How New York City's Architecture Has Responded to National Emergencies over the Last 20 Years

New York City is the pinnacle hybrid between the vibrant and granular neighborhoods that Jane Jacobs once envisioned and the sweeping urban innovations of Robert Moses. However, its diverse population has experienced hardship over the last twenty years, forcing the city into a recursive wave of self-reflection to reevaluate the urban strategies, design trends, and global transportation methods that it had grown so accustomed to. After the September 11th and Hurricane Sandy tragedies, the delicate balance between promoting a sense of individual culture and the strength in unity that New Yorkers are so often known for served as the lifeblood for revitalization. New York City has consistently handled adversity, by always rethinking, redesigning, and rebuilding this city for a better future.

© Laurian Ghinitoiu

After the 9/11 period, many employees began to work together in temporary common workspaces. While some found the lack of privacy to be compromising, others found that it fostered a sense of community and facilitated emotional contact with their peers. As a response, the shift towards more dynamic workspaces was pushed further, leading to the development of the open office plan that has become commonplace today. Open floor plans not only paved the way for enhanced collaboration, but also allow employees to be able to find one another in case of emergency, and enhance the lines of sight out of buildings to see what is happening in the surrounding cityscape. Many of the changes after 9/11 also found their way into a multitude of building codes and improved methods of communications between first responders.

© Robert Benson

One of the most heavily impacted industries in the city was the aviation sector and the domestic and international airlines who quickly needed to restore operations and a sense of security in travelers. In an inherently competitive business, where brand loyalty and customer service are critical to success, the aviation industry did something it rarely had done before- and came together to create a singular response. Matthew Johnson, an Aviation Leader at Gensler, shared that the key to bringing flyers back was to, “create a journey that felt safe from the moment you arrived at the airport to the second you left at your final destination.” Terminals were retrofitted to add a visual layer of security and international oversight from aviation organizations was implemented as a response to creating a safe environment. The post-9/11 regulatory structures that came from the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 included the formation of the TSA and the current security screening processes we are so accustomed to in airports around the world.

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Only eleven years later, Hurricane Sandy hit New York City on October 29, 2012, bringing with it high wind speeds, unprecedented flooding that devastated thousands of communities, and cost an estimated 19 billion dollars in damage. Serving as a wake-up call to the harsh realities of climate change, the city quickly began the initial planning to extend the shoreline of Manhattan. Officials also launched the Rebuild by Design competition as a way to immerse architects, urban planners, and landscape architects in months of field research in design ideation to dramatically shift how New York City prepares for disaster response. Successful proposals from prominent firms including OLIN, BIG, and OMA transformed the competition into an organization that now helps five cities across the United States better understand their urban vulnerabilities, linking them with the funds and resources to address them. Although there is still much rebuilding and fortifications to be done, the many lessons that New York has learned from the storm have been implemented into how architects around the country design new, and more resilient buildings. New York has dropped the notion that the city can thumb its nose at the elements, and has instead begun to invite them in as preparation for the “next big one”.

Today, New York City finds itself, yet again, the epicenter of another crisis- the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it has by far been the most severely impacted city in the United States, it is also one of the major metropolis’ currently on the decline of cases and deaths, more than two months after the stay at home order was enforced. Companies and policymakers are looking towards the city’s designers to set the tone of what the new normal in the short term and long term post-COVID city might look like. The sudden need to create and implement these strategies has created an outpouring of innovations, similar to the aftermath of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. These ideas combine the best of what worked before with the future forecasting of what might have been possible in ten to fifteen years, but make it a reality in the present day. The long term effects of this pandemic will force New York to create a more seamless and innovative built environment. From rethinking how office spaces will be made healthier on an individual level while still promoting a layer of collaboration, to envisioning cleaner and more efficient public transit systems, New York is on the path to serving as a global benchmark standard in restoring a sense of confidence in every city dweller.

© Bruce Damonte

The aviation industry finds itself in another difficult situation, having to conceptualize new safety and operational strategies that will allow travelers to want to take to the skies again. New York City’s three major airports that serve millions of domestic and international passengers annually are imagining a more seamless “departure to destination” user experience that had already been enhanced by 9/11. Ideas around the implementation of touch-free technology, health screenings before security and after arrival, and the ability to separate the moments of clustering will be critical in controlling the spread of the virus. According to Matthew Johnson, there are predictions that the Centers for Disease Control will integrate guidelines with existing airport policy forcing new ideas around the rights of airlines, airports, and passengers. Airport design has once again had to quickly thrust itself into the future and advise airlines on how to address the moving target of air travel returning to some sense of normalcy, perhaps more so than any other industry. “I look forward to what this disruption is going to be, how it shakes out in this industry, and how it starts to boost it,” says Johnson. “This pandemic is another huge opportunity to challenge the norm. This pause gives us all the time to really question what is the right thing.”

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Cite: Kaley Overstreet. "How New York City's Architecture Has Responded to National Emergencies over the Last 20 Years" 22 May 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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