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BASF summit ponders survival plans for coastal cities

The chemicals giant invited experts to collaborate on ideas to make Sandy-struck Red Hook more resilient.

I recently attended the BASF Creator Space Summit in NYC. The summit, one of several taking place worldwide, is in commemoration of BASF’s 150th anniversary.

CEO Wayne T. Smith kicked off the event, saying, “As we celebrate this milestone, we are connecting people with ideas to make meaningful contributions to society in accordance with our corporate purpose: ‘We create chemistry for a sustainable future.’”

Resilience for Red Hook

The meaningful contribution for this particular summit was aimed at the question of the future of the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, an area devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Red Hook was selected because it typifies in many ways the kind of vibrant oceanfront community that has tough choices ahead, including the threat of future storms, growing population, economic inequality and the desire to maintain the unique characteristics that give the area its sense of identity and community.

A number of knowledgeable contributors were invited to the event to serve as co-creators. These included architects, city planners, engineers and artists as well as Red Hook community residents.

I participated with a group focused on resilience, with a specific emphasis on the space outside of or between the buildings. Alex Washburn, founding director of the Center for Coastal Resilience and Urban eXcellence at Stevens Institute of Technology, was on the team, as were members of BASF’s Center for Building Excellence. Washburn, former NYC chief urban designer, himself a resident of Red Hook, recently published “The Nature of Urban Design: A New York Perspective on Resilience.” He emphasized that resilience is needed at all levels — “in materials, in structures, and in communities.”

Suggested solutions: Barriers, elevation, floating buildings

The team spent two days developing solutions. A number of ideas emerged that generally fell into three camps.

Floating houses in IJburg, Amsterdam
The first was to develop some kind of barrier system to help shield against future storm surges. The challenge here was to avoid turning the community into a fortress, destroying its character while protecting its assets. A combination of fixed and deployable barriers was proposed, with the idea that the fixed barrier, which would extend out into the water in places, have a bike path atop it, which would provide a recreational and scenic attraction. Red Hook is the only area in NYC with a full frontal view of the Statue of Liberty. Temporary barriers could be made available in the interim as this longer term barrier was put into place.

A second set of ideas collected around the notion of raising the neighborhood to a second story level, gradually moving assets up to the second floor of buildings while shoring up and waterproofing the first floor, in preparation for some time in the future when the area could exist as a city in the water, such as Venice, Italy. This could be supplemented by raised walkways and pedestrian areas that could elevate the “street life” to the second story level, so that people could window-shop at this level or even dine at second-story sidewalk cafes.

The third area of innovation had to do with floating assets. This was inspired, at least in part, by a home developed as part of the Make It Right development in New Orleans’ lower ninth ward, designed to float in the event of a storm. The home was built on a foundation of Styrofoam wrapped in concrete that was buoyant enough to raise the home in a flood, while remaining tethered to poles that would keep the home from being swept away. Utilities are connected to the home with flexible wires and pipes. The approach could be applied to homes, business or to critical assets such as power plants or communications infrastructure.

Indeed, this last idea was not far off from what one group of distinguished experts deemed one of the most likely architectural advancements of the next 50 years: floating cities. These cities, which potentially could harness both wave and solar power, were given a 30 percent probability of being realized.

One major advantage of making a city float, in an era of rising seas, is that unlike barrier systems, you don’t have to try to guess how high oceans will rise or how high storm surges might reach. On the other hand, riding out a hurricane on an floating island could be a memorable, but not necessarily pleasant, experience.

Other teams at the Summit developed concepts related to resilient buildings, habitat and citizenship. Selected solution concepts will be reviewed for BASF for possible inclusion into their future R&D activities.

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