Reducing Our Risk

Rebuild by Design/New York University Institute of Public Knowledge

Entry Overview

Hurricane Sandy crippled the American Northeast through extensive flooding and storm surge, claiming over 150 lives, damaging/destroying 650,000 homes and cutting power and heat to 8.5 million people. Infrastructural failures prevented thousands from getting to work, causing approximately $65.7 billion in damages and economic loss; moreover, it revealed the true physical and social vulnerabilities that coastal cities face from extreme weather exacerbated by climate change.

In response, Rebuild by Design was created—an international design competition supported by private philanthropy, partner organizations, and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that would address the structural and social vulnerabilities Sandy exposed.

The process was unlike any previous design competition. Designers, engineers, architects, academics, and climate experts from different teams worked alongside local organizations, government agencies, and community stakeholders, building nuanced interventions to address the region’s social, infrastructural, economic, and ecological challenges.

Rebuild by Design is hosted at NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge (IPK). IPK served as a lead partner for the competition and continues to lead Rebuild into the next phase. This collaboration is ensuring that coalitions are being maintained and built in the Sandy impacted region and globally through both a research and design driven approach. 

General Info
Email :
Organization Address: 
20 Cooper Sq.
New York, New York 10003
United States
Population Impacted: 
15 million in New York and New Jersey
Identify the likelihood and frequency of this hazard : 
According to an American Geophysical Union study, New York City is currently at its highest risk of flooding in more than 150 years. Three of the nine highest recorded water levels in the region have occurred since 2010, and eight of the largest 20 levels have occurred since 1990. Another study estimates that the rise in sea level and storm tide increases the odds of a storm surge overtopping Manhattan’s defenses once every four to five years.
Explain how vulnerable the community is to this hazard: 
2.5 million inhabitants in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area live in the flood zone. Hurricane Sandy demonstrated the widespread vulnerabilities of the region, impacting every demographic. In New York City alone, over 443,000 New Yorkers were in areas flooded by Sandy and close to 2 million people were without power. Wall Street closed for 2 days, 11 million travelers were impacted daily and many jobs were lost due to the disruption and business closures.
List the potential affects of this hazard: 
Flood and storm surge impacts in the region include loss of life, physical damage to homes and businesses, destruction of entire communities, power outages, road damage and closures, public transit disruption, business closures (temporary & permanent), job losses, school closures and hospital and nursing home evacuations.
Identify how sensitive the community is to these affects: 
Nearly the entire population along the New York/New Jersey coastline is sensitive to impacts from flooding and storm surge events. 66% of the most vulnerable communities live within a half-mile of the flood zone. If communities are not directly impacted from property or infrastructure damage, the vital public transit system for the region is highly vulnerable to potential damages, causing transportation havoc for the entire region. Repairing property/infrastructure damages can takes months to years.
Preparedness Goal: 
Created a process to generate innovative, implementable, replicable and scalable design driven resiliency projects that address the risk of flooding and storm surge in the Sandy impacted area that covered New Jersey, New York
Implementing Actions: 

In the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut region, 10 interdisciplinary teams worked alongside each other to develop nuanced understandings of the social, infrastructural, economic and ecological challenges that the impacted region faced. The four primary partners (NYU’s Institute for Public knowledge (IPK), the Municipal Art Society, Regional Plan Association, and Van Alen Institute) administered the competition and helped the teams develop intimate collaborations with thousands of stakeholders, from small grassroots organizers to large government agencies to inform their designs. This collaboration was unique as it occurred across sectors, communities and geographies.   

To achieve this nuanced approach, IPK formed a Research Advisory Group—luminaries from a variety of academic disciplines who could consult on issues such as hydrology, risk management, social displacement, insurance, and climate change forecasting. Research advisors accompanied the teams on site visits, helped ensure that each team had the best available material to work with, and reinforced the competition’s foundational emphasis on a collaborative design process.

The teams traversed dozens of neighborhoods, meeting with residents, community organizations, activists, business leaders, and local government officials who shared their experiences of the storm’s effects, provided perspectives on the ongoing response, and offered insights on their communities’ priorities for long-term recovery. The outcome of the competition was 10 implementable design solutions that were regional and replicable and ultimately had the ability to create more resilient communities. 

Describe Your Solution: 

The innovation of the process itself brought together government, philanthropy and NGO partners to design and develop a world-class competition of the best ideas and interventions for the affected region. While the competition chose six winning projects, 41 comprehensive and replicable design opportunities were developed as potential solutions for making the region more resilient. Below are specific examples on how four of the winning projects addressed the risk of flooding and storm surge while improving communities.

Hunts Point Lifelines

This Bronx proposal protects the region’s food hub, which provides over 20,000 jobs in the poorest U.S. Congressional District. Building flood- and storm-protection infrastructure could create local jobs and build waterfront awareness. A marine transfer station could serve the East Coast when roads are impassable and a new tri-generation plant that would create low cost, low carbon cooling and a micro-grid island when the grid goes down.


A community-programmed protective system around the lower half of Manhattan includes dual purpose elements such as an elevated “bridging berm” that connects public housing residents to riverfront parks, deployable floodwalls beneath the FDR which double as public art and multi-purpose spaces, and repurposing languishing public buildings to educative elements such as an outdoor aquarium accessible by an elevated bikeway/footpath.

Living Breakwaters

This project would attenuate wave action on Staten Island’s south shore by building a series of breakwater reefs to slow and calm water in the mouth of the New York Bight. The breakwaters simultaneously reduce risk, revive ecologies, and connect educators to the shoreline, inspiring a new generation of harbor stewards and a more resilient region over time. 

Resist, Delay, Store, Discharge: A Comprehensive Strategy for Hoboken

Anchored in the desire to understand and quantify flood risk, this plan utilizes hard infrastructure and soft landscape for coastal defense. Policy recommendations, guidelines, and urban infrastructure propose measures to slow runoff. A circuit of interconnected green infrastructure stores and directs excess rainwater. Water pumps and alternative routes would support drainage.


Hurricane Sandy wrecked havoc on businesses and productivity, leading each team to look at the economic vulnerabilities of the region and pursue projects that addressed them. Several of the winning proposals focused on areas that were food, transportation or energy hubs and sought to protect them as these networks are critical for keeping businesses running, creating jobs, allowing employees to get to work and supplying necessary materials.

In addition, the competition bought in $930 million from HUD for the region, which will be leveraged with state funds to provide innovative solution and ensure the region remains resilient to future storms. 


As part of the design process, teams looked to the natural environment for solutions to flooding, storm surge and sea level rise. In many cases this meant wetland restoration and reviving ecologies. One of the winning designs, proposed restoring wetlands and rebuilding biodiversity in the meadowlands region, which has experienced a century of industrial expansion. This region also contains polluted landscapes (i.e. landfills), and the proposal included ways to both protect those areas from flooding as well as further securing and containing the pollutants.


To diagnose social vulnerability, teams relied on a tool developed at the University of South Carolina called the Social Vulnerability Index, which standardizes indicators of vulnerability based on data such as income levels, poverty rates, ethnicity, language, and access to transportation. This was utilized in the designs.

Additionally, the collaborative nature of Rebuild by Design resulted in 64 community events with 141 neighborhoods and cities participating along with 181 government agencies and 535 organizations. This diversity of participation generated critical first-hand insights and experiences, providing a nuanced picture of different communities’ capacities to respond to crisis. 

What were the negative or unintended impacts (if any) associated with implementing this solution? : 

One of the major risks for some of the projects is the potential for gentrification and rising housing prices in communities where the projects are implemented. These solutions will not only make neighborhoods more resilient but also more appealing. This can be problematic for a city/region that already has affordability issues. Also, some of the designs may have unintended consequences from dredging, disrupting water navigation channels and reintroducing species like oysters back into the region.

Another potential issue is the ability of the projects to be fully built. The winning projects were not fully funded so additional funds must be raised. There is also the risk that projects will not be implemented as they were designed and for state governments to cut critical, innovative elements that both the design teams and communities consider essential. This could happen because of funding issues or unfamiliarity with implementing such cutting-edge design. 

Return on Investment: How much did it cost to implement these activities? How do your results above compare to this investment?: 

The federal government, often using normal and less complex paths, would have not been able to create these innovative designs during the course of regular business. The philanthropic funding ($4 million), that served as award money for the teams and for running the competition, leveraged federal investments. Therefore, approximately $4 million brought $930 million to the table for project implementation.

In addition to bringing federal money for implementation, the competition funding also leveraged private in-kind funds. From the $4 million, ten design teams were each given $200,000 for their participation. Because of the competition framework, the design teams invested more time and effort into their projects than the stipend could have paid for on the private market. A non-official analysis shows that the process leveraged five times more work than what was paid for.

Rebuild by Design created a mechanism for the government to get the best design-approaches into hard infrastructure programs to ensure that what would be built would be an asset to the community on a daily basis and over the long-term. 

What are the main factors needed to successfully replicate this solution elsewhere?: 

Rebuild by Design is actively working with other regions in the U.S. to adapt and replicate the process initiated in the Sandy Region.  In order to achieve this, certain commitments and expectations are necessary. Utilizing the Rebuild by Design process for generating resiliency solutions means a joint partnership between the city and Rebuild. Both entities need to work together to make the process a reality.

If a region would like to replicate the Rebuild by Design competition, it must commit to implementing the winning proposals, providing certainty for all the participants. Commitment from the highest level of government is critical for incorporating all the relevant agencies and government entities needed to participating in creating solutions and making the projects a reality. Dedicating adequate staff time and resources to the Rebuild process is also vital.

A key element to Rebuild’s success and effectiveness is the public engagement aspect of the competition. Resilient solutions must incorporate public need and feedback. A commitment to transparency and public engagement is critical. Also a commitment to collaboration across municipalities and government agencies is important for fostering regional resilient solutions. Dedication to collaborating with the public and private sector is also essential.

Contest Info
Contest Name: 
Reducing Our Risk

Contest Partners

Contest Sponsors