Put sustainable city development on the national agenda

After Hur­ri­cane Sandy dev­as­tat­ed New York City and regions along the East Coast, you may have read about the link between glob­al warm­ing and extreme weath­er pat­terns. How­ev­er, dis­cus­sions about sus­tain­able city devel­op­ment and urban pol­i­cy are still miss­ing from the fed­er­al agen­da.

For­ward-look­ing urban plan­ning plays a cru­cial role in grow­ing a healthy and com­pet­i­tive nation­al econ­o­my. This is a fact, and Hur­ri­cane Sandy has accen­tu­at­ed it. Econ­o­mists from Moody’s Ana­lyt­ics esti­mat­ed that the super-storm would inflict $20 bil­lion in loss of eco­nom­ic activ­i­ties. New York City, in par­tic­u­lar, will suf­fer the heav­i­est blow which accounts to $12 bil­lion, or 60% of the loss­es.  The total esti­mat­ed cost was $50 bil­lion; about $30 bil­lion for prop­er­ty dam­age and $20 bil­lion for the loss of eco­nom­ic activ­i­ties.

Imag­ine the impact if busi­ness­es were forced to shut down for months in New York City.

To pay for the dam­age, New York City will uti­lize both fed­er­al dis­as­ter relief fund and rev­enues gen­er­at­ed from its high-tax rates. As May­or Bloomberg stat­ed in a press con­fer­ence: “New York City tax­es itself and spends the mon­ey to pro­tect us and to have the ser­vices that will keep us going. And I know of no oth­er city that does that.” When the worst sce­nar­io hap­pens, the May­or doesn’t plan on rely­ing on the fed­er­al and state resources. His point not only empha­sizes self-reliance, but also high­lights the fear that polit­i­cal grid­locks will like­ly pro­long rebuild­ing efforts. Indeed, the New York Times arti­cle “Fed­er­al Relief Costs Like­ly to Be Big, and Con­test­ed illus­trates such fears.

Even New York City, which is one of the rich­est cities in the world, can­not pay for all the nec­es­sary devel­op­ment on its own. Jonathan Rose, real estate devel­op­er and mem­ber of the MTA Blue Rib­bon Com­mis­sion on Sus­tain­abil­i­ty and Cli­mate Change, wrote that “Sandy under­scored our need to invest in the plan­ning and recon­struc­tion of our sub­ways, trains, tun­nels, and bridges to make them more resilient—but to do so will take mon­ey, lots of it. And our cities and states don’t have it.”

We need to put urban pol­i­cy onto the nation­al agen­da. Cities and states will need mon­ey from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment in order to build crit­i­cal, resilient infra­struc­ture. This is vital invest­ment, and the nation has rea­sons to care about it. If the destruc­tion of Hur­ri­cane Sandy can drag down 0.6 per­cent of eco­nom­ic growth, the next storm (they are appear­ing more fre­quent­ly and get­ting more sev­ere) will post sev­ere threats to freight deliv­ery, trav­el, retail, and sub­se­quent­ly reduce trade, the demand of man­u­fac­tur­ing, and spend­ing from the hourly work­ers who who did not get paid dur­ing the storm. All the loss­es of eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty do not just affect a few cities, or states; in this exam­ple, and in today’s inter­con­nect­ed econ­o­my, the dis­rup­tion of cities have imme­di­ate nation­al con­se­quences.

Fur­ther­more, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment should look beyond hur­ri­cane recov­ery, or the short-term goal of using dis­as­ter relief funds to ini­ti­ate cleanup efforts. In terms of long-term objec­tives, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment should focus on estab­lish­ing effec­tive urban pol­i­cy that rebuilds resilient local com­mu­ni­ties, ensures the vibrant econ­o­my and long-term sus­tain­abil­i­ty of the cities. And that will include the top­ics of cli­mate change, dis­as­ter pre­pared­ness, mass trans­porta­tion, edu­ca­tion, pover­ty alle­vi­a­tionafford­able hous­ing, and more.

Stig­ma is the biggest bar­ri­er. Dur­ing the 2012 MAS Sum­mit, the pan­el titled “Elec­tion 2012 and What’s at Stake: The Fed­er­al Gov­ern­ment and the Future of New York City” point­ed out that urban pol­i­cy was not a pri­or­i­ty in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, which showed that can­di­dates were unwill­ing to asso­ciate them­selves with issues such as pover­ty, or spend­ing for infra­struc­tures.  How­ev­er, the­se issues will only get worse if the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment doesn’t grant enough fund­ing to address them. Indeed, Man­hat­tan Bor­ough Pres­i­dent Scott Stringer said in the MAS Sum­mit that “the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has no plan for urban cen­ters… the next NYC may­or will need to fig­ure out how to get resources from the gov­ern­ment and find ways to gen­er­ate rev­enues.” With lim­it­ed fund­ing, engi­neer­ing solu­tions like sea bar­ri­ers remain day­dreams. Even small­er inter­ven­tions, like inflat­able plugs to pro­tect the tun­nels, are a new cost for a very green tran­sit sys­tem that is strapped for cash.

Since cities can direct­ly impact the gains and loss­es of the nation, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment should start con­sid­er­ing resilient city devel­op­ment as an invest­ment, not a cost.

And no one city can com­plete­ly pay for them­selves in mak­ing the trans­for­ma­tion, not even New York City.

The fis­cal chal­lenge is an issue, but the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment should fos­ter a coop­er­a­tive inter-agen­cy approach and take steps to estab­lish guide­li­nes for sus­tain­able and com­pet­i­tive city devel­op­ments. This is not a sug­ges­tion to enlarge the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Gov­ern­ment at the nation­al lev­el can­not pos­si­bly plan for all the diverse cul­tures and val­ues that exist in all local com­mu­ni­ties. For exam­ple, no enti­ty except the com­mu­ni­ties in New Jer­sey can decide whether Gov­er­nor Chris Christie should rebuild Jer­sey Shore the way it was before Hur­ri­cane Sandy, or com­plete­ly re-locate its coastal res­i­dents — although fed­er­al pol­i­cy on flood insur­ance will loom as a fac­tor in those choic­es.

A nation­al guide­line of city devel­op­ment nev­er­the­less should help dis­sem­i­nate infor­ma­tion of good urban prac­tices and coor­di­nate fund­ing allo­ca­tion process­es among the fed­er­al, state, and city agen­cies.

The truth is that U.S. sim­ply won’t be able to com­pete in the 21st Cen­tu­ry with­out vital, cre­ative, well func­tion­ing cities, with resilient, mod­ern infra­struc­ture to face the new chal­lenges of a chang­ing cli­mate. As a result, cities and states will ben­e­fit from the com­mit­ment of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and, in return, help strength­en the com­pet­i­tive­ness of our nation.

Pho­to: New York Times