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Could Atlantic City Become An Innovation Hub For Climate Change And Resiliency?

Perkins + Will reimagines “Las Vegas East” as a research center for ecological resiliency.

You know Atlantic City as the gambling capital of the East Coast, or perhaps as the backdrop for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire or home of the Miss America pageant. But what was once dubbed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as “Las Vegas East” has recently been racked by the shuttering of four major casinos last year, three of which went bankrupt.

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So Perkins+Will, the global architecture and design firm known for its work in health care and material health, recently reimagined a new future for Atlantic City in an inventive proposal. Instead of a gambling town, A.C. would become a research hub dedicated to studying climate change and coastal resiliency, its emptying casino-hotels converted into homes for scientists and ecological policy wonks. The basement space usually dedicated to slot machines could be converted into research space or large-scale models to simulate various disasters, according to Perkins+Will’s vision.

“If somebody wanted to test structures being able to withstand flooding or wind, you could imagine creating a wind tunnel or some sort of floodable space,” Perkins+Will senior urban designer planner Daniel Windsor told Fast Company. “Or if it’s about emergency response, you can imagine creating these large-scale command center simulators where people can come in and train on software or large command-center-like simulations.”

Perkins+Will’s plan repurposes Atlantic City’s casino complexes as research hubs. Photo: Courtesy of Perkins+Will

Atlantic City’s economic predicament, as well as its precarious location right on the Atlantic coast, made it the perfect muse for a research-focused overhaul, Windsor says. The proposal was developed entirely on spec; the firm didn’t have a client or even a stakeholder on the hook when coming up with the idea. However, that doesn’t mean they didn’t have anyone in mind.

“Knowing that superstorm Sandy just barely missed Atlantic City, and knowing sea-level rise projections there, it seemed there was a lot of alignment between the need for capacity building with some of the concerns and issues happening in Atlantic City,” he says.

For now, it’s just an idea the firm hopes to get off the ground with New Jersey officials, and even a first step toward that alternate future for the Jersey Shore will require a major conversation shift.

Resiliency, The New Sustainability?

For the last two decades, “sustainability” has dominated the design and architecture conversations. But as sustainability has settled into the worldwide design vernacular thanks to standards like LEED, Perkins+Will wants to give “resiliency” the same treatment, says P+W principal Janice Barnes. Resiliency refers to a structure, community, or ecosystem’s ability to withstand and thrive under both chronic and acute stresses.

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So the firm has spent the past 18 months developing an internal “resiliency task force” that identifies systemic issues (like lack of affordable housing) and acute ones (hurricanes) that are threats to both the structures and ecosystems of various regions. Barnes leads the task force, which encompasses 50 Perkins+Will employees across its 23 locations.

“This is the greatest design challenge facing the world right now,” Barnes says of resiliency. “And not only a design question. But if you look at all of the work that design firms are doing, this issue hits every type of environment that we would work on in every community that we would work.”

The task force’s presence in each of P+W’s global branches means that projects are now conceived of through a lens of resiliency from the outset, as opposed to an afterthought.

Barnes also works with the Rockefeller Foundation’s Resilience Academies, which train city officials and help communities develop data-driven, community-led proposals for resiliency. The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities works to help cities cope with environmental, social, and economic stressors mainly by introducing resiliency positions into city management structures, as well as support networks and knowledge bases surrounding the issue.

In P+W’s case, the task force is meant to think holistically about issues facing various societies while understanding that issues can be hyperlocal and specific to a region or community. That could mean retrofitting buildings for flood proofing and designing critical infrastructure for new buildings, as well as city design, social vulnerability, and designing emergency response systems.

The Problem With Atlantic City

In Atlantic City’s case, the pitch for a resiliency-first redesign was a matter of timing. Windsor says the P+W task force had monitored issues like wildfires in Northern California, drought in Southern California, and sea-level rise on the East Coast before settling on Atlantic City for its first full-fledged resiliency showcase.

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Windsor likens Atlantic City—which spans about 4 square miles—to a college campus. And it’s not an accidental comparison: Perkins+Will imagines academic institutions working alongside government agencies and scientists in its utopian A.C.

“By no means do we think Atlantic City is doomed environmentally or economically or socially,” Windsor says. “We don’t necessarily think this is the silver-bullet solution. We just thought there was a lot of alignment between what was happening there and what could potentially be done toward resiliency.”

Just last week, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority approved development plans for the former Atlantic Club to be remade into a family-friendly entertainment complex featuring hotel rooms and an 80,000 square-foot water park, according to the Press of Atlantic City.

But while Atlantic City may benefit from family-focused entertainment investments, the Perkins+Will proposal includes elements that A.C. needs, like resiliency research directly related to its insecure coastline.

“We’re hoping that this furthers the dialogue and that we can start to work with people in Atlantic City to help diversify the economy and potentially integrate some of these strategies and work with institutions and things like that,” Windsor says. “Right now, it’s an idea, and we’re hoping that it becomes more.”

Photo: Courtesy of Perkins+Will

A “LEED” For Resiliency

To that end, Perkins+Will is also spearheading efforts to establish a LEED-like standard for resilient structure design and city planning. In addition to a public awareness campaign initiated last fall, P+W is working with Mike Italiano, one of the early developers of the LEED green building standard.

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“We just don’t have set ways of doing things. So we’re in that very formative stage, and it’s an incredible time to be a collaborator,” Barnes says.

An early version of the standard, which was co-developed in part by the University of Minnesota Research Practices Consortium, is currently in beta in the form of protocols P+W has code-named RELi. The task force is gathering experts in every field from design to finance to advise on the development of the new standard and hopes to have it ready to share with the public by the end of the year or early 2016. Aside from encouraging other designers to consider resilient design in urban planning, the standard is meant to make sure resiliency’s long-term benefits and viability appeal to government officials and clients, too.

“The protocol gives you a way of thinking,” Barnes says. “But the other side of that is getting the client is interested in thinking that way.”

This has been updated to reflect that Janice Barnes works with the Rockefeller Foundation’s Resilience Academies, not its 100 Resilient Cities program.