Remaking New York City in the wake of climate change

After Hurricane Sandy, the city’s plans to mitigate future disaster have underscored its social and economic inequities.

Hurricane Sandy [Do not use]
Tangerinea Williams and her friend 'Kitty' sit in the courtyard of the Baruch Housing complex where the effects of Hurricane Sandy are still felt today [Joey Prince/Al Jazeera]
Correction4 Mar 2016
An earlier version of this article referred to Amy Spitalnick as Mary Spitalnick.

New York City, US – On the evening of October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy reached the inlet between Long Island and New Jersey and funnelled the Atlantic storm surge into the heart of New York City, inundating lower Manhattan with water and wreaking havoc on the surrounding boroughs.                      

“It was like an atomic explosion,” recalls Dennis Diaz of the moment the rising waters reached the Con-Edison substation near the Lower East Side (LES) housing projects in south Manhattan.

“There was a beautiful blue colour, then an orange light,” says Diaz, who was outdoors with other community members when the explosion occurred. “Everyone thought the electric current was going to run through the water. Cars were floating in the street from the flooding … it was insane.”

Sandy, as the hurricane became known, caused around $71bn in damages and killed 117 people along the eastern seaboard. One third of those casualties were from New York City alone. The effect of the hurricane was disproportionately felt – the city’s most vulnerable residents, people of low income and the elderly, were hardest hit.

Marilyn Santiago, 59, was on the fourth floor of the Jacob Riis public housing project in the LES, along with her sick and immobile husband, when the hurricane hit.

We took Sandy, which was a horrible and devastating event for our region, and turned it into an opportunity to change the conversation about how we want our cities to look in the future.

by Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design

“It was a panic out there. We were stuck upstairs, we couldn’t get food, all the stores were closed,” Santiago recalls. It was an experience shared by many residents of public housing in the days and weeks after the storm.

“We had babies and elderly people in here. It was bad, bad. We started going crazy,” she says.

The unexpected tenacity of Sandy and its devastating aftermath brought the precarious position of coastal cities – and their most vulnerable residents – to the fore, underscoring both how climate change is causing increasingly devastating storms and the failure of even New York, with all its wealth, to mitigate the risks.

“Climate change impacts are not going to be received by everyone in the same way,” says Juan Camilo Osorio, a director of research at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. “The reality is that in neighbourhoods where you have existing high levels of vulnerabilities due to socioeconomic, demographic, or existing health conditions, then these communities will be far more affected.”

According to NASA, climate change is causing ocean temperatures to rise, which in turn is increasing the intensity of tropical storms and hurricanes. Rising ocean levels and increased precipitation are exacerbating the effect of flooding on coastal cities such as New York City.

For many New Yorkers, Sandy was a wake-up call and the response from political leaders was unambiguous. The New York City mayor, the governor, even President Obama himself, connected the severity of the storm to the processes of global warming and acknowledged the need for the city to be re-designed to cope with future storms.

“Hurricane Sandy was a tipping point for policies and programmes related to climate change,” says Cynthia E Rosenzweig, an American climatologist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

“Political leaders explicitly linked increasing risks due to climate change into the necessities of rebuilding and design,” she says, referring to a series of ambitious coastal resiliency projects proposed by New York City after the storm.  

Dennis Diaz sitting on a bench outside his housing building just a few blocks from the plant that exploded during Hurricane Sandy [Joey Prince/Al Jazeera]

Bolstering New York’s coast through design

In June 2014, New York City was awarded $355m through the federally funded Rebuild by Design competition, which tasked teams of architects and urban planners to create projects that would improve the resiliency of waterfront communities in New York through responsive, innovative design.

“We took Sandy, which was a horrible and devastating event for our region, and turned it into an opportunity to change the conversation about how we want our cities to look in the future,” says Amy Chester, the managing director of Rebuild by Design. “And that wasn’t just about building a wall around our waterfront communities. It was really about creating a space that is enhanced by coastal protection.”

One of the six winning projects, called the Dryline [formerly known as the Big U],” has received much of the attention and funding. For some, it represents a resilient and adaptive re-design informed by the projected effects of climate change on Manhattan. 

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Headed up by the internationally renowned architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), the Dryline foresees an arching U-shaped barrier running for 10 miles along the coastline of southern Manhattan, protecting this centre of economic wealth and one of the city’s largest concentrations of public housing from future storms.

Complete with elevated berms that double up as parks, retractable flood walls that turn down into storefront and art space, incorporated urban wetlands, bio swales and rain-gardens, the Dryline integrates coastal defences with ideals of resiliency, social and environmental justice and responsible community building.

“We think of the Dryline as the lovechild between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs,” says BIG founder Bjarke Ingels, referring to the dichotomous approaches of New York City’s most famous urban planners to describe the project, which, while aggressive and monumental in scope (Moses), is also in tune with the needs of its residents (Jacobs). “It requires a holistic big-picture approach [but] needs to happen through close dialogue with local residents,” Ingels says.

“These communities were at the core to the planning of the project,” says Chester, explaining the BIG team’s approach, which combines physical resiliency (flood protection) with social resiliency through addressing community needs by enhancing and protecting the public housing stock and increasing economic and social opportunities for LES residents. “[The community stakeholders] were at every single meeting and were part of the team. The project completely reflect[s] the plans and concerns they had for the community even before the storm.”

The design, if fully implemented, will consist of a series of flood compartments stretching from west 57th Street to the southern tip of Manhattan, and around and up to East 42nd Street.

The flood compartments will “work like those in the hull of ship”, says Ingels, “so they can be built to protect individual neighbourhoods independently, and even if one compartment is breached, the whole ship won’t sink”. Ingels adds that, in addition to the protection element, “we then layer on social and urban amenities that improve open space, ecology, and access along the waterfront”.

One portion, dubbed the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project (ESCR) by the city, has already been funded and is set to break ground in 2017. The project will stretch from East 23rd Street to Montgomery Street in southeastern Manhattan, spanning more than four kilometres along the East River. The city has already committed additional funding beyond the $355m originally allocated by the federal government towards planning and implementing the next areas south of ESCR, according to Ingels.

“As Sandy made clear, climate change is not some risk 100 years down the road,” says Amy Spitalnick from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office. “New York City is vulnerable now and the risks are only growing – and that is why we are moving quickly now to reduce those risks,” says Spitalnick, commenting on the mayor’s ambitious $20bn resiliency plan, which steps beyond the initial $355m provided by the federal government for Rebuild by Design and will provide massive investment in infrastructure, social services and emergency preparedness for the five boroughs.

“The city and the state have done a pretty amazing job at setting resiliency and climate adaptation as a priority,” says Chester. “Both have put up plans that are being implemented, but they are both very underfunded.”

Left behind? 

But the allocation of resources post-Sandy worries some residents who fear that less affluent areas of the city will be left behind. 

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“In many places building a barrier is enough,” says Stanley Fritz from the Harlem-based environmental justice organisation WE-ACT. “Take south Manhattan and the Financial District. Those communities are affluent and powerful enough to receive protection – and they are getting it. For others in our city, dealing with climate change is not just about infrastructure but social policies. It’s not just about preventing the worst but finding long-term solutions to the issues that disproportionately put these communities at risk.”

This idea of city resilience, outlined by Fritz, focuses on how the effects of global warming heighten the existing vulnerabilities of cities’ most marginalised residents – often poor communities of colour and the elderly – who have been overburdened with environmental hazards, poor infrastructure and a lack of adequate transportation, housing and basic public services.

“You have to recognise how interconnected these issues are,” says Andrew Brenner, a senior global communications manager for 100 Resilient Cities, an organisation helping to build resiliency in cities around the globe. “That really is at the heart of what the focus on resilience is about. It is not just about a potential shock but the underlying stresses that are weakening the fabric of a city on a daily basis.”

As Maxwell Young, the vice president of global communications and marketing for 100 Resilient Cities, told Al Jazeera: “Take Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans had all these underlying problems in addition to having weak flood walls …. This all speaks to this point that one of the ways you can mitigate for climate change has nothing to do with preparing for floods – you have to fix the underlying problems with your city. Whether it is New Orleans or New York.” 

For some, the severe threat of climate change offers a chance to address the myriad issues that put an increasingly urbanised world at risk. “We can hope to turn what is threat into an opportunity,” says Stephane Hallegatte, a senior economist at the World Bank Climate Change Group. “Climate change demands we look long-term. It is not only about infrastructure but also … emergency preparedness, regulating development in at risk areas and decreasing social and economic disparities [that] drive the negative outcomes when disasters hit.” 

“Our cities need to evolve,” says Mike Shultz, an architecture student living in Manhattan. “The world is getting warmer and we must adapt … things are going to get worse before they get better.”

Exacerbated disparities

Marilyn Santiago reads a newspaper on a bench in Jacob Riis housing. Construction is ongoing here to fix the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 [Joey Prince/Al Jazeera]
Marilyn Santiago reads a newspaper on a bench in Jacob Riis housing. Construction is ongoing here to fix the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 [Joey Prince/Al Jazeera]

In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created under the auspices of the UN, with the stated goal to “stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere”. Over the past decade, the language of the yearly IPCC reports has changed from a focus on the prevention of climate change to adaptation and mitigation of its effects.

New York City’s resiliency plan reflects this shift as urban spaces scramble to mitigate the risks and to incorporate climate projections into the physical design of coastal cities where, according to the UN, nearly half of the world’s population resides. 

“Our work is informed by successful resiliency plans around the world, and is seen as a global model by the US and international cities with which we work,” says Spitalnick, noting the growing trend in climate adaptation, planning and implementation emerging elsewhere.     

The implementation of resiliency programmes in different locales and countries will inevitably be dependent on both political will and financial capital, with stark differences existing between wealthy and poor cities.

According to the World Bank, developing cities around the world are more at risk from the effects of climate change. In these cities, it is the urban poor that tend to be located in the most vulnerable locations, where the consequences of heatwaves, drought, surging seas, wind storms, flooding and other effects are much more dramatic, exacerbating the socioeconomic vulnerabilities that already exist.

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“The stresses exposed by disasters exist long before communities are impacted,” says Andrew Salkin, the chief operating officer of 100 resilient cities. “Whether it’s inadequate housing, limited transportation, inadequate healthcare or infrastructure, these problems were all there before the storms. They are simply exacerbated by events like Sandy.”

For 72-year-old Tangerinia Williams in Baruch Housing Projects in the Lower East Side, the effects of Sandy still linger. “It is still impacting me,” she says. Her second-floor apartment was completely flooded during Sandy. “It has been three years and they city still hasn’t fixed the damages.”  

And as the effects of climate change continue to highlight and exacerbate the inequity in cities around the world, the question of who deserves protection is on many New Yorkers’ minds.

As Emmanuel Fuentes, a second-generation Haitian immigrant living in Brooklyn, says: “It’s a good idea because we need a sea wall.”

He lost nearly two weeks of pay when Sandy flooded the restaurant he works at. “But would they [the government] fund something like this if it were just to protect people like me? No. Their priority is Wall Street. Not the projects.”

Source: Al Jazeera