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