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How Hurricane Sandy helped us plan for the future

Pratt Institute President Frances Bronet on creative education through crisis.

November 12, 2022 Frances Bronet
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On Oct. 29, 2012, the lights went off in Brooklyn, and water filled the streets. In the weeks following Hurricane Sandy, we learned resilience and resourcefulness, both as individuals and as communities. We also learned that our neighbors and local organizations are first responders. Enduring this defining storm–wind damage, flooding, power outages, and other harm–changed the way we all think about significant weather events accelerated by the climate crisis. And this knowledge has shaped policy and culture in New York City for the past decade.

As climate change becomes an increasingly felt reality across the globe, collaboration across generations, industries, and communities is the only path forward. At Pratt Institute, I’ve witnessed the power of creative, interdisciplinary thinking that responds to local needs and imagines better systems for disaster response in Brooklyn and beyond.

Empowering the next generation of leaders to create a better future for their neighbors begins in the studio and the classroom and takes shape through immersive, hands-on collaboration. We’ve gathered students and faculty to share what they’ve learned about the crises impacting our communities and how they have mobilized to build a more resilient and sustainable New York. On the anniversary of this devastating storm and with an eye towards an unpredictable future, we wanted to share a few lessons from our city and from each other over the past decade.

First things first, people need housing. By taking a global view and partnering with experts, we can help disaster victims now and in the future.

When a storm surge strikes, the most vulnerable populations are often disproportionately impacted. In Emergency Housing–an interdisciplinary course with an accompanying exhibition–architecture, interior design, and industrial design students at Pratt analyzed the growing number and intensity of natural disasters, the toll each takes, where they most frequently occur, and how various countries have approached the necessary damage control. In collaboration with mentors (some with experience at FEMA), designers, and fabricators, they designed a community for housing disaster victims that could be installed within a week’s time, support community needs, remain in place for 18-30 months, and be restored and ready for the next disaster. It is this kind of global, multidisciplinary, and nimble approach that will best serve communities in these times of need moving forward.

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Climate-responsive action requires new thinking and systems informed by front line experience. Community-based organizations need greater capacity to take on the immediate work of climate impact.

By taking an inclusive, on-the-ground approach to working in the communities most threatened by climate change, we can help neighborhoods utilize their own knowledge of local conditions and match it with new solutions that come from the emerging science. We can advocate for and advance recommendations that will build local capacity to carry out the on-the-ground work. Since 2012, Pratt’s Recover, Adapt, Mitigate, Plan (RAMP) initiative has provided waterfront communities with the interdisciplinary technical help they need and simultaneously trained dozens of students who now bring their expertise to address citywide challenges.

Pratt School of Architecture faculty member Deborah Gans, a leader of RAMP, has long involved students in experiential learning projects that deliver lasting benefits to the community. From 2016-2021, she brought her experience helping neighborhoods rebuild after Katrina to Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay. Through a combination of architectural interventions and community organizing, residents were able to collectively raise their homes to minimize the risk of flooding.

For five years, Gans and her collaborators–some of whom were Pratt students–worked with homeowners in Sheepshead Bay to build consensus among the community and plan for the redesign of dozens of houses in Sheepshead Bay, where mews were damaged by Hurricane Sandy. They were raised approximately 12 feet or rebuilt based on the amount of damage. The initiative has assisted nearly 200 homeowners and landlords in Sandy-damaged neighborhoods to remain on the waterfront. The program’s projects have a particular public image: modest single-family homes newly rebuilt on ten-foot piers–a visual reminder that the most innovative design solutions often emerge when the constraints are extreme.

Pratt Institute has also been a leading force in ensuring that existing city structures are safe for all. Basement dwellings are an important source of affordable housing, but they are also particularly vulnerable to flooding and storm surge. Our Pratt Center for Community Development is a founding member of the Basement Apartments Safe for Everyone (BASE) campaign. A coalition that includes homeowners, community groups working with tenants and immigrants, lawyers, and planners, BASE advocates for policy reform to support the conversion of New York City basements into safe and affordable apartments, an essential initiative responding to the joint housing and climate crises affecting both our city and the entire country. The initiative grew out of a decades-long relationship in which the Pratt Center provided technical and strategic assistance.

Its not just about housing solutions and flood prevention. Everything is connected.

As the climate crisis continues to heighten competition for land, water, food and fuel, it is important to look beyond the disasters we have faced in the past in order to prepare for the future. Starting this fall, artist Mary Mattingly will begin to redesign Swale, a participatory research station on a barge, with Pratt students. Key foci will be research on sea level rise and plantings that can tolerate saltwater environments.

Swale first caught the public’s attention in 2016 as a “floating food forest,” a landscape of edible vegetation docked at public piers in New York City that welcomed city dwellers to forage for free. As the project seeks a permanent home, Mattingly and her collaborators are laying the groundwork for a redesign informed by participatory, community-based research. Mattingly’s larger project includes the Ecotopian Library, conceived as a lending library and organized fluidly as people interact with the collection, which includes soil specimens, objects uncovered from waterways, and other materials of ecological resonance.

Pratt students participating in Mattingly’s workshop will be the next generation of resident artists engaging with the library. During her time at the Institute, Mattingly will teach a studio centered on environmental justice and connect students with practices that combine ecological thinking, art, design, and community engagement. These initiatives will have an environmental impact that extends far beyond the next storm surge in New York.

The lessons of Hurricane Sandy will last far longer than ten years. But on this anniversary, we can all take a moment to reflect upon what we have learned–and how our thinking has mobilized us to act–with New York City as an incubator for new ideas. By responding to what Sandy left behind with humane instincts and a commitment to civic engagement, the next generation of students–supported by each other, their teachers and mentors–has an incredible opportunity to problem solve with their neighbors, form unexpected partnerships across fields, and imagine new and restorative futures.

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