Rebuild by Design, The Big U


Analysis & Planning

Manhattan, NY, USA | Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners | Client: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Rebuild By Design


The Big U is a modular, replicable system for adapting coastal cities to climate change. In response to Superstorm Sandy, the landscape architect envisioned protective landscapes that could enliven, rather than cut off, the City’s waterfront. For HUD's Rebuild by Design competition, the firm teamed with internationally-renowned collaborators to expand that idea into a ribbon of protective infrastructure that wraps around Lower Manhattan. With the public outreach framework developed by the landscape architect, community members were empowered to map local socio-economic opportunities onto protective features, allowing physical infrastructure to enhance the diverse coastal neighborhoods it defends. The final design protects 10 miles of coastline, averts billions of dollars in climate-change related damages, connects neighbors to the water, and creates cultural and economic interventions in the City's most vulnerable areas. The first two miles of the project were awarded $335 million by HUD and are scheduled to be built by 2022.


In 2012, Hurricane Sandy slammed into New York with unprecedented force, resulting in 43 deaths, 90,000 inundated buildings, untenable living conditions for 2 million residents, and approximately $19 billion in damages. The storm radically altered local understanding of the threats of climate change. FEMA’s new flood-risk zones, revised after Sandy, include 10 miles of coastline in Manhattan alone, home to 285 million built square feet, 21,000 businesses, the New York Stock Exchange and Financial District, attractions that draw 57.2 million annual visitors, and 200,000 residents (including 95,000 low-income, elderly, or disabled residents). Through the “Rebuild by Design” competition, City and Federal government challenged the design community to develop innovative approaches to protect the coast and its inhabitants from future inundation. In Manhattan, the winning idea was the BIG U.

The BIG U wraps the coast of Manhattan from West 54th Street to East 40th in a ribbon of protective landscapes that defend neighborhoods from storms and sea level rise while providing locally-needed cultural, recreational, and socio-economic benefits.

The idea for the BIG U emerged during Mayor Bloomberg’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency. Confronted with the need for 14’ high protective barriers and standard, featureless seawall designs, the landscape architect envisioned a different approach: protective infrastructure that enriched, rather than deadened, the waterfront, its habitat, and its relationship to upland communities. The firm sketched a series of innovations: landscaped berms with sea grass and habitat supports, levees that doubled as skate parks and amphitheaters, sea walls that supported pop-up cafés and passive recreation. During Rebuild by Design, the landscape architect teamed with internationally-renowned architects and engineers to expand these multi-dimensional designs into a vision of hedonistic sustainability that could avert billions of dollars in future climate-change related damages while creating new economic opportunities, tourist attractions, social service outlets, and recreation spaces for a city that intends to grow into the future.

The BIG U comprises a sequence of contiguous compartments that protect a series of topographically discrete flood zones; together these compartments form a shield that will enable New York to thrive in the face of climate change. Protective interventions, design choices, and amenities in each compartment are tailored to the needs, desires, and character of the coastal neighborhoods protected. Compartmentalization allows for incremental project implementation and financing, and preserves the function of the overall protective system should any individual section fail. For Rebuild by Design, the BIG U focused on three compartments hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy: C1, from 23rd Street through East River Park to Montgomery Street; C2, which encompasses the area between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges; and C3, which extends south from the Brooklyn Bridge to The Battery.

In C1, a 15-foot continuous, undulating berm delineates a new topography for East River Park that safeguards the FDR Drive and upland neighbors. New pedestrian circulation routes, a bicycle path, and frequent pedestrian bridges enhance local connection to the waterfront, erasing the barrier of the highway. Deployable street-end walls preserve traffic flow and protect the 14th Street Con Edison substation. Park programming, guided by stakeholder input, provides amenities tailored to park’s immediate neighbors, while the striking views and variegated landscapes attract visitors. Upland, the landscape architect employs bioswales and rain gardens to enhance local urban experience and create green corridors that lead to park entrances. This portion of the BIG U was awarded $335 million by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and will be built by 2022.

C2 combines a continuous, curvilinear 4-foot bench that spans the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, providing protection during lesser storms, with deployable flood barriers that offer protection against wave action and storm surge. The low-profile bench maintains views to the water and carves out new spaces for recreation, markets, social services, and more. In a longer-range vision for this area, the landscape architect would thread a berm system through presently featureless public housing campuses, turning them into flood-protective landscapes that manage storm water and integrate recreation, agriculture, social services, and economic opportunities.

C3 is an area of profound economic and cultural importance to the city and the nation. A new landscape of berms and integrated cultural facilities in The Battery re-invigorates one of the country’s most iconic open spaces, while protecting its preeminent financial center. Beneath the FDR Drive, deployable barriers coupled with low walls and berms create a multi-layered storm defense system that shelters the surrounding community and shields essential infrastructure. The landscape architect leveraged downtown connections to assemble a coalition of diverse property owners, including commercial entities, nonprofits, public parks, and the Coast Guard, to move the project forward.

Planning and design for each compartment were solidly rooted in community engagement. Compartments 1 through 3 intersect three community boards, two waterfronts, a ferry terminal, several public housing complexes, a highway, multiple networks of subterranean infrastructure, and miles of waterfront promenades. To negotiate among overlapping interests, the team reached out to City, State, and Federal agencies, elected officials, and planning boards (~100 organizations in a 16-week period), in addition to over 150 project-area residents who participated in hands-on design workshops led by the landscape architect. Developing protection schemes for City-owned housing campuses in particular required designers to overcome a long history of contentious interactions between residents, developers, and officials. By involving community members and City officials early and often, by allowing stakeholders to participate in frank discussions of financial constraints and project alternatives, and by according residents’ voices significant weight in design and program considerations, the team emerged with plans that are championed by all parties.

"The Team touched ground with all stakeholders, individuals and government agencies […] to come up with a real resilient design strategy, approach and proposal." -- Henk Ovink, Principal, Rebuild by Design, and Senior Advisor to Secretary Shaun Donovan (HUD)

The resulting design confers financial, ecological, and socio-economic benefits. The three compartments stand to avert billions of dollars of climate-change related damages over the next 50 years (C1, $778 million; C2, $242 million; C3, $1.92 billion), while costing only a fraction of that to build and maintain. Green corridors stretching upland from the Bridging Berm, coupled with bioswales and rain gardens implemented on public housing campuses, would increase local biodiversity, improve local water quality, help minimize CSO overflows into the East River, and reduce urban heat island effects. New commercial spaces below the FDR would provide retail access and economic opportunities for isolated residents; community-guided programming promises to contribute to neighborhood stability and local opportunity. Local nonprofits engaged with the BIG U see potential for community partnerships focused on education, job training, and landscape stewardship. Community gardens and market-ready spaces within protective structures may increase access to healthy food in an underserved area. The Resilient Community Planning Toolkit and Upland Resilient Planning Toolkit, developed during the planning process, offer strategies for improving multidimensional resiliency throughout New York City.

These toolkits reveal the BIG U’s essential replicability. The proposed designs are not only a thoughtful response tailored to Lower East Side and Downtown communities, but a flexible menu of solutions and approaches that can apply around the world. From Bangkok to Venice, Dhaka to Miami, at-risk cities and coastal areas are investigating defenses to protect millions of people and key infrastructure from the effects of global warming. The BIG U’s segments embody a catalog of adaptive strategies that can be applied at myriad physical scales in other waterfront communities. Moreover, its thesis, that protection should enhance communities not only physically but also ecologically, economically, and socially, stands to redefine designers’ and policymakers’ approach to resilience and sustainability worldwide.

“Something quite nice about the simplicity of using natural processes to deal with natural processes. A bold step that pushed the limits of what to think about.”

- 2016 Awards Jury


Lead: BIG Architects
Co-Lead: One Architecture
Engineering & Sustainability: Buro Happold
Infrastructure Engineering: Level Infrastructure
Hydrological Engineering: ARCADIS
Finance & Economics: James Lima Planning & Development
Ecology: Green Shield Ecology
Arts & Cultural Planning: AEA Consulting
Graphic Design: Project Projects
Constructed Environment: School of Constructed Environments at the New School policymakers’ approach to resilience and sustainability worldwide.