Shoring up cities for a future of “living with water”

May 8, 2014

MIT associate professor John E. Fernández; Photo: Dheera Venkatraman

MIT associate professor John E. Fernández; Photo: Dheera Venkatraman

In January 2013, 90 percent of Jakarta, Indonesia flooded. More than 40 people were killed. Tens of thousands were displaced. The sea had done what government could not—it made people move.

“We can do any kind of technology, but the social approach, it’s not working,” Aisa Tobing, a senior advisor to Jakarta’s governor, said May 3 at the MIT Sustainability Summit. The 2013 disaster was not the city’s first: Jakarta, with its nearly 10 million people, had last flooded in 2007.

With 40 percent of the city below sea level and construction driving green space below 10 percent, Tobing and her colleagues confront an existential question faced by residents of every coastal city in the world: How long will we be here?

In her talk at the sold-out summit, attended by 300 people at the MIT Media Lab, Tobing detailed a master plan for Jakarta that includes relocating people away from rivers, reservoirs, and lakes, rehabilitating those water resources, and building dams and seawalls. The relocation effort, she said, has been particularly challenging.

Nancy Kete, a managing director at the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the country’s largest and oldest philanthropic foundations, said her organization is interested in a related question: What makes a city last? The foundation commissioned an index for city resiliency [PDF] with the hope of determining what must be done to ensure a city’s future in the face of rising sea levels. There has been a paradigm shift, Kete said, from a disaster response strategy of “pave, pipe, pump, and prevent” to one of “living with water.”

In New York City, Kete said, people were “shaken out of their complacency” when Hurricane Sandy devastated entire neighborhoods, cut power to lower Manhattan, and killed more than 40 people in 2012. She showed summit attendees a few long-term plans for New York City from Rebuild By Design, a planning and design competition—funded in part by the Rockefeller Foundation—to rebuild the New York City area in preparation for a similar weather event. One proposal is for a dual flood protection and commercial corridor in the low-lying Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. Another is to create a new barrier island around much of New York City and Long Island. As in Jakarta, the ideas are ambitious and multi-faceted. And as coastal port cities, both New York and Jakarta are critical to the world economy. But the similarities end there.

“When we’re talking about talking about coastal cities and we’re talking about New York, that’s on a completely different planet than when you’re talking about coastal cities … in developing countries,” said John E. Fernández, an associate professor at the MIT Department of Architecture.

Consider, for example, that the plans Kete presented for New York City all assume that storm-battered neighborhoods like the Rockaways in Queens will continue to be inhabited. But in Bangladesh, where much of the country is located in the world’s largest river delta and the terrain is composed of loose soil, Fernández said rising waters could displace 18 million people in the next 40 years.

With the urban population expected to double by the middle of the century and cities increasingly built from non-renewable materials, Fernández is seeking to understand what types of resources are consumed in what quantities in the world’s various cities. He presented urbmet.org, a website developed by PhD candidates from MIT and the MIT Portugal Program to map energy and resource use in 42 urban areas.

Fernández also argued for immediate action to prepare cities for flooding and other weather events, dismissing grand plans as unwieldy, time-consuming, and often unrealistic.

“There is a lot of work that is emerging that tells us that maybe inexpensive, agile, lower commitments to green infrastructure today is exactly what we should be doing for future generations,” he said. “So the super-huge expense on centralized infrastructure to meet the needs of all future generations, maybe that’s exactly what we shouldn’t do.”

Most of the MIT Sustainability Summit examined the technology and business development underway to design sustainable coastal cities in both the developed and developing world. Experts and industry leaders in finance, energy, waste management, and policy participated in a series of May 3 panel discussions. On May 4, the summit looked through a local lens, featuring discussions with government officials in Boston and Cambridge. MIT professor Larry Susskind moderated a panel on urban resilience and implementing local change. The panel was followed by a climate adaptation simulation game developed under Susskind’s supervision.