Proposed by second-year students Zihan Chen, Tzu-Ching Lin, Ellen Rose, Hannah Rudin, and Carly Simmons, HarborNYC is an organization that connects people displaced by climate change with hosts and temporary housing options, giving them an opportunity to recover safely. Using an immersive 360-video experience as part of its recruitment campaign, HarborNYC fosters empathy in viewers to incite people to open their homes to displaced individuals and families in the event of future floods.

The organization’s immersive videos would be shown at monthly Meetups of Airbnb hosts, which take place in different New York City neighborhoods. Though the videos exist publicly both on YouTube and on HarborNYC’s website, the designers thought it was important that potential hosts experience the video in person; the group found that seeing the video in Google Cardboard and amongst peers was much more impactful, and inspired more people to sign up on the spot.

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“Harbor” is a deliberate word choice, which as a noun denotes a safe place for ships, and as a verb means to give home or shelter to. The group drew inspiration from Airbnb’s Open Homes initiative, a branch of Airbnb that aims to provide temporary housing to people displaced because of disasters, conflict and illness. This initiative was seen in action most recently during the Camp Fire in Northern California, and the Woolsey and Hill Fires in Southern California.

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast of the United States and Canada. In New York State, 910,000 homes were without power after the storm, often for many weeks or even months. Over 30,000 New Yorkers’ homes were so damaged that the residents had to leave.

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After hurricane Sandy, Craigslist, Airbnb, and CouchSurfers became instant focal points of free support. While shelters provided large public spaces, households allowed people greater privacy and stability.

Keeping in mind the effects of this mega storm from six years ago, the group focused on the threats facing Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, a neighborhood entirely positioned below the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) flood line. In October 2017, Red Hook was Brooklyn’s most expensive neighborhood, with a nearly $2M median sales price for apartments—and yet approximately half of its 11,000 residents live in the New York City Housing Authority’s Red Hook Houses.

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“In our research of Red Hook and Hurricane Sandy, we were struck by a story we read of Tameka Evans, who decided to stay in her Red Hook Houses apartment after the storm hit. There was water damage and no heat, no electricity and no running water for weeks after the flooding. She heated her apartment with the flames from her stove, which is extremely dangerous. But despite these living conditions, staying home was her best and probably only option.”

The group of designers were especially struck by one line from a September 2017 article by The World At 1°C, reflecting on hurricane Sandy: “Craigslist, Airbnb, CouchSurfers became instant focal points of free support. While shelters provided large public spaces, households allowed people greater privacy and stability.” The team grounded their exploration in this idea—ultimately ending up with HarborNYC, which calls on mutual aid in the face of crisis.

Based on FEMA’s projected flood maps, the designers learned that the number of people at risk of displacement will only continue to grow as climate events become more severe. HarborNYC’s first recruitment campaign uses an immersive 360-video experience to foster empathy toward displaced families, with New Yorkers who are Airbnb hosts living outside of FEMA’s flood zones as the target audience.

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“Throughout the 15 weeks, we shifted our idea many times. I’d say our biggest success was identifying the successes in each of those plans and synthesizing them into one final, compelling immersive video and accompanying narrative.” Along the way, each member of the team acquired skills in various video media—skills that they combined in order to create the final video experience.

Going forward, the team hopes to partner with Airbnb’s Open Homes Initiative, the main precedent for their work.

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