Confronting Climate Change

Thought leaders Kai-Uwe Bergmann (Bjarke Ingels Group; BIG) and Miranda Massie (Climate Museum) came together earlier this month at Big Deals: Visionary Responses to Climate Change.

Moderator Laurie Kerr with Kai-Uwe Bergmann and Miranda Massie. Photo provided by Center for Architecture.


After Hurricane Sandy, many parts of New York resembled a sunken ship rather than a city. The superstorm plunged half of Manhattan in water and created the new neighborhood of “SoPo,” or South of Power. The federal and state government vowed to rebuild, and the ruined parts of the city received $60 billion in disaster grants to repair the damage the storm caused.

One billion of this funding was allocated to the Rebuild by Design competition, which awarded design projects aiming to limit damage from future storms. The Big U, a winner of this competition, aims to address NYC’s vulnerability to coastal flooding with a protective ribbon around Southern Manhattan. Bergmann, who was part of the design team for the Big U, shared how complicated protecting NYC from future storms will be.


According to Bergmann, the task of flood-proofing all of lower Manhattan in one swoop proved impossible. He explained that the Big U should be thought of as a series of “little U’s”, as “one cannot design and finance 10 miles of an unbroken flood protection system.” The compartmentalized approach envisioned by Bergmann and his team protects the low-lying sections of the city via different combinations of infrastructure systems. Raised berms and deployable floodwalls will make up mile-long or more stretches of protective compartments. One failed compartment will not mean flooding for the surrounding area and minimizes the damage as much as possible.

Phase One of the Big U project is focused on two of the most heavily affected areas post-Sandy: the Lower East Side and the East Village. Knowing residents would have to live with this structure in their backyard, Bergmann and his team went to great lengths to recognize the impacts of their project on these communities. The team held multiple public visioning meetings and brought translators to ensure they were reaching a broad swath in these diverse neighborhoods.


From these meetings, Bergmann and his team learned that Lower East Side residents felt disconnected from the waterfront. The FDR Drive cleaves the neighborhood from the East River, with a precious few footbridges spanning the six-lane gap. The Big U project looks to fix this issue while also providing essential flood protection. “The Big U is a glorified berm,” explained Bergmann. It resembles a hill rising up from the waterfront to create a natural wall between the water and the FDR. This structure allowed the design team to triple the bridged connections in the neighborhood in the first phase and help protect the more than 100,000 people living in the area. The project will add 10 miles of unbroken park space at completion. “[The Big U] will be our generation’s Central Park,” boasted Bergmann. The first phase is set to break ground in 2018 with a target completion date in 2023.

Miranda Massie on the Climate Museum. Photo provided by Center for Architecture.


After living through Sandy, celebrated civil rights attorney Miranda Massie had a dream about visiting a museum dedicated to climate change. On seeing blank web results after a quick search for such a museum, she knew she had to make her dream a reality.

Massie dedicated herself to securing funding and space for the museum. She cited two key drivers:

  1. Museums build critical thinking, curiosity and social engagement within a social and physical foundation that engenders trust.
  2. Human evolution and biology have not evolved in a way to allow the broader public to recognize climate change as a threat.

“If a snake were to slither into the room right now everyone would jump up out of their seats and react. But with the way that our climate has been changing, we should be on the ceiling with fear,” Massie believes a dedicated museum is critical to changing the way we discuss and understand the issue.


The Climate Museum will approach the complex issue of climate change in three ways:

First, there will be “Physical Learning,” which takes key tenets and makes them concrete through exhibits that people can touch and feel. It gets the science out of textbooks and places it in the hands of the learner.

Second, the museum looks at “Emotional Learning,” which reinforces the fact that we are facing climate change together.

Lastly, there’s “Collective Learning,” which reminds visitors that there’s strength in numbers. Massie explained that learning about climate change can cause people to feel overwhelmed and withdrawn. This is where the Climate Museum comes in: “Learning together changes the problem and grows our confidence in dealing with it.” Combining these three types of learning reframes the problem and provides participants with new tools to continue and deepen the discussion.

The Climate Museum aims to open temporary exhibits at the New School while they continue to work on securing funds to construct a permanent home.