NYC workshop tackles how to build sustainable cities

AAP and Atkinson event
Zachary Tyler Newton, M.Arch. '12/Provided
Prathap Ramamurthy, assistant professor of engineering at the City College of New York, and Amy Chester, director of Rebuild By Design, converse during a break between panels.

Deteriorating infrastructure, rising seas and more frequent extreme weather events are challenging today’s engineers, architects and urban planners like never before. On May 23, more than 60 people gathered at the College of Architecture, Art and Planning’s (AAP) studio space in New York City to consider how built environments can help meet these challenges. The one-day workshop, “Rebuilding the Built Environment,” was organized by Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and AAP NYC.

“Designing built environments not only requires physical resilience in the face of these threats but social and economic resilience as well,” said Kieran Donaghy, the Atkinson Center’s faculty director of economic development and one of the workshop organizers.

“To survive and to thrive in coming years, cities and infrastructure must adapt to changing patterns of settlement and production, preserve cultural and natural values, and be economically sustainable,” he said. “Our goal was to bring together academics, design and engineering professionals, and civic leaders to consider questions of how to rebuild our environments differently.”

To take the concept from idea to reality, Donaghy worked with Robert Balder, the Gensler Family Sesquicentennial Executive Director of AAP NYC, to arrange a day of collaboration structured around five topics: best-practice engineering responses to climate change; large-scale developments that meet concerns of social equity and environmental integrity; current and pending government infrastructure policies; financing infrastructural investments; and identifying a research agenda and collaborative opportunities. Each moderated panel focused on specific programmatic needs, best practices and opportunities for collaboration between stakeholders and university partners.

“There are many ongoing efforts to study new technologies and institutional arrangements that hold promise for effectively responding to 21st-century threats,” said Balder. “But lack of meaningful reinvestment, outdated zoning and weak financial incentives for private sector investments leave many communities facing a double threat of decaying infrastructure and climate change impacts.”

Donaghy and Balder hoped the workshop would capitalize on the initiative many local organizations and individuals have shown in stepping up to fill the leadership vacuum and promote resilience in their communities.

Workshop participants learned about projects like BuroHappold Engineering’s work on a vision for New Jersey’s Gateway National Recreation Area, which includes the restoration and protection of Long Island’s Jamaica Bay and its environs, and ReThink Studio’s plan for a fully renovated Pennsylvania Station with an expanded regional rail network.

Another project that attracted interest among participants was a collaboration among Jonathan Rose Cos., Handel Architects and New York City’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development on a new 751,000-square-foot mixed-use development in East Harlem that will provide affordable housing while becoming one of the largest “passive house” projects in the world.

“We have an opportunity to create infrastructure and communities that are not just suitable today, but serve social, environmental and economic needs well into the future,” said Balder. “My hope is that participants continue the dialogue and remain committed to challenging each of us to do more to implement long-term solutions.”

“Cornell fosters connections and world-class academic research that directly impact people’s lives,” said Donaghy. “This influence will grow with the opening of Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island in September, which promises to create unprecedented opportunities for conversations and collaborations among academics, entrepreneurs, investors and others to explore and pursue strategies to rebuild built environments.”

Kate Frazer is a freelance journalist working with the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

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