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Should New York Be Developing its Waterfront in the Age of Climate Change?

Ilana Novick

The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy raises tough questions about the strength of New York City’s infrastructure, and the stability of its waterfront. Governor Cuomo’s commission on storm prevention recently issued recommendations for future damage control, which include sea barriers along the coast, floodwalls in subways, and water pumps in airports. Other experts, however, including those present at Cooper Union last Thursday night, would prefer instead that planners and builders rethink our desire to build on the water, and do so in a way that accounts for climate change. 

In contrast to Cuomo's call for barriers, the five experts at the Future of Zone A, a panel on the future of waterfront development held at Cooper Union, which included planners, designers, a scientist, and community activists instead emphasized that the city should anticipate rising sea levels, and build around that reality, with more absorbent and permeable materials, incentives for housing on higher ground, the reintroduction and preservation of wetlands, green roofs and community gardens, as well improved communication, information-sharing before and after an emergency occurs. 

While the communication point may seem futile in the face of calls for floodgates, buildings with dedicated staff, strong connections among neighbors, and constant communication generally fared better. The lack of communication and coordination among management companies, government agencies, and power companies, leads to situations like that of the residents of Knickerbocker Village, who remained without power and heat weeks after the rest of the Lower East Side neighborhood got it back, and with almost no communication from management -- aside from insult-to-injury reminders to pay their rent. 

The thorniest question that the panel discussed, however, was what to do with flood water once it has arrived. Among the ideas for new design suggestions were wetlands and even oyster beds as a kind of natural sea wall. Claire Weisz of WXY architecture + urban design, and Susannah Drake of DLANDSTUDIO, as well as Yale ecologist and designer Alexander Felson, all spoke about the importance of incorporating wetlands back into the city’s infrastructure. Public spaces, too, could be considered a part of the city’s infrastructure, and recreational spaces like bike paths and parks along the waterfront should be designed with flood protection in mind.

Weisz cited Transmitter Park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn as an example of a public place that also doubles as flood resistant infrastructure -- it’s elevated, made with permeable materials, and serves as a natural barrier for the rest of the neighborhood. Drake also emphasized the needs for frequent reinforcement of existing sea walls and bulkheads, before we consider floodgates.

While the panel largely agreed on the above mentioned design features, there was some division over how well the Bloomberg administration responded to the storm, and how it has addressed storm control in general. The designers on the panel often praised the Bloomberg Administration for its innovation, especially in terms of environmental sustainability, the community activists were less enthusiastic, especially when it came to determining how to stormproof housing, and more so for public and other low-income housing.

Kerri Culhane, the Associate Director of Two Bridges Council, whose housing was built directly in Sandy’s path along the East River, stressed that the “towers in the park” model of public housing, is, as built, ineffective in the floods of floods. With better landscape planning and design, however, this model could be much more effective at storm water mitigation. As is, lawns and asphalt, which typically surround the buildings, are some of the least permeable materials available. The park areas of many public housing developments were also often built over existing wetlands. In addition, buildings that depend on elevators and underground boilers, whether public housing or luxury condos, will be equally out of the luck the next time a storm comes.   

Tom Angotti, Professor of Urban Affairs at Hunter College, was adamant that the Bloomberg Administration was partly to blame for communication breakdowns and the lack of information, especially for the lowest-income families living in NYCHA housing. Angotti noted that there have been countless community plans and meetings and calls for participation over the years, including for waterfront redevelopment, but those plans tend to sit on agency shelves while the administration does what it's always planned to do, which according to Angotti means more investment in new luxury housing, and less money for preserving existing low-income housing. 

Only at the very of the question and answer session did the subject of flood wall and sea gates arise. The consensus among the panelists was that while these structures can work in conjunction with new building, it is not enough to simply attempt to protect what we already have; we have to radically rethink how we build our apartment buildings and our infrastructure in the first place.