecology and water on a regional scale, while also addressing governance, funding and social issues. They also met with experts, including government entities, elected officials, issue-based organizations and local groups, and individuals.

“Each of the teams was tasked with taking a comprehensive approach and a set of interventions that are all connected,” Ovink said. “Simply building a wall does not cut it anymore. Instead, they thought about how to change policy, how to structure the governance, how to work with private partners, find ways of working with local agencies, businesses, etc. They then presented a plan that dealt with that complexity but at the same time offered solutions that were innovative.”

The potential for replication in other parts of the country and the world was a key part of the project as well.

The effort led to the development of more than 40 design opportunities, which were presented to the public, a jury, the research advisory group, local and federal government agencies, and federal Community Development Block Grant recipients in late October 2013. Incorporating feedback from those entities, the Housing and Urban Development Department then selected 10 opportunities to move forward to develop a proof-of-concept plan, including heavy emphasis on community participation and engagement. On April 3, 2014, Rebuild by Design unveiled the final proposals from the 10 design teams.

One project, dubbed the Big U, is a protective system around Manhattan that includes a number of separate but coordinated plans for three contiguous regions of the waterfront. For example, “Bridging Berm” provides robust vertical protection for the Lower East Side and also offers pleasant, accessible routes into Battery Park, with many spots for resting, socializing and enjoying views of the park and river. Between the Manhattan Bridge and Montgomery Street, deployable walls are attached to the underside of FDR Drive, ready to flip down to prepare for flood events. Along the east and west boundaries of the Battery, which were key inlets during Hurricane Sandy, a proposed “Battery Berm” weaves an elevated path through the park. Along this berm, a series of upland knolls form unique landscapes where people farm, sunbathe, eat and engage with world-class gardens. In place of the existing Coast Guard building, the plan envisions a new building programmed as a maritime museum or environmental education facility, whose form is derived from the flood protection at the water-facing ground floor.

Ovink pointed to another project, a comprehensive plan to protect Hoboken, N.J., as particularly innovative. That project includes a circuit of interconnected green infrastructure to store rainwater, water pumps, alternate routes for drainage and deploys programmed hard infrastructure and soft landscape. The goal is a path to living with the water.

“Today, 75 percent of Hoboken is in a floodplain,” he said. “After the plan is implemented, none of it will be in a floodplain. So it’s not just about protecting it from storm surge. With climate change and more flooding predicted, we needed to change the whole situation and the way the city is built up to deal with large amounts of water, and this accomplishes that goal.”

Ovink, who is from the Netherlands, said Rebuild by Design projects are especially beneficial because they are envisioning innovative new plans during a non-emergency period.

“When disasters strike is not the time to rush into new plans,” he said. “After a disaster, people often just want to repair or rebuild what was there because it is familiar. They don’t think about how we can do things better.”

While projects like Rebuild by Design and new approaches being taken in New Orleans and New York City are steps in the right direction, Ovink warned that improving water management cannot be accomplished overnight.

“In the Netherlands, we’ve been working on water management for thousands of years,” he said. “It takes at least a generation to get in a better place and another generation to see a change in how the country’s built up. You can certainly still do things in the short term — but improving water management is not an engineering job you get done in 10 years. This is about cultural change. You have to rethink how you live and work, you have to change policies and regulations, and over time you can begin to see a change in how we live with water.”


Justine Brown Contributing Writer

Justine Brown is a veteran journalist who specializes in technology and education. Email her at