Defining Resiliency Five Years After Sandy



As the effects of climate change move from looming threats to lived realities, “resiliency” has become a buzzword in the green building community. But the term “resiliency” can be nebulous—a vague, catchall idea, rather than a methodology or practice.

On November 14, at Urban Green Council’s Resiliency Projects in NYC, Jennifer Bolstad (Local Office Landscape Architecture), Louise Yeung (NYCEDC) and architect Todd Poisson (BKSK Architects) shared case studies of resiliency projects at the city, campus and individual building level. The panelists drew a clearer picture of resiliency—by expanding the definition of what is at risk—and proposed strategies for finding appropriate solutions.


In New York City, resiliency is often explored through a post-Sandy lens: It’s only a matter of time before another storm comes along, so how do we keep the water out? Bolstad suggested a different lens to consider: How can planning and design ensure that people can remain connected to each other and access information during disasters?

Yeung shared how NYCEDC adopted this community-centric approach in Hunt’s Point in the Bronx. While the neighborhood withstood Hurricane Sandy in 2012, it easily could have been devastated if the storm came at high tide ( It only came near high tide). Hunt’s Point is home to about 12,500 people and is the largest food distribution center in the country. If the next storm comes at high tide, the effects could ripple to even the highest ground in the city.

NYCEDC used a four-pronged strategy to incorporate resiliency in Hunt’s Point. Beyond the requisite physical infrastructure to protect from flooding, they addressed the continuity of operations in the warehouses. They proposed solar panels with battery backup to ensure that refrigerators would keep running if the power went out. They analyzed distribution routes to identify neighborhoods that could lose access to food if Hunt’s Point went down. The third prong was an innovative mesh Wi-Fi network designed to keep the community connected to the outside world if the phone lines went down.

Yeung stressed NYCEDC’s goal of incorporating workforce opportunities into resiliency planning, explaining that they hired and trained local youth from the neighborhood to install the Wi-Fi network. Lastly, they hired a local outreach team, made up of members of the community, to help residents understand the planning process and empower them to become a part of it.


Bolstad described her philosophy on resiliency as putting “science in the driver’s seat of design.” She uses “forensic ecology” to solve resiliency problems—as an example, she shared the story of a waterfront park she designed in the coastal city of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. Upon visiting the site, Bolstad immediately noticed derelict stormwater pipes that cut through the proposed park site and into the ocean, polluting ocean reefs. After studying how a nearby river system filtered nutrients out of the water through plant roots, Bolstad incorporated verdant wetlands into the park design. The wetlands absorb stormwater and slowly cleanse runoff from the city before it flows into the ocean.

This practice is replicable and can be applied to a range of at-risk sites in a variety of ways.


Of course, resiliency planning is also crucial at the individual building level.  Poisson argued that while a net-zero water collection system might be self-serving on an average day, during a storm it could help prevent overflows throughout a neighborhood. He described several dynamic strategies to keep stormwater on site, such as green roofs and a hydrodynamic receptor that uses centrifugal force to collect and clean stormwater before releasing it back into a building’s water system.

Poisson also discussed flood proofing, using two shoreline examples from Manhattan. For a new luxury condo on the West Side Highway, BKSK lifted the foundation and implemented brick walls at street level, in addition to other stopgap measures. Poisson also described a project on South Street, an existing structure in a landmarked district. He argued that the solution, in this case, was to allow the property to flood and instead focus on protecting the most important infrastructure: the mechanical room.

Perhaps the reason resiliency is so nebulous is that it is predicated on prophesy. Unlike solar energy, where the benefits are imminent and quantifiable, the return on investment for resiliency is potential avoided losses.

So, how does one sell resiliency? According to Poisson, more residents want a built-in backup plan and are willing to pay more for it. Bolstad recommended assessing the life expectancy of a project with and without resiliency built in. Yeung added that you should calculate the cost of avoided losses—what is the incremental increase to the bottom line 24 hours after a storm, 48 hours after, and beyond that?

Though the panelists shared a wide range of projects and strategies, Bolstad offered a clear distillation to understanding resiliency in more concrete terms:

 “Whether or not the country agrees about climate change,” Bolstad said, “we can all see the metrics: did it flood, how high, and how did the community do?”

About the authors

Emily Pontecorvo
Emily Pontecorvo is a freelance science writer and multimedia producer based in Brooklyn.