Notes from the Resilient City

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First appeared in Log 32

In June 2013, Michael Bloomberg, then mayor of New York City, announced an ambitious initiative to find implementable strategies for rebuilding a city severely damaged by “Superstorm Sandy.” That same month, the Rockefeller Foundation, in collaboration with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the newly formed Presidential Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, inaugurated the Rebuild by Design (RBD) competition, the stated ambition of which was “to connect the world’s most talented researchers and designers with the Sandy-affected area’s active businesses, policymakers and local groups to better understand how to redevelop their communities in environmentally- and economically-healthier ways and to be better prepared.” Only two months later, 10 shortlisted teams began work on second-phase projects, the winners of which were announced in June 2014.

Hailed by many as a victory for recognizing climate change in the face of political and ideological inertia in the US, the RBD project seemed like the silver lining of an otherwise devastating event, with a conservative politician acknowledging the human cause of climate change and implementing policies in response. Heavily supported by private organizations and public agencies, the RBD initiative is an exemplar of the new regime of “resilient” design strategies.
Resilience as a discursive object seems to pick up where others like sustainability or ecological urbanism leave off, promising scientifically tuned proposals for climate remediation that also happen to fuel commercial development. What gives resilience its force and inexorability is its ability to incorporate a concrete crisis in its own discursive and political formation. Unlike sustainability or ecological urbanism, it immediately frames itself as a program of response to crisis rather than a speculative means to attenuate the impact of an unknown future crisis. As such, the project of resilience can construct itself in purely pragmatic terms using real damage information together with standard risk probability data, thus shedding all theoretical conjecture. In the discourse of resilience, theory and event collide in an indistinguishable set of demands whose consistency, as RBD demonstrates, is rendered clearest in terms of risk, remediation, and retail – that is, it promises both disaster relief and commercial urbanization simultaneously. And while the last decade has seen architecture offices around the world increasingly commissioned to work on urban-scale design projects, the RBD initiative, under the rhetoric of resilience, promises to set a precedent for an expanded, regional scale of design that also provides new mechanisms for private development.

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