Why do we live by the water, and what should we do now?

In the con­cept above, steel pan­els dec­o­rat­ed with art are part of an over­head struc­ture that can swing down and lock in place to form a flood bar­ri­er along the East River. The pan­el con­cept is part of a win­ning design called “The Big U” that is now the basis for a wrap-around lev­ee for Low­er Man­hat­tan. This is one step in how the city plans to cope with ris­ing sea lev­els brought on by cli­mate change.

Plans for the first sec­tions of the new infra­struc­ture, renamed by City Hall as the Low­er Man­hat­tan Coastal Resilien­cy project, were recent­ly pre­sent­ed in work­shops for input from local com­mu­ni­ties. Ang­ie Koo and Marlyn Mar­tinez cov­ered two work­shops and report back below. But first, some broad­er con­text.

Promi­nent news sto­ries over the past few months have zeroed in on the ris­ing esti­mates of sea lev­el impacts on cities around the world. The under­ly­ing research has been cov­ered in City Atlas, in con­ver­sa­tions with James White and Klaus Jacob.

Major news­rooms, many in cities near sea lev­el, have picked up the pace, and sto­ries now reg­u­lar­ly appear either set on the great ice sheets (Eliz­a­beth Kol­bert for the New York­er, Justin Gillis of the NYT on researcher Gor­don Hamil­ton) or on the coast­li­nes that are con­fronting adap­ta­tion or retreat. Josh Fox’s short film in Van­i­ty Fair looks at Man­hat­tan at risk from sea lev­el rise:

One project released this mon­th will stand out: Leonar­do DiCaprio’s doc­u­men­tary for Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, “Before the Flood.”

It’s going to be hard for the pub­lic to avoid this infor­ma­tion, and our social choic­es are already bewil­der­ing. Coastal cities are hard to con­tem­plate giv­ing up, but now many are on some sort of clock, and only our own rapid changes, towards effec­tive gov­er­nance and a plunge in the rate we burn fos­sil fuels (like­ly mean­ing in the near term, an asso­ci­at­ed drop in our use of ener­gy), will slow the clocks down.

Our abil­i­ty to gov­ern our­selves, either as indi­vid­u­als or as groups, may be inhib­it­ed by the attempt to fit eco­nom­ic norms, the prin­ci­pal mech­a­nism of glob­al nego­ti­a­tions, to a prob­lem too vast for eco­nom­ics alone to solve.

For exam­ple, in what eco­nom­ic sys­tem would the loss of New York City be ‘worth it,’ or, a ‘good deal’? The new con­struc­tion to pro­tect the city from ris­ing seas is still only a tem­po­rary fix; with­out a rapid drop in glob­al emis­sions, our cur­rent plan­ning will be obso­lete in less time than has elapsed since the con­struc­tion of the Empire State Build­ing.

The ani­ma­tion below (by @ClimateCollege) shows cumu­la­tive glob­al emis­sions from 1850 to the present. New York City needs for the world to hold to the ‘1.5°C Bud­get’ in order to remain intact. In the case of over­shoot­ing the tar­get, car­bon might be lat­er with­drawn from the atmos­phere in order to return to the 1.5°C bench­mark. Car­bon cap­ture is the­o­ret­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble but daunt­ing to accom­plish at the scale need­ed. Because build­ing a new, non-car­bon glob­al ener­gy sys­tem com­mits us to spend­ing a por­tion of future emis­sions in its con­struc­tion, we may be close to hav­ing expend­ed our bud­get already, mean­ing that many of our activ­i­ties today may already be depen­dent on us being able to recap­ture the car­bon at a lat­er date. (This is the most impor­tant fact about our econ­o­my and lifestyle choic­es that the pub­lic does not know.) 



How fast is fast enough to address a prob­lem that requires enor­mous changes?

The work­shops to explain the Low­er Man­hat­tan Coastal Resilien­cy project provide a mod­el for pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion. But every pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion about adap­ta­tion now must be matched by a con­ver­sa­tion of equal dura­tion about mit­i­ga­tion. A steep drop in emis­sions needs to begin imme­di­ate­ly in order to improve our adap­ta­tion chances.

Econ­o­mists and our polit­i­cal sys­tem may both be at a loss on how to react with ade­quate speed, but our sci­ence, and the under­ly­ing civ­i­liza­tion which pro­duced that sci­ence, is still first rate. We now know what we’re doing, and cit­i­zens can still decide, indi­vid­u­al­ly and col­lec­tive­ly, not to do it.

The impor­tance of com­mu­ni­ty meet­ings

In a recent vis­it to Miami, where one of us (Marlyn) par­tic­i­pat­ed in work­shops sim­i­lar to the New York meet­ing, Miami atten­dees shared their water relat­ed sto­ries and they con­nect­ed instant­ly. With the excep­tion of acci­dents and hur­ri­cane-relat­ed dis­as­ters, liv­ing by the ocean shapes Miami res­i­dents from child­hood to adult­hood in pos­i­tive ways. 

New York has a dif­fer­ent his­to­ry. The con­struc­tion of the FDR Dri­ve, indus­tri­al uses along the river’s edge, and the lev­el of pol­lu­tion in East River long dis­suad­ed Man­hat­tan­ites from enjoy­ing the water­front. This has changed through the years and res­i­dents are get­ting closer to the water in all sorts of ways. Keep­ing neigh­bor­hoods safe must be part of the con­ver­sa­tion.   

What do res­i­dents in Low­er Man­hat­tan val­ue the most about their neigh­bor­hoods and about liv­ing in close prox­im­i­ty to the water? This is what the LMCR group is try­ing to find out. This infor­ma­tion will guide them dur­ing the design of solu­tions that ful­fill their needs and wants while offer­ing pro­tec­tion in from the ele­ments in a rapid­ly chang­ing envi­ron­ment.

On July 27 and 28 (and repeat­ed on Octo­ber 5 and 6) the Low­er Man­hat­tan Coastal Resilien­cy (LMCR) held com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment work­shops, one for the Two Bridges neigh­bor­hood and one for the Finan­cial Dis­trict and Bat­tery Park City area.

The­se meet­ings were to assess pub­lic opin­ion on flood pre­ven­tion plans. The project, for­mer­ly known as the “Big U”, grew out of the dev­as­ta­tion caused by Hur­ri­cane Sandy in 2012. 

In total, approx­i­mate­ly 60 peo­ple attend­ed each night, not includ­ing facil­i­ta­tors or orga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sen­ta­tives. The work­shops large­ly mir­rored each oth­er in setup and struc­ture; if you haven’t been to a com­mu­ni­ty meet­ing like this, here’s how they worked:

  • Open­ing Remarks
  • OneNYC: Our Resilient City
  • Project Overview
  • Ques­tion and Answer
  • Small Group Dis­cus­sions + Activ­i­ties
    • Coastal Resilien­cy Infra­struc­ture Types
    • Com­mu­ni­ty Pri­or­i­ties
  • Report Back + Ques­tions
  • Next Steps

About five par­tic­i­pants sit at each table, where a facil­i­ta­tor and a plan­ner or design­er leads the small group dis­cus­sions and activ­i­ties. Before that por­tion of the work­shop, we received a pre­sen­ta­tion on resilien­cy efforts city­wide and how this speci­fic project came about, and how it will be imple­ment­ed.

The black line traces the East Side Coastal Resiliency project; The blue lines trace the components of the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency project. (LMCR)

The black line traces the East Side Coastal Resilien­cy project; The blue lines trace the com­po­nents of the Low­er Man­hat­tan Coastal Resilien­cy project. (NYC/LMCR)

The LMCR project considers a range of designs to hold back water. (Image: NYC/LMCR)

Some options for New York’s pro­tec­tion from ris­ing seas. Sea­walls can be per­ma­nent (like a berm) or remov­able (detach­able pan­els). (NYC/LMCR)

If you were lucky enough to avoid long term dam­age it may be get­ting hard to remem­ber the scope of Hur­ri­cane Sandy. Accord­ing to the City, “88,700 build­ings were flood­ed; 23,400 busi­ness­es were impact­ed; and our region’s infra­struc­ture was seri­ous­ly dis­rupt­ed. Over 2,000,000 res­i­dents were with­out pow­er for weeks and fuel short­ages per­sist­ed for over a mon­th.”

The Two Bridges neigh­bor­hood, the Finan­cial Dis­trict, and Bat­tery Park expe­ri­enced sev­er­al feet of flood­ing. In all, Sandy cost the city over $19 bil­lion in dam­ages and lost rev­enue, and exposed Low­er Manhattan’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties to cli­mate change, par­tic­u­lar­ly flood­ing. Rec­og­niz­ing that this need­ed imme­di­ate atten­tion, the city jump-start­ed efforts to plan a more resilient city. 

The last iter­a­tion of PlaNYC, the Spe­cial Ini­tia­tive on Rebuild­ing and Resilien­cy, was released in June, 2013 by the Bloomberg admin­is­tra­tion, and sketch­es Sandy-inspired coastal defens­es that the city con­tin­ues to devel­op. In April of 2015, May­or de Bla­sio released his new long-term strate­gic plan and vision enti­tled OneNYC, as an update to the Bloomberg administration’s reports. 

Low­er Man­hat­tan though, required a faster respon­se, and work­ing funds have been pour­ing in for a range of ini­tia­tives. In 2014, an ini­tial $108 mil­lion was direct­ed to Low­er Man­hat­tan by the de Bla­sio admin­is­tra­tion, for imple­ment­ing coastal storm pro­tec­tion infra­struc­ture. In Jan­u­ary 2016, the Two Bridges neighborhood–from Mont­gomery Street down to the Brook­lyn Bridge–was award­ed $176 mil­lion from the Fed­er­al Gov­ern­ment, through the HUD Nation­al Dis­as­ter Resilience Com­pe­ti­tion for inte­grat­ed flood pro­tec­tion, and anoth­er $27 mil­lion came from the city’s bud­get.

Alongside the­se efforts to provide com­pre­hen­sive flood pre­ven­tion to Low­er Man­hat­tan is the East Side Coastal Resilien­cy Project. Also ini­tial­ly fund­ed in 2014, the East Side por­tion aims to bring sim­i­lar mea­sures up to 23rd Street from the Brook­lyn Bridge. 

Over­all, the LMCR project con­sists of four main activ­i­ties before the final design can be imple­ment­ed, as framed for us at the work­shops we attend­ed:

  • Build from pre­vi­ous and exist­ing plan­ning and design of the areas
  • Devel­op a com­pre­hen­sive design con­cept
  • Eval­u­ate the fea­si­bil­i­ty and pri­or­i­ti­za­tion of the design
  • Scope near term imple­men­ta­tion

The work­shop orga­niz­ers empha­sized being mind­ful of oth­er planned or exist­ing projects. The efforts of LMCR do not exist in a vac­u­um and the rep­re­sen­ta­tives in atten­dance seemed keen on mak­ing sure the end-pro­duct fits nat­u­ral­ly into the land­scape.  

At each step through­out the project, com­mu­ni­ty input will be tak­en account through work­shops, infor­mal engage­ment, inter­views, focus groups, sur­veys, and tours of the neigh­bor­hoods. The focus on local engage­ment means to ensure the project’s accep­tance in the com­mu­ni­ty.

Dur­ing the small group ses­sions we took part in two activ­i­ties: First, a dis­cus­sion of sea­wall design and imple­men­ta­tion. Par­tic­i­pants were given a list of images and descrip­tions of pos­si­ble sea­wall designs to be built in the areas prone to sea water intru­sion, a chance for the design­ers to lis­ten to the com­mu­ni­ty about what types of sea­wall infra­struc­ture res­i­dents would like best.

In the sec­ond activ­i­ty, par­tic­i­pants were given a poster size sheet in which to cre­ate a com­mu­nal list of pri­or­i­ties. Stick­ers labeled as: reli­a­bil­i­ty; main­te­nance & oper­a­tions; water­front access; views; safe­ty & light­ing; look & feel; recre­ation; and ameni­ties were placed in one of three zones indi­cat­ing the lev­el of impor­tance. Red stick­ers were for res­i­dents, blue for every­one else. 

Two Bridges

My table from the Two Bridges work­shop imme­di­ate­ly grav­i­tat­ed towards the types of sea­walls that could be seam­less­ly incor­po­rat­ed into the exist­ing envi­ron­ment, like berms. We did agree though that where areas are already lim­it­ed in space, a flood wall (more com­pact) may be the best option. The area near Brook­lyn Bridge where there is already a con­crete divide between peo­ple and water would be an exam­ple.

Over­all, our main con­cern with any type of sea­wall was if it would mean los­ing access to the water­way, visu­al­ly and phys­i­cal­ly. Speci­fic to deploy­ables – remov­able par­ti­tions that would be attached when a major storm approach­es – we were skep­ti­cal of hav­ing to rely on human action. There will always be ques­tions of if and when should they be used. Peo­ple don’t want to deploy them too far ahead of a storm because it’s visu­al­ly unap­peal­ing and would be a drain on resources should the storm not hit the city. Deploy­ables encour­age us to wait to the last moment before act­ing. Should there be any­thing amiss with them that can­not be fixed at a moment’s notice, the con­se­quences could be sev­ere.

Dur­ing the sec­ond activ­i­ty, where we judged pri­or­i­ties, there were two clear mes­sages con­veyed by all the par­tic­i­pants: reli­a­bil­i­ty and water­front access. As one par­tic­i­pant said, “It has to work.” Just as impor­tant, espe­cial­ly to the res­i­dents, were access and view of the East River. More than one table said they did not want per­ma­nent walls and if a wall must hap­pen, it should be glass. Res­i­dents were also quick to point out that they want­ed what­ev­er was going to be imple­ment­ed to be done with the res­i­dents in mind, not spec­u­la­tive res­i­dents or tourists. The exist­ing com­mu­ni­ty, with a size­able pop­u­la­tion of young chil­dren and seniors that enjoy the water­front, must be pri­or­i­tized.

Finan­cial Dis­trict and Bat­tery Park City

At one of the tables from the Finan­cial Dis­trict and Bat­tery Park City meet­ing, the con­sen­sus was that a sin­gle type of sea­wall won’t work, and that solu­tions should be cho­sen for the char­ac­ter­is­tics of each area. Some areas require a com­bi­na­tion of sea­wall and ele­vat­ed streets, while oth­ers could have walls that dou­ble up as green spaces. The main con­cern among the five par­tic­i­pants at the table, who were not res­i­dents of the area, but are wor­ried how sea lev­el rise may affect them in the future, was the reli­a­bil­i­ty of the sea­wall designs that require deploy­ment or instal­la­tion before an event that may cause flood­ing is expect­ed. Who will deploy them? Is elec­tric­i­ty required? What will hap­pen if the pow­er is off? The­se were some of the ques­tions raised. 

Reli­a­bil­i­ty was cho­sen as the num­ber one con­cern at our table, and this was true for every group that night. Main­te­nance and oper­a­tion, safe­ty and light­ing, and water­front access came sec­ond to reli­a­bil­i­ty; pre­serv­ing views, look and feel, recre­ation, and ameni­ties came in last in the scale of val­ues the­se New York­ers would pri­or­i­tize. 

We won­dered what makes one group val­ue reli­a­bil­i­ty over looks or vice ver­sa. Dif­fer­ences in income, geog­ra­phy, and their expe­ri­ences dur­ing dis­as­trous events such as Sandy could be fac­tors. Nev­er­the­less, the fact that each com­mu­ni­ty respond­ed to the activ­i­ties in dif­fer­ent ways dri­ves home the impor­tance of hav­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties like this to assess pub­lic opin­ion. The needs and desires of adja­cent pop­u­la­tions can be dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent, mean­ing one-size-fits-all solu­tions can fail to mesh with the dai­ly urban fab­ric. It is now up to the LMCR team to cre­ate solu­tions that reflect the pub­lic inter­est at the local lev­el, while pro­vid­ing secu­ri­ty for Low­er Man­hat­tan as a whole.

Our take

The­se two hour kick­off meet­ings promised to be the first of many encoun­ters that will allow res­i­dents to see and react to pos­si­ble flood­ing solu­tions before final designs are select­ed. If you live in the area, but do not know much about OneNYC do not let this pre­vent you from attend­ing the next meet­ings. You will find that facil­i­ta­tors will share a great deal of infor­ma­tion to help you under­stand the issue. His­to­ry of the devel­op­ment of the project and about each neigh­bor­hood, fund­ing efforts, and part­ner­ships were all cov­ered.

It was a relief to hear that oth­ers groups besides LMCR are work­ing around this issue, they acknowl­edge the exis­tence of each oth­er, and the impor­tance of work­ing togeth­er. How will they share resources and not dupli­cate efforts? This was left unclear. 

It is under­stand­able that, given the scale of this project, there was a lot of infor­ma­tion to talk about in a short time. This may have been an issue for some par­tic­i­pants, but in no way pre­vent­ed them to speak up in the small group dis­cus­sions. In order for this event to be acces­si­ble for more peo­ple trans­la­tion in Man­dar­in, Can­tone­se, and Span­ish was avail­able.

Sea­wall design was one of the main top­ics dur­ing the small group dis­cus­sion. Cli­mate Cen­tral research indi­cates that the US has seen an increase of more than dou­ble in flood­ing due to glob­al warm­ing caused sea lev­el rise. Recent events back this up. Sea­walls are impor­tant com­po­nents of the ini­tial adap­ta­tion efforts, but they are not a long term solu­tion. In future meet­ings we will like to hear about mit­i­ga­tion and reme­di­a­tion strate­gies that help reduce glob­al warm­ing and offer a chance to slow down the rise of the sea. Some of this are to be done at the indi­vid­u­al lev­el such are reduc­ing ener­gy con­sump­tion and air trav­el. If such strate­gies are not in place we can only expect to need high­er and high­er walls every cou­ple of decades. Even­tu­al­ly it will not be enough to pro­tect coastal life, infra­struc­ture or ecosys­tem.