The reception at TEDx_NYIT.
The reception at TEDx_NYIT.

Following the catastrophic impact of massive storms in New Orleans and New York during the last decade, "resilient design" has emerged as a catchphrase within the architecture and planning communities. Because natural and man-made disasters tend to offer a new set of conditions with each pass, so too must approaches to resilient design.

The New York Institute of Technology on Thursday hosted TEDxNYIT: Meta-Resiliency, a day-long event bringing together architects, urban planners, infrastructure experts, and musicians to rethink how "meta" resiliency—the idea of holistically strengthening communities against damage wrought by events such as superstorms, blackouts, and fires—can be woven into the fabric of city life. Though most resilience strategies in headlines tackle the topic from the top down (think New York's PlaNYC), the speakers offered ideas to improve cities by charging their inhabitants with the task of renewal.

Architect Illya Azaroff, AIA, began his talk by asking the audience to repeat the phrase "we are not alone," highlighting a sentiment that's become a key part of the New York–based +LAB founder's work as co-chair of the AIA's Design for Risk and Reconstruction committee. That committee just published the Post Sandy Initiative Report, detailing suggestions for resilience-based recovery in categories such as housing, commercial buildings, transportation, and waterfront regions, as well as zoning and codes.

To facilitate the types of resilient design principles detailed in his report and others like it, Azaroff said, vulnerable municipalities in the U.S. need to develop an international perspective. "We need to look everywhere for solutions," he said. "[To] recognize that our neighbors who experience this know how to do it low-tech [and] high-tech. They do it every year, and they know how to do it better than us."

Some solutions may also be closer to home. "Cities with an engaged population are more resilient," said Ron Dembo, founder and CEO of environmental risk management software and services company Zerofootprint.

Bottom-up, flash-mob, power-of-the-masses approaches aren't to be overlooked. Le Diner en Blanc's Sandy Safi talked about the "whole" that was created when event participants joined others for al fresco dining in popup locations.

Architect Jing Liu, partner at New York-based SO-IL, went straight to typologies, arguing for creative uses of space with limited variables to define their functionality. Encouraging organic participation will eventually lead to a paradigm shift in how public spaces are used, she says. She cited her firm's 2010 Pole Dance temporary installation, which applied a system of poles and nets fitted with electronic devices to monitor their movement and capture sound waves, which were transmitted to an interactive mobile application that allowed users to change the sound by moving the poles.

Sometimes the past is the best reference. David Dixon, FAIA, principal at Boston-based Goody Clancy—which led New Orleans' recovery effort following Hurricane Katrina and authored the city's Master Plan that was approved in 2010—shared what he says are lessons the industry can learn from the Katrina response: communities in which racial and socioeconomic divisions dissolve in the event of a disaster (if not always); resilient design shaped around an urban agenda, allowing spaces to change with the climate and their inhabitants' needs; and strong public leadership to help those strategies enter policy discussions.

"The country is going to have to adapt to climate change because we don't have a choice," Dixon says. "We have already begun to pay a very considerable price for addressing resiliency."