Wellington Chen

 

Chi­na­town was hurt dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Sandy, with many non-Eng­lish speak­ing elder­ly strand­ed in high ris­es with­out water, lights, heat, or ele­va­tors. A Bloomberg News pho­to essay pro­vides a glimpse of the days right after the storm. Because so many city work­ers were them­selves strand­ed in their own neigh­bor­hoods, it took more time for out­side relief to reach some build­ings; vol­un­teer orga­ni­za­tions and local offi­cials became first respon­ders. Among those help­ing to coor­di­nate the respon­se was Welling­ton Chen, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of Chi­na­town Part­ner­ship, a non­prof­it that serves the peo­ple and busi­ness­es in Chi­na­town. 

In May of 2016, City Atlas led an MAS Jane’s Walk on sea lev­el, and a few dozen very engaged and thought­ful New York­ers found the tour through the walk list­ings, includ­ing Mr. Chen. Recent­ly, Ang­ie Koo fol­lowed up to inter­view Welling­ton at his office in the cen­ter of Chi­na­town, to hear more about his expe­ri­ences dur­ing Sandy and his thoughts on what to do next, as pro­jec­tions for the city become more chal­leng­ing.

What moti­vat­ed you to come to City Atlas’s sea lev­el Jane’s Walk?

Dur­ing Sandy, [our office] was like a com­mand cen­ter for our local Coun­cil Mem­ber, Mar­garet Chin, and as well as the state. The state insur­ance depart­ment was here and the governor’s office had the relief cen­ter. SBA (Small Busi­ness Admin­is­tra­tion) was in our base­ment where they took appli­ca­tions for their emer­gen­cy relief fund. 

I’m very proud to say that before this, in 2010, we had mul­ti­ple work­shops and we gave away 300 Red Cross Go Bags. This was two years before Sandy. When I start­ed here, one of the first things I did was ask, “Where is our emer­gen­cy evac­u­a­tion cen­ter?” That was out of instinct because I knew that the storm that Long Island had in 1938 comes in 70-year cycles. So by 2009, it’s get­ting close. I reached out to Red Cross and I said let’s do an emer­gen­cy work­shop.

We planned for 2010, and right on 2010—you see this glass win­dow, it turned frost­ed white. It was a hor­i­zon­tal rain. You know how archi­tects have this glass you can flick on a switch, and it becomes total­ly frost­ed like in bath­rooms that are total­ly trans­par­ent? I thought I was see­ing things. 

That was the week where the storm ripped off a roof off of Queens’ Col­lege, and ripped up a lot of trees in Flush­ing. Since then you have had a series of fires. This cor­ner build­ing burned, this cor­ner build­ing burned, that burned. We had an earth­quake in Vir­ginia that we felt all the way up here; the ceil­ing was shak­ing. All my staff went out the door. 

From the Red Cross emer­gen­cy work­shop, the great take­aways were two things: One was that there are a quar­ter mil­lion inci­dences a year and guess what the most com­mon prob­lem is? What hap­pened in the news in Tex­as?

Flood­ing.

Yes, the most com­mon emer­gen­cy out of the quar­ter mil­lion around the world, not just here, is flood­ing. That’s why I start­ed look­ing at OEM (Office of Emer­gen­cy Man­age­ment), emer­gen­cy evac­u­a­tion routes, and where the near­est evac­u­a­tion cen­ter is. They said Seward Park High School. I asked, “How many peo­ple can you accom­mo­date?” They said 7000. Seward Park High School can­not accom­mo­date 7000 but even if it could, it is not ade­quate for Low­er Man­hat­tan. The near­est one is Baruch Col­lege, on 23rd street. That’s very far from here and any time it rains—within four inches—the MTA shuts down. I look at them and say, “We’ve got to be kid­ding.”

Peo­ple don’t respect his­to­ry. In 1832, the Hud­son River met up with the East River south of Canal Street. Also, my inter­est is because I was involved in the Blue Way, which is the sea shore­way work­shop. We were talk­ing about how we used to have a mil­lion oys­ters here to buffer the storm. All the envi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion and all of that—we’re very good at mess­ing up the abil­i­ty of the Earth. Moth­er Nature has no mer­cy. She’ll reclaim what is hers. This is some­thing that we should be very care­ful about. 

Also on top of that, I’m part of the com­mit­tee on New York Ris­ing, which is ask­ing, post-Sandy, how are you going to help evac­u­ate peo­ple, what are the mit­i­ga­tion plans you should plan for the future, and that type of thing.

So all of the­se things con­tribut­ed to why I went to the week­end Jane’s Walk. I was sur­prised to see that many peo­ple.

What hap­pened to Chi­na­town dur­ing Sandy?

Chi­na­town, I always say, is a walk­ing wound­ed patient. Almost like some­one who has inter­nal bleed­ing that you couldn’t tell on the out­side. He looks fine, there’s no out­ward sign of prob­lem: He’s not bleed­ing on the out­side, but he’s bleed­ing on the inside. That’s the most dan­ger­ous. Chi­na­town is fur­ther in, so we don’t have the debris, we don’t have the water flood line direct­ly into Chi­na­town, but the dam­age was done. The seafood stores lost all their lob­sters, all their shrimp, all their clams, and all the conch. We lost pow­er. The com­mand cen­ter I was talk­ing about, we were oper­at­ing in the dark with­out elec­tric­i­ty, with­out heat. We helped to go up to the Nation­al Guard to get water on 23rd Street at the Armory. We helped to pass out meals. We raised almost $80,000 and imme­di­ate­ly gave it out to 80 mer­chants, with­in a mat­ter of 2 weeks. That was very mean­ing­ful. But the paper­work was so ardu­ous that to this day many peo­ple nev­er got any help. 

[Terse descrip­tions of the storm’s impact in Chi­na­town are list­ed in a local Com­mu­ni­ty Board report: “Sandy: Lessons Learned”]

Is there still ongo­ing work being done, whether it’s recov­ery or sup­port for dam­ages?

This is the part that peo­ple will appre­ci­ate: The infra­struc­ture is much more impor­tant than the one-time gift. We gave you a one-time gift, it didn’t even cov­er the rent. It was more of a psy­cho­log­i­cal boost that we are in sol­i­dar­i­ty with you, togeth­er with Coun­cil­wom­an Mar­garet Chin. Mar­garet was oper­at­ing in the dark, even dur­ing Sandy, she slid into a police and cruis­er and there’s a famous pho­tograph of her talk­ing on the radio.

NYC Council Member Margaret Chin provided Chinese language info on food and water (Ph: K Heinemann/Bloomberg)

NYC Coun­cil Mem­ber Chin pro­vid­ed Chi­ne­se lan­guage infor­ma­tion on food dis­tri­b­u­tion, via a police car loud­speak­er (Ph: K Heinemann/Bloomberg)

I was stand­ing next to her at the time. Mar­garet basi­cal­ly spoke in bilin­gual lan­guages, reas­sur­ing the pub­lic that help is com­ing, the food is on its way, the water is on its way, just stay in line. Peo­ple were extreme­ly well-behaved. They formed an invert­ed L on both sides, 600 peo­ple in the dark and there was no sound. Peo­ple were just stand­ing qui­et­ly in line. It is a cred­it to every­one involved—the pub­lic, the hous­ing ten­ants that believed in us, the Nation­al Guard, the elect­ed offi­cials like Mar­garet Chin. One thing good about Sandy is it showed how much we are in it togeth­er. If Moth­er Nature wants to reclaim what is right­ful­ly hers…

You men­tioned evac­u­a­tion routes and emer­gen­cy man­age­ment dur­ing Sandy. Since then, have the­se mea­sures improved four years after Sandy?

I think the city has made improve­ments and so has the state because it has raised the lev­el of aware­ness much high­er than when I gave the Red Cross Go bags in 2010. 

Back then, I had peo­ple come in from Brook­lyn, Queens and I think the Bronx, as well, because that week [in 2010] was the hail storm. Peo­ple were hit and were for the first time, aware. Not too long after that, the earth­quake from Vir­ginia rum­bled up here. Then you have trop­i­cal storm Irene, which was basi­cal­ly a hur­ri­cane that turned into a trop­i­cal storm the min­ute it hit the shore. So we were involved in Irene, going door to door at the Smith Hous­es, the pub­lic hous­es, knock­ing on doors of the ten­ants. The trilin­gual team—Spanish, Chi­ne­se, English—knocked on every door. 

That’s when you real­ize this is not going to be ade­quate. There are seniors, there are peo­ple on wheel­chairs, and there are peo­ple that are hand­i­capped that can­not leave their apart­ment because even if you have a shel­ter, it is worse than what they have at home. So they will pre­pare to shel­ter in place in spite of all the plead­ing from us. We said, “There will be no pow­er tonight, you know that right?” They said, “We know.” Just like in Louisiana with Katri­na and every­place else, there are always peo­ple that are not able to leave psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly or phys­i­cal­ly.

So to answer whether it got bet­ter: yes. Just the amount of Go bags that got dis­trib­ut­ed by the state and the city in the last few years is quite a sign. We also rec­og­nize now it is not just a one enti­ty effort. Now it is about how we can col­lab­o­rate, how we can share resources, and how we can share infor­ma­tion. That is a work in pro­gress for us as the Jane’s Walk on sea water rise demon­strates, it is a mas­sive area and it is not just a local­ized prob­lem. It is a region­al and glob­al prob­lem.

The New York City Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Alliance released their analy­sis of May­or Bill de Blasio’s OneNYC this past April. In ref­er­ence to the evac­u­a­tion routes and zones, they said that there is a lack of speci­fici­ty and pre­pared­ness on the local lev­el. What are your thoughts on that?

Right. That’s some­thing that we have to work on and obvi­ous­ly, it’s not that peo­ple don’t know. Peo­ple know Seward Park. It just needs to be more in-depth. You can­not have all the blood flow to one clot, one area. You can­not expect a quar­ter mil­lion peo­ple or more to fit into a few thou­sand room shel­ters. It becomes very clear to me that it is about shar­ing, build­ing up an infra­struc­ture of sup­port. That is the key for the future. 

Sim­i­lar to the radioac­tive bomb shel­ter plans of the 1950s and 1960s, you could scat­ter stor­age of food, emer­gen­cy sup­plies, and water through­out the city so that there’s enough rationing to share. You need local com­mu­ni­ty to coor­di­nate because not one orga­ni­za­tion has all the resources. It is also not just a gov­ern­ment issue. It is about public/private part­ner­ship because the gov­ern­ment doesn’t have that kind of bud­get.

Sea lev­el rise is inevitable. We can debate about how many meters it is going to be but it is going to hap­pen. In light of that and where Low­er Man­hat­tan is, does it make sense for peo­ple to keep devel­op­ing here and stay­ing here? There are peo­ple like Klaus Jacob who are fans of strate­gic relo­ca­tion, instead. 

There’s no right way or wrong way. It real­ly depends on the sit­u­a­tion and the loca­tion. It is easy for us to say, “do strate­gic relo­ca­tion,” but it is real­ly dif­fi­cult for peo­ple that are either emo­tion­al­ly attached, finan­cial­ly attached, or phys­i­cal­ly attached to that place. You just have to look at the past. How many storms have hit Long Island beach­es and how many hous­es keep on rebuild­ing along the shore? For some of those along the beach­es, it makes sense for them to do a strate­gic retreat. If you know the water is going to come to this lev­el, you might start build­ing to the back, start going away from the water. But for the peo­ple that are already enjoy­ing the sea shore view, as long as their insur­ance pol­i­cy and their fed­er­al emer­gen­cy keeps allow­ing them to rebuild, they will. 

In terms of Low­er Man­hat­tan, it is hard­er because you have such rich his­to­ry down here. 

Humankind has tend­ed to fill in the har­bors. We like to fill them in and grad­u­al­ly each city now is becom­ing like Kobe in Japan. They [city plan­ners in Japan] rec­og­nize that it is a no-no because when an earth­quake hap­pens, there is liq­ue­fac­tion. The land­filled areas turn into mud and your first lev­el becomes your base­ment because the build­ing lit­er­al­ly sinks into the mud. But in the mean­time, with the ris­ing water, lim­it­ed land, and grow­ing urban migration—you should look at the UN report of 2014, it talks about the urban migra­tion and urban­iza­tion. In the 1950s, 30% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion lived in urban cen­ters like this. Now it is more than half. In the future, it will be almost 70%. From 30% to 66%, almost 70%, in such a short time, there is intense com­pe­ti­tion for resources and for the land. So it is not as easy to say. 

How­ev­er, here is the ques­tion I throw back at you: Dur­ing Sandy, most of Low­er Man­hat­tan flood­ed to pre-land­filled zone which is most­ly what­ev­er was filled in by man along to Pearl Street here. If you look up the orig­i­nal shore­line of New York City, moth­er nature reclaimed. There is one area that didn’t get reclaimed. Guess what that is? Bat­tery Park City sea wall. 

[Dur­ing the down­town black­out after Sandy] …Peo­ple accused us of try­ing to cater to the wealthy. They asked why they have their lights on [in Bat­tery Park City]. It is laugh­able.

They said, “You’re favor­ing the rich.”

I only cov­er Chi­na­town. I don’t cov­er all of Low­er Man­hat­tan.”

How come Wall Street had their lights on?” 

What they meant was Bat­tery Park City. The only rea­son their had lights on was because they have their own gen­er­a­tors, they had a back­up sys­tem. This is the par­tial answer to your ques­tion which is to say that Bat­tery Park City is built on land­fill and it had a sea­wall so it held dur­ing Sandy. So the ques­tion is do you prefer a strate­gic retreat or do you build it out to meet it? Bat­tery Park City is built on land­fill from the World Trade Cen­ter exca­va­tion, over one mil­lion cubic yards of land from dig­ging the foun­da­tion for the Twin Tow­ers, and they filled in the Hud­son to cre­ate Bat­tery Park City, and then they build a sea­wall around it. 

It held. It has its own back­up gen­er­a­tor, it has its own infra­struc­ture, it has its own mas­ter frame­work guide­li­nes. All the naysay­ers at the time were say­ing “You will pol­lute the Hud­son, you will kill the fish, you will destroy the envi­ron­ment.” Then 40 years after that, they gave a gold medal to the region­al design­er that con­ceived the idea because that mil­lion cubic yards of debris would have gone to the land­fill and instead it got put to use in that loca­tion and it held dur­ing one of the great­est storms in the last 100 years. There’s no right answer. There’s no wrong answer. It’s real­ly speci­fic locale. Do I encour­age you to rebuild Sandy beach­es of Long Island? No, you can eas­i­ly retreat fur­ther back and you can avoid the costs. But you incen­tivize them to keep build­ing because you have the view, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment keeps on want­i­ng to pay for it, so you will rebuild your house a cou­ple of times.

The past few years have been rel­a­tive­ly qui­et for New York City in terms of extreme weath­er. How have res­i­dents and busi­ness own­ers in Chi­na­town talked to you about cli­mate change? Has that ever come up? Or do they con­sid­er Sandy more as a one time event?

It’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion. I must say, you know how peo­ple adjust to a blow? They think it’s a storm of the cen­tu­ry and it pass­es, and it’s back to busi­ness as usual.They go back to their old ways. Occa­sion­al­ly one or two of my vol­un­teers will talk about how dur­ing Sandy, how we used to do things. But there has not been any dis­cus­sion oth­er than the work that I men­tioned in New York Ris­ing with a cou­ple of lead­ers from Low­er Man­hat­tan and the Councilman’s Office about how we should pre­pare for the future. There were some elect­ed offi­cials like Gale Brew­er that talk about where the emer­gen­cy cen­ter should be located—like this build­ing [Chi­na­town Part­ner­ship] should be a per­fect com­mu­ni­ca­tion cen­ter; we are on the sec­ond floor now so water lev­el will have to be even high­er to reach us. 

Dur­ing Sandy, was there men­tion of cli­mate change or again, did peo­ple see it as an indi­vid­u­al event?

In the last few years it has become very clear that some­thing is wrong with the cli­mate, at least for us. To the aver­age folks on the ground, I don’t think it’s very promi­nent in their minds unless you hap­pen to go to Alaska and you gawk at the glac­i­ers that are now melt­ing en masse. What is more alarm­ing is the under­neath melt­ing that you don’t see, the melt­ing inter­nal­ly. That’s why the water pat­tern is chang­ing around the world. 

Peo­ple do not real­ize the mag­ni­tude of and how rapid­ly this melt­ing is occur­ring. It is quite alarm­ing.. I thought the same way too even though I’m keep­ing an eye on this, “Oh what’s the big deal? Sea ris­es only an inch a decade. It will take many years to get to that.” I know Upper Man­hat­tan and Bronx have cliffs and bluffs so you’re fine. But in Low­er Man­hat­tan, you face the Atlantic and espe­cial­ly, Staten Island and Brook­lyn and the south shore of Long Island, you face the full brunt of the Atlantic. [The rate of sea lev­el rise is accel­er­at­ing as the oceans warm. See more detailed infor­ma­tion for New York in a talk from Klaus Jacob.] 

As a result of that, what can we do and what needs to be done to make peo­ple aware of the sit­u­a­tion and take action, both in New York City as a whole and in Chi­na­town?

This is where we real­ly need to take a much high­er view. This is the time that you have to think strate­gi­cal­ly about a mul­ti-prong approach—a short-term plan and a grad­u­al, incre­men­tal plan over the years and decades to come. How much are we pre­pared to invest in this long-term infra­struc­ture? It is clear there needs to be a new infra­struc­ture sup­port, both at where you meet the sea as well as inland because the water is going to con­tin­ue to come in—what hap­pens to your pow­er grid, what hap­pens to your emer­gen­cy respon­se sys­tem, your com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem, your food sup­ply sys­tem, your water sys­tem, your trans­porta­tion net­work? All of this has to be looked at in a very holis­tic way, but you have to do it in a real­is­tic man­ner. On the local lev­el for us, it is very clear. We have to start equip­ping the local cen­ters with com­mu­ni­ca­tion capa­bil­i­ties.

I want to get back to your ques­tion about the crit­i­cism about local­ized respon­se. The thing that struck us was dur­ing post-Sandy when Red Cross sent in their teams from the West Coast, they don’t even know which way Mul­ber­ry Street is. I had to give them direc­tions.

His­tor­i­cal­ly, we’ve been going about it wrong. What hap­pened local­ly in Katri­na? You found vol­un­teers from out­side to go into Louisiana who do not know how to deal with the local con­di­tions and who you’re try­ing to help. Where­as the guy that has been there—the local block-watcher that has been deal­ing with the peo­ple for ages—those are the resources we should tap into. They can best direct us and say so-and-so lives up on the third floor and she needs water right away, she’s dia­bet­ic, you guys bet­ter get out there. That’s one thing. 

The oth­er thing is, to this day with Katri­na, there are cer­tain peo­ple that nev­er got any help. [The bureau­cra­cy] has got to change because if you’re going to con­tin­ue to cre­ate this red tape mon­ster and not rec­og­nize time is of the essence and there’s a sense of urgen­cy to it, that is to me the glar­ing fault. If you look at all the emer­gen­cies that we’ve had, the num­ber one thing is I filed all the paper­work. Peo­ple came in here and filed their paper­work. How many of them got their grants? How many peo­ple got their loans? Very few. That’s why they’re now ramp­ing up and say­ing we have mon­ey to give away. Why did you reject them in the first place? Why do we need to raise the 80,000 dol­lars if you are fast enough? Because when peo­ple are need­ing the most, you [messed up]. 

So it’s not just about the phys­i­cal infra­struc­ture, it’s real­ly that the process needs to be looked at. Which is to say, FEMA, is this how you are going to han­dle the future storm? Is this how you are going to coor­di­nate with the emer­gen­cy respon­ders? To say you are going to have to wait, wait, wait? Who says you have to wait?

Is it impor­tant to engage the peo­ple who live here to inform and make them aware about cli­mate change? Is edu­ca­tion need­ed?

There’s no ques­tion that mas­sive edu­ca­tion is need­ed. [As dis­cussed on the sea lev­el walk], if 300 mil­lion peo­ple in India have no elec­tric­i­ty and they want their iPads, iPhones, they’re going to build their pow­er plants based on coal like Chi­na because that’s plen­ti­ful and easy. 

The rest of the world now knows this. We keep on burn­ing. In the US, we’re 320 mil­lion peo­ple of the six bil­lion on earth. [5% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion.] We use up 25% of the world’s resources. We need to make peo­ple under­stand that you can­not keep on doing this. 

Grad­u­al­ly we need to go back to the old design that is not all the­se sealed win­dows and rely­ing on air con­di­tion­ing like we’re doing now. In the old days, you had high ceil­ings, you had tran­soms that pop open and the air can cir­cu­late, you had high porch­es because the air cir­cu­lates under­neath your house, or you do it like in the Mid­dle East where you have very light mate­ri­als and have mar­ble and stone mate­ri­al that can deflect the heat and keep you cool. Design tech­niques that min­i­mize our depen­den­cy on fos­sil fuels.

To fol­low that, how can New York City be a lead­er in mov­ing towards ide­al­ly a zero car­bon econ­o­my, not just from gov­ern­ment action, but from choic­es as indi­vid­u­als?

Not being doom-and-gloom. This city should be very proud that it has res­i­dences on the island of Man­hat­tan where 76% of peo­ple do not own cars. It is one of the green­est foot­prints in North Amer­i­ca.

That comes back to the infra­struc­ture sup­port. Why should we depend on fos­sil fuel to dri­ve a few miles when in fact the sub­way sys­tem demon­strat­ed very well dur­ing Sandy how crit­i­cal it was? After Sandy when the sub­way was not run­ning, they were try­ing to block cars from com­ing in. Why? Because this island can only absorb one mil­lion cars com­ing in and there’s already mas­sive grid­lock. Now, what the sub­way car­ries every day is five or six mil­lion. That’s a good exam­ple of why this island is ahead of its time. 

We have our water from upstate and it comes not mechan­i­cal­ly but with just a quar­ter-inch of a pitch to every foot. It is car­ried by grav­i­ty and is one of the fresh­est water sup­plies. We learned from the Romans, the infra­struc­ture we use to bring water all the way from upstate down to New York City to feed the mil­lions. That’s why the third water tun­nel is so impor­tant to us. 

The bal­ance of Cen­tral Park, hav­ing the lungs of the city, so we can have a breath­ing space and fresh air and oxygen—in a way, Bat­tery Park City does that too. Imag­ine every­one in Bat­tery Park City has to dri­ve a car. Imag­ine every­one in Bat­tery Park City lives on the seashore with an indi­vid­u­al house and has to rebuild each one of them. You may want to ver­ti­cal­ly stack them up and pre­serve the ocean, pre­serve the oys­ters, and pre­serve the marsh­es so you don’t have to keep on destroy­ing your buffer zone. 

This coun­try is blessed with vast ter­ri­to­ry and we are spoiled. The Euro­pean and Asian coun­tries don’t have this kind of lux­u­ry. They deal with much small­er foot­prints. They deal with much high­er den­si­ty. Even Detroit now is find­ing out they can­not sup­port the logis­ti­cal line. If your house catch­es on fire [in Detroit], they don’t have a fire truck to go out three miles to put out your fire. You bet­ter move into the city ring. 

That is why I talked about urban­iza­tion, besides the water cri­sis and cli­mate change, it is one of the loom­ing issues that we have to deal with: can we get along? 

You’ve worked as an archi­tect and a devel­op­er, and now run a busi­ness dis­trict and serve on boards of New York insti­tu­tions. How did you come to be involved in civic lead­er­ship?

When I went to school, the school was called the School of Envi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies and Archi­tec­ture. We were raised to be aware that build­ings should not be designed with four iden­ti­cal facades because North ver­sus South should have dif­fer­ent fen­es­tra­tion pat­terns. You can have pas­sive solar, you can have ther­mal walls, you can have all kinds of tech­niques just address­ing the local issues. That was before the oil prices, that was before all of the­se things. It was a very pro­gres­sive school with teach­ers teach­ing at both Columbia Uni­ver­si­ty and City Col­lege.

So it’s not so much that I’m a devel­op­er as I have been in the trench­es all the­se years. I tried to advo­cate for pub­lic pol­i­cy and real­ized that pub­lic pol­i­cy mat­ters to the great­est extent because to design indi­vid­u­al build­ings, at the end of the day, it is only one address. Where­as a greater under­stand­ing, a white paper that can influ­ence pub­lic pol­i­cy, has much greater impact than any­thing else you can ask for. Also I came to real­ize the real con­se­quences of what not to do. 

Archi­tec­ture is extreme­ly good train­ing, it shows you how to ana­lyze the prob­lem and assem­ble an arse­nal of tools and pos­si­ble solu­tions in respon­se. You then can come up with 15 dif­fer­ent options. We ben­e­fit­ed from people’s past mod­els that did not deliv­er their full poten­tial and there­fore, we can adjust to a new way of design­ing and prepar­ing for things.

There are ben­e­fits to urban­iza­tion, but at the same time, peo­ple often crit­i­cize the MTA and oth­er aspects of city life. Is there a way to change that nar­ra­tive?

Here are a cou­ple of facts you can con­sid­er. I get on the sub­way every morn­ing. I trans­fer in the packed cars. I bring my read­ing mate­ri­als or my lap­top to work on the sub­way. That pro­duc­tiv­i­ty gained is not some­thing I can get from dri­ving in my car. Also, my foot­print is a lot small­er. I’m sit­ting in a mas­sive car with thou­sands and thou­sands of peo­ple. Where­as if I dri­ve with fos­sil fuel, that’s three or four thou­sand pounds of mate­ri­al only trans­port­ing one or two indi­vid­u­als even if I get some­body to car­pool with me, which often does not hap­pen. From a car­bon foot­print point-of-view, you have a choice.

The incen­tives are in the wrong place then.

Right, that’s why I say that peo­ple are not even aware of their choic­es. They think that, “Hey, I have the birthright to dri­ve in a four-by-four that gets 10 miles to the gal­lon, or if it’s a Humvee it’s eight miles to the gal­lon.” That’s dinosaur fuel and you’re only pay­ing $2.50 for it? If I go to the Muse­um of Nat­u­ral His­to­ry and say this belongs to the dinosaur and I’m sell­ing it for $2.50 a gallon…you can also see our pric­ing struc­ture is also wrong.

By the way, that’s a one-time deal. After you use it, it doesn’t regen­er­ate by itself unless you want to grow anoth­er breed of dinosaurs and have them turn into fos­sil fuel. Or you want to cause earth­quakes? Sure, do frack­ing. Go and cause all kinds of earth­quakes that nev­er hap­pened before. You’re real­ly shak­ing things up. Have your car and have some rum­bling on the ground. For those who want to dri­ve, go into the rum­bling ground. We’ll do frack­ing in your back­yard. That’s why cities [around the world] sub­si­dize a tran­sit sys­tem.

There are con­se­quences to our choic­es; don’t for­get that auto­mo­biles didn’t exist too long ago. Just the plas­tic bag came into wide use in the late 1980s. When I was grow­ing up there were no plas­tic bags and now peo­ple say they can­not live with­out them.

Top pho­to: Mau­reen Dren­nan