City’s Climate Scientists Broaden Research to Include both Neighborhood & Regional Risks

It’s an obvious point, but one worth stressing- climate change will not impact all 8 million-plus New York City residents in the same way. Depending on where exactly you live, your socio-economic status, age and general health, and so many other factors, the impacts of climate change could affect you somewhat differently than even your immediate neighbors.

And New York City doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Our local economy, transportation networks, and coastline and waterways intersect with those across the region. This is also important to consider when preparing for a global phenomenon like climate change.

Think of the flooded New Jersey oil refineries around New York Harbor that caused gas shortages in the days after Sandy.

In light of these enormous complexities, the de Blasio administration says it will be examining the risks posed by climate change using a broader set of measures, including social equity and the vulnerabilities of the entire New York City metro area.

Volunteers help unload food from a truck for distribution to the residents of the Lower East Side who remain without power due to Superstorm Sandy, Friday, Nov. 2, 2012, in New York.  In Manhattan, where 226,000 buildings, homes and business remain without power, Consolidated Edison says they should have service restored by Saturday.  (AP Photo/ John Minchillo)
Volunteers unloading food from a truck for distribution to Lower East Side residents without power due to Superstorm Sandy. (AP Photo/ John Minchillo)

Mayor de Blasio announced the new metrics yesterday at the launch of the third New York City Panel on Climate Change [NPCC], an independent body that advises the City on climate risks and resiliency.

Created during the Bloomberg administration, the Panel’s goal is to ensure that the best available climate science continues to inform the City’s resiliency planning. The NPCC works in partnership with entities such as the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency and the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.

There are currently 19 scientists on the Panel. The NPCC is led by William Solecki, Director of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, and Cynthia Rosenzweig, Senior Research Scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The third NPCC will build on previous research, the Mayor’s office said, but will also look at “climate risks through the lens of inequality at a neighborhood scale, as well as focus on ways to enhance coordination of mitigation and resiliency across the entire New York metropolitan region.”

Climate change- at the human scale

New York City’s need to plan for the impacts of climate change at the human scale was raised as an issue before Superstorm Sandy. In its first years, the NPCC’s research helped the Bloomberg administration to ascertain how climate change would impact the critical infrastructure that serves millions of New Yorkers, such as the electrical grid, the subway system, and power and sewage treatment plants.

In the summer of 2012 -weeks before Sandy struck- the New York City Council voted in favor of a bill that enlarged the scope of the NPCC to focus on populations that are especially vulnerable to extreme weather events — such as the elderly, children and the poor. The legislation also made the panel, and a related task force comprised of government agencies, utilities and other private companies, permanent.

emergency shelter
Woman receiving assistance at a New York City emergency shelter during Superstorm Sandy. Photo credit: People’s Daily Online.

“The panel’s work to date has shaped so much of our sustainability and resiliency efforts,” said Mayor de Blasio in a statement yesterday.

The Mayor referenced the City’s push to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, and the April, 2015 release of One New York: The Plan for a Strong and Just City, which seeks to integrate four massive goals- economic growth, climate resiliency, environmental sustainability, and social equity.

“Now, NPCC3 will build on that strong foundation, ensuring that – as we adapt to climate risks – we are doing so in a way that serves all New Yorkers and reflects the regional collaboration we need,” the Mayor added.

[For a deeper look at how the City is preparing for climate change, take a look at our analysis published in April, together with the Gotham Gazette and AdaptNY.]

A warning to all New Yorkers

The NPCC’s most recent report – Building the Knowledge Base for Climate Resiliency – was released in February 2015.

Crowds wait for free gas November 3, 2012 at the Brooklyn Armory in New York City. With the death toll currently over 90 and millions of homes and businesses without power, the US east coast is attempting to recover from the effects of floods, fires and power outages brought on by Superstorm Sandy.
Waiting for free gas at the Brooklyn Armory days after Superstorm Sandy. Photo credit: Koan Collective

The authors lead off the report with the following statement:

“The climate of the New York metropolitan region is changing—annual temperatures are hotter, heavy downpours are increasingly frequent, and the sea is rising.

These trends, which are also occurring in many parts of the world, are projected to continue and even worsen in the coming decades due to higher concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere caused by burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests for agriculture.

These changing climate hazards increase the risks for the people, economy, and infrastructure of New York City. As was demonstrated by Hurricane Sandy, populations living in coastal and low-lying areas, the elderly and very young, and lower-income neighborhoods are highly vulnerable.”

According to the report, area sea levels could increase 11-21 inches by the 2050s, and 18-39 inches by the 2080s. By 2100, they could rise by as much as six feet.

The report suggests that the 12 inches of local sea level rise that have already occurred since 1900 may have expanded Superstorm Sandy’s flood area by approximately 25 square miles.

What are the City’s scientists recommending?

The authors of the 2015 report present a series of recommendations for climate resiliency. You can read through them in the report’s executive summary.

The NPCC states that New York City should both prepare for the inevitable impacts of climate change (adaptation); but it can also take steps to reduce the severity of what is coming (mitigation). Here are just two of the NPCC’s recommendations.

1.) New York City needs “an integrated approach that includes engineering, ecosystems, and social strategies.”

In more straightforward terms, this means that the city will need hard infrastructure (like sea walls) and natural solutions (like healthy wetlands) to protect neighborhoods from dangerous storm surges.

But we will also need strong social networks (possibly supported by well organized and funded neighborhood groups) in order to adequately protect vulnerable residents during extreme weather events.

Such an approach “is vital to ensuring climate resiliency in the coming decades. Land use planning for sustainable infrastructure systems, particularly in coastal zones and low-lying areas, is especially important,” the NPCC adds.

2.) At the same time, New York City should develop and support programs and policies (such as the de Blasio administration’s One City: Built to Last plan) that “work to reduce GHG emissions in order to limit the rate of future climate change and the magnitude of the associated risks.”

New climate risk assessment coming in 2016

A new NPCC report will be released in 2016. The report will tackle additional subject areas, such as:

  • Regional climate projections focusing on extreme events
  • Critical infrastructure systems at the regional level: with a focus on interdependent transportation and energy systems
  • Community-based assessment of adaptation and equity: with a focus on the neighborhood scale
  • How to establish a “New York City climate resiliency indicators and monitoring system”
  • How to develop maps that more effectively show NYC area vulnerabilities and climate resiliency, as well as geographic interdependencies

Who are the scientists carrying out climate research on behalf of New York City?

The co-chairs of the NYC Panel on Climate Change: William Solecki, Director of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, and Cynthia Rosenzweig, Senior Research Scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Photo credit: Roosevelt House, Hunter College

Thirteen members of the NPCC have been re-appointed by the Mayor. 

  • CYNTHIA ROSENZWEIG: Co-Chair, Senior Research Scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
  • WILLIAM SOLECKI: Co-Chair, Director of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities and Professor of Geography at Hunter College-CUNY
  • REGINALD BLAKE: Member, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Cooperative Remote Sensing Science and Technology Center
  • VIVIEN GORNITZ: Senior Research Scientist, Center for Climate Systems Research, Columbia University and NASA Goddard Institute for Space studies
  • KLAUS JACOB: Special Research Scientist, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; Adjunct Professor, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
  • PATRICK KINNEY: Director, Program on Climate and Health, Mailman School at Columbia University
  • HOWARD KUNREUTHER: James G. Dinan Professor; Professor of Decision Sciences and Business and Public Policy at the Wharton School
  • YOCHANAN KUSHNIR: Director of the Cooperative Institute for Climate Applications and Research (CICAR)
  • ROBIN LEICHENKO: Associate Professor, Department of Geography at Rutgers University
  • NING LIN: NOAA Climate and Global Change post-doctoral fellow
  • GUY NORDENSON: Structural Engineer and Professor of Architecture and Structural Engineering, Princeton University
  • MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and the Department of Geosciences at Princeton University
  • GARY YOHE: Woodhouse/Sysco Professor of Economics at Wesleyan University.

The NPCC also has six new members.

  • ALAN F. BLUMBERG: George Meade Bond Professor & Director of the Center for Maritime Systems, Stevens Institute of Technology; Founder of the New York Harbor Observing and Prediction System (NYHOPS)
  • BRIAN A. COLLE: Full Professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and Faculty Director of the University Scholars Program at Stony Brook
  • SHEILA FOSTER: Vice Dean, Albert A. Walsh Professor of Real Estate, Land Use & Property Law; Co-Director, Stein Center for Law and Ethics, Fordham University
  • DR. JORGE GONZALEZ CRUZ: Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Director, ESES & the Alliance for Continuous Learning Environments for STEM at CUNY
  • DR. IRWIN REDLENER: Professor of Health Policy and Management (The Earth Institute), Columbia University; Special Advisor, NYC OEM
  • RAE ZIMMERMAN: Professor of Planning and Public Administration, NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service

NYS Aims to Cut GHG Emissions by Almost 30% in the Next 15 Years. Possible?

As climate change marches on, it’s hard to understand how we as a country will be able to turn this situation around. Our attachment to fossil fuels seems so intractable, and Congress still debates whether climate change is even real. But that’s only part of the story.

Albany [the NYS Energy Research & Development Authority] has just released its 2015 New York State Energy Plan. We are reading it closely now and will have more to say shortly. Take a second to absorb the fact that almost 100,000 New Yorkers commented on a draft of the plan. That’s a lot of people!

If you have the time, check out the plan’s overview. Here are the key goals articulated by the plan for the next 15 years:

1.) 40 percent reduction in New York’s greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels.

To date, NYS has cut GHG emissions 12 percent from 1990 levels- we have 28 percent to go. The State’s long-term goal is to decrease total carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.

How will that happen? By reducing GHG emissions from the energy sector- which is responsible for overall power generation, including power for industry, buildings, transportation, and our general lifestyle.

2.) Half of electricity generation to come from renewable energy sources.

“Renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, hydropower, and biomass, will play a vital role in reducing electricity price volatility and curbing carbon emissions,” says the State.

3.) 23 percent decrease in energy consumption in buildings from 2012 levels.

Energy efficiency results in lower energy bills and is the single most cost-effective tool in achieving energy objectives, the State argues.

Renewable Energy- wind, solar and more

As part of the Plan, the State has eight renewable energy categories on which it will focus. We are using the Plan’s language in our summaries below.

  1. Large-Scale Renewables (e.g., wind farms and large solar arrays)- Centralized generation and transmission will continue to serve as the backbone of NY’s power grid. The State is making a 10-year budget commitment of $1.5 billion to stimulate greater investment in large scale renewables and put them on a path to grid-parity. The State has been investing in large-scale renewables since the 1950s, when the NY Power Authority developed its first hydroelectric stations. Since 2004, energy developers have built nearly 1,900 MW of clean power using state incentives.
  2. NY-Sun Initiative- launched in 2014, the $1 billion program provides long term support to the statewide solar industry using a declining incentive schedule. The goal is to create a self-sustaining solar market in New York, with an expected 3,000 megawatts of solar capacity added to the state’s electricity mix by 2023.
  3. K-Solar- helps K-12 schools go solar cost-effectively by aggregating hundreds of schools into regional procurement processes. Through May 2015, nearly 270 public school districts -over 35 percent of all districts in the state- have signed up for the program.
  4. “Shared” Renewables- only a quarter of residential rooftop area in the U.S. is suitable for hosting solar PV. Through “community net metering” New Yorkers will be able to participate in local renewable energy projects of all types and receive credit on their utility bills for their portion of the power produced.
  5. Offshore Wind Initiative-  creates an ecosystem for offshore wind that enables projects to develop at scale, rather than on a project-by-project basis. Includes forming a regional wind collaborative w-other northeastern states, and establishing “wind energy areas” throughout the Atlantic Bight coastal area.
  6. Renewable Heat NY & Other Renewable Thermal Technologies- supports greater use of “advanced” (less environmentally harmful) wood heating equipment, plus other renewable heating/cooling technologies and fuels (e.g., solar space and water heating, ground and air source heat pumps).
  7. Clean Organic Waste Management– helps the state’s wastewater treatment, agriculture, food processing, and waste management sectors to re-use organic waste. This includes anaerobic digestion, which turns waste into biogas.
  8. Sustainable Fuel Production–  re-uses agricultural and organic waste feedstock, especially as a substitute for petroleum fuels imported from out-of-state.

Here’s what some environmental groups have to say about the State’s energy plan

Conor Bambrick, air and energy director for Environmental Advocates of New York:

“The State Energy Plan sets clear benchmarks and standards that will operationalize Governor Cuomo’s prior commitment to reducing climate pollution 80 percent by 2050…The Governor and his team deserve credit for such an aggressive plan.

There will be no way to achieve these goals, however, if the state continues to make bad decisions that stall progress and exacerbate our climate problems, such as re-firing outdated fossil fuel plants and raiding carbon abatement programs like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

[Public] comments focused largely on issues like climate change, wind and solar power, and the need for the state to reduce climate pollution across all economic sectors. It’s an enormous level of engagement…We applaud people for taking time out of their lives to make their voices heard!

We will also work with the [NYS] Legislature to codify them [the State’s greenhouse gas reduction objectives]. The Assembly passed legislation to do this (A.6072), but Senate leadership has failed to bring the bill up for a vote. It is time for these goals to be set into law.”

And Jackson Morris, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted in a blog post yesterday:

“This is great for the climate, no doubt about it. But it’s also what New York needs to further build its economy. Plans like these, when designed well and thoughtfully implemented, create jobs and save consumers serious money on energy.

New York’s experience in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is a case in point. The program, which includes nine Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, has helped cut greenhouse gas pollution from power plants by more than 40 percent since it was first implemented in 2005.

At the same time, the region’s economy has grown faster than the rest of the country’s, adding thousands of new jobs in fields like energy efficiency and renewable energy, and saving customers hundreds of millions on their energy bills already, with billions more to come.”

2015 Hurricane Season Off to a Wet Start in NYC

Last night, torrential rains ripped across New York City, causing serious flooding and power outages, and briefly turning the FDR into a sad excuse for a river. The weather pattern is expected to continue throughout today, in a rather ominous start to the 2015 Hurricane Season.

In what can only be seen only as a totally apropos coincidence, the next “named storm” to form in the Atlantic will be known as Bill.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week that the 2015 Atlantic hurricane season is predicted to be “below-normal,” with “a 70 percent likelihood of 6 to 11 named storms, of which 3 to 6 could become hurricanes, including zero to 2 major hurricanes.”

(Credit: NOAA)

That’s good news, but no excuse to put off the hurricane prep. “A below-normal season doesn’t mean we’re off the hook,”said NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan, Ph.D. “As we’ve seen before, below-normal seasons can still produce catastrophic impacts to communities,”

Indeed, in 2012, predictions also called for a relatively quiet season—which it was, until Superstorm Sandy made landfall in October.

Know Your Zone—No Seriously, It Takes Five Seconds

Earlier this year, an independent study found that only 16% of New Yorkers know their level of risk for a hurricane and whether they live in an evacuation zone. Fewer than one in five New Yorkers has a plan for where to go if they are ordered to evacuate ahead of a hurricane.

NYC Emergency Management launched a “Know Your Zone” hurricane awareness campaign last year, making it super simple for New Yorkers to find out whether they live in one of the city’s six evacuation zones. All you have to do is visit, and click “Find Your Zone.”

Evacuation map from NYC”s Know Your Zone.

This year, the Know Your Zone campaign is supported with a new hurricane preparedness video, updated advertising for the 2015 hurricane season, social media engagement (#knowyourzone), and community outreach. The Know Your Zone website — — is also updated with information about the city’s hurricane evacuation zones, hurricane hazards, and tips to prepare for storms.

A New Way to Visualize Surge

NOAA is debuting a new storm surge watch/warning graphic in 2015, intended to highlight areas along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts that could face significant risk of inundation by storm surge.

NOAA’s National Hurricane Center will use a prototype storm surge graphic this season to highlight areas at risk for inundation from storm surge. (Credit: NOAA)

Storm surge and wind are the two greatest threats to life and property from a hurricane. However, they occur at different times and locations—and call for different protective action. In general, coastal residents most coastal residents can remain in their homes and be safe from  winds, but evacuations are often needed to keep people safe from storm surge.

NOAA anticipates that having separate warnings for these two hazards should provide emergency managers, the media, and the general public better guidance hurricane hazards.

City Identifies Neighborhoods Most Threatened by Rising Temps

Every year, extreme summer heat kills 100-plus New York City residents on average. They die from heat stroke and the heat-related worsening of chronic health problems. Hundreds more need hospital care for serious heat related illness, says the City.

Residents in upper Manhattan, large parts of the Bronx, and central-east Brooklyn are particularly at risk from extreme heat, the City has found. It is targeting vulnerable areas with heat mitigation strategies, like planting more trees, and adaptation measures, such as subsidizing the cost of air conditioning for low-income seniors and other residents with health issues.

Planning for extreme heat at the neighborhood level makes sense to researchers. The journal Environmental Health Perspectives mentions a summer 2006 heat wave in New York City which caused an 8 percent increase in nonaccidental deaths, including 40 heat-stroke deaths. The same article highlights a study finding that the risk of death from heat waves partially depends on local community characteristics, not just extreme temperatures.

“It is important for officials to develop local response plans on the basis of heat-wave mortality trends in their own communities; when it comes to planning for health effects of heat waves, one size does not fit all,” the journal notes.

Our Warming City

Heat -not rising sea levels- may be the greatest natural threat posed by climate change to New York City residents. Since 1900, temperatures measured in Central Park have risen 3.4°F, mirroring an increase that’s been seen throughout the entire Northeast.

heat wave bus stop
Waiting for a bus in New York City during a 2010 heat wave. Photo credit: the Daily Mail.

According to a report released by the New York City Panel on Climate Change this February, we can expect to see more days above 90°F, more days above 100°F, and more heat waves (three or more consecutive days above 90°F), too.

The NPCC report says that by 2080, the number of heat waves could triple—up to six per year. Average annual temperatures could increase 4.1 to 5.7°F by the 2050’s, and as much as 8.8°F by 2080.

Focusing on NYC’s Most Vulnerable Neighborhoods

The deBlasio administration has identified city neighborhoods most vulnerable to the impacts of extreme heat. This includes Central Harlem in Manhattan, large sections of South and Central Bronx, and areas of Brooklyn directly east of Prospect Park.

“The risk of death from extreme heat is highest among those without air conditioning, in neighborhoods with higher poverty rates, and where there is less land covered by trees and other vegetation,” states the administration’s just-released OneNYC sustainability and resiliency plan.

“Heat Vulnerability” by community district in New York City. Credit:

Cooling Neighborhoods & Homes Down

By greening neighborhoods and increasing access to air conditioning, the City aims to “reduce heat related illnesses and deaths, and reduce disparities in vulnerability to climate change.”

The City says it will evaluate the “best available science” on the urban heat island effect, invest in better data collection, and “develop effective capital investment and operational strategies to adapt our city to the increasing impacts of urban heat.”

More specific actions planned by the City include:

  1. Create an Urban Heat Island Working Group, which is already meeting, to identify heat mitigation and adaptation strategies benefiting New York’s most heat-vulnerable communities.
  2. Create a citywide air temperature monitoring system to collect community-level temperature data to guide heat mitigation and emergency response activities.
  3.  Update New York City’s 2010 LiDAR dataset through aerial data collection and other means. Updated data will help the City measure the extent of the tree canopy across the five boroughs, evaluate heat mitigation activities more accurately, quantify existing investments, and inform future strategies about how to plan the built environment.
  4. Call on the State to expand allocation of Federal Home Energy Assistance Program funds to assist low-income, heat-vulnerable populations (such as seniors and others with pre-existing health conditions) with air conditioning purchase and installation, and utility costs.
  5. Establish maximum allowable temperatures in residential facilities and supportive housing for vulnerable people by amending the city’s health code.

Embracing Our Waterfront, Despite Its Uncertain Future

The following interview was published today on AdaptNY.


One of the organizations frequently at the forefront of New York’s resiliency thinking is the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, a non-profit partnership of some 800 NGOs focused on metro-area waterways. Whether with a recently developed set of waterfront resilient building guidelines, or an about-to-be-released analysis of the long-term costs of resiliency, the alliance has delved deep into the complexities of protecting the city’s coastline from the risks of climate change.

The alliance holds its annual Waterfront Conference tomorrow, May 7. AdaptNY took the opportunity to interview Roland Lewis, the organization’s president and CEO.

AdaptNY: We recently reported on the many open questions around New York’s planning for climate adaptation. How well do you think the de Blasio administration has done on resiliency, and with its recently released OneNYC sustainability plan? How does OneNYC compare to the resiliency plans outlined under the previous Bloomberg administration?

Roland Lewis: The mayor’s key policy platform of addressing equity within the overall plan was a welcome addition, and he should be lauded for combining worthy goals to promote both a just and sustainable city. Adding community benefits such as local hiring and workforce development programs, in addition to addressing trash equity issues, have long needed more attention.

We do think everyone is looking for more of the details that support the colorful and inspiring vision that they have used to re-launch PlaNYC to OneNYC. The release of the budget [expected May 7] and numbers that support these visions will be telling, and show exactly which projects advance the goals of OneNYC.

The resiliency plans seem to be a continuation of the Bloomberg administration and the recommendations from the SIRR [Special initiative on Rebuilding and Resiliency] report, which is a great ten-year plan but not completely funded at the end of the day.

We are calling for a more sustained, planning strategy that looks further into the future. We’ve estimated the cost of inaction. Now it is essential that we do the opposite: develop a comprehensive capital strategy to dramatically reduce the region’s flood risk through 2100, including determining and prioritizing the necessary infrastructure investments, ensuring appropriate accountability to execute the strategy, and securing the necessary funds.

Flooding in Harlem during Hurricane Irene. Photo credit: David Bledsoe via Creative Commons.

AdaptNY: As you point out, one of the big unknowns for New York’s resiliency planning is what it will ultimately cost. You’ve been working on an initiative that probes into that issue. What have you found so far? What do you hope to reveal? Is the city cooperating with information?

Lewis: Our report, “Climate Change Accounting: What Is the Cost,” [to be released May 7] is really trying to draw attention to the need to conduct long-term planning for resiliency and protection of the New York region. And although we have begun to seriously think about protection measures, the work to-date and planned is just scratching the surface, or a “down payment.” Other countries, such as the Dutch have multi-generational plans in place to address climate change that we should look to and model for our own needs.

As for cooperation, we did receive input from various public entities, including the city, in its creation. A problem of this magnitude needs “all hands on deck”, and our hope is this report will help city, state, and federal agencies in obtaining the funding and implementation resources they truly need.

To accomplish this and safeguard our future, the alliance and its partners in the New York–New Jersey Harbor Coalition call for creation of a presidential commission. The commission should include elected representatives from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut; necessary federal, state, and local government agencies; and climate change and infrastructure experts from academia and the private sector.

AdaptNY: The alliance earlier this year proposed Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines (WEDG), a kind of LEED program for waterfront building standards.What are the aims of the program? How are you hoping to test it out? And what’s been the response to these new standards, especially from a city built around rapid development?

Lewis: The goal of the WEDG program is to be a catalyst for sustainable transformation of our waterfront by providing best practices and a ratings system to promote access, resiliency, and ecology. It is a tool for communities, elected officials, government agencies, practitioners, and real estate developers/property owners, anyone that is working on or cares about the waterfront.

Over the next year, we will be identifying a range of projects, including different types (residential/commercial, parks, and industrial/maritime), areas (all five NYC boroughs and New Jersey), and both private and public, to use as case studies and gather feedback on the current version.

Since releasing Version 1.0, the response has been great and the program only seems to be gaining more buzz. It’s the first of its kind in the nation, and from a national planning conference in Seattle to community boards in the Bronx, there seems to be a need and market niche for WEDG.

We’re actually hearing that applicants are mentioning WEDG during the permitting process and in discussion with regulatory agencies and other stakeholders, which is very encouraging to hear. Community boards are beginning to pass resolutions that waterfront projects in their districts use WEDG, which is also a good sign.

AdaptNY: For a city with more than 500 miles of coastline, there are a huge range of fairly immediate waterfront issues, ranging from transportation and security to zoning and jobs. Yet the alliance has taken up an intense focus on adapting to long-term climate change. Tell us more about the organization’s thinking on the importance of resilience?

Transportation infrastructure in New York City is especially vulnerable to sea level rise. Photo credit: MTA via Creative Commons.

Lewis: MWA works to protect, transform, and restore our harbor and waterways, and resilience against future storms and sea level rise, although critical to the long-term viability of our coastal city, is just one piece of the puzzle.

You’re right that transportation challenges are front and center for many New Yorkers these days. The plenary panel discussion at this year’s waterfront conference, now in its seventh year, will build from Mayor de Blasio’s proposal for a citywide ferry network and new bus routes that connect transit-poor communities to jobs and economic opportunity. We have spent years advocating for expanding ferry service to the southeast Bronx, Astoria, Red Hook, the Rockaway peninsula, and other waterfront districts, and look forward to working with the city and reaching across our alliance of grassroots organizations to help realize the mayor’s vision.

So we’re looking to the waterways to help people connect to jobs, but we are also looking to connect people with the waterways more broadly, for recreation and education. Harbor Camp, a partnership with United Neighborhood Houses to provide water-based summer camp experiences to children in the New York metropolitan area, provides on-water and land-based waterfront education programs, nurturing environmental stewardship in the next generation of New Yorkers.

kids kayaking
Learning to kayak. Photo credit: Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance

Our Open Waters Initiative provides on-water education and recreation for the general public, last year reaching over 3,000 participants in programs at NYC Parks’ Bay Ridge Community Eco Dock at the 69th St Pier. We have also helped unlock Gantry Plaza State Park Pier 4 in Long Island City, Queens for human-powered boating programs with New York State Parks.

And finally, our annual harbor-wide City of Water Day festival engages youth and families – reaching nearly 30,000 New Yorkers with the message that the waterfront is not only a threat, but it is a resource for fun, and for education.

From its genesis, our policy platform, created by convening and organizing a vast constituency, addressed sea level rise and climate change and that thread continues through our WEDG program and the new “Climate Change Accounting” report, as well as through our events such as this upcoming waterfront conference.

Because we have such a broad mission, our program and policy platforms do have a wide range and will continue to evolve and reflect the issues of our time, but climate change will always be part of those efforts. As we think about our waterfront as a utility that provides different types of benefits, the issue of “protection” has, of course, been front and center post-Sandy as we think about resiliency.


AdaptNY, a project of the CUNY School of Journalism, and NYER frequently collaborate on stories about climate resiliency planning in New York City. Our latest joint examination of the city’s planning efforts, with the Gotham Gazette, was published last month.

Searching for Answers about “Critical” Resiliency Upgrades to NYCHA Buildings

While Hurricane Sandy is just a memory for many New Yorkers, thousands of the city’s public housing residents are still living with temporary boilers, closed playgrounds, mold, and other damage to their buildings, apartments and outdoor spaces caused by the historic storm.

Real help is supposed to be on the way from the federal government, but now there are concerns about more delays and even the assuredness of the repair dollars themselves.

On March 31st, the City announced the allocation of approximately $3 billion in federal funding -the largest FEMA grant in the history of the agency- to repair and protect at least 33 New York City public housing developments that sustained severe damage during Sandy.

The FEMA funds are supposed to go to 14 developments in Manhattan, 12 in Brooklyn, and 7 in Queens. Half of the funds are designated for repairs, while the other half will be aimed at implementing resiliency measures to better protect developments from future storms. This includes new construction of elevated boilers, installation of flood barrier systems, and acquisition of stand-by generators.

But a New York City Council oversight hearing yesterday found that “there is no clear timeline to begin construction and upgrades, and FEMA funding agreements remain unsigned.”

“It is evident…that NYCHA has no timeline or scope of work for upgrading its Sandy-impacted developments,” said Council Member Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, chair of the public housing committee, in a statement after yesterday’s hearing. “NYCHA has only received $3.5 million from FEMA and it is not clear when it will receive the rest of the $3 billion grant it was promised.”

“There are still too many unanswered questions. I worry that months and years will go by and tenants will not see improvements,” Torres said.

Pushing for “Transparency and Accountability”

Torres said he would “continue to push NYCHA to articulate how it will ensure transparency and accountability to residents across the city.”

Richie Torres
New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres of the Bronx.

Yesterday’s hearing was chaired by the Council’s committees on public housing and recovery & resiliency. According to a statement released by both committees, the origin of the FEMA funding for the NYCHA repairs is now also in question.

“The bulk” of the $3 billion FEMA grant will actually be coming from insurance companies, maintained Torres and recovery & resiliency committee chair Mark Treyger, “further muddying how the money will be delivered to NYCHA.”

Council members Torres and Treyger also stated that they requested copies of the FEMA-approved project worksheets and a spending plan for the funds from NYCHA “several weeks ago.” NYCHA has responded that it must complete several procedural steps before the worksheets are finalized, the Council members reported.

Major Endeavor for a Struggling Agency

Both Council members Torres and Treyger say they question whether NYCHA has the capacity and workforce necessary “to carry out these historic levels of repairs and upgrades.” The agency is consistently underfunded, and has been plagued by reports of internal dysfunction.

According to the Council, NYCHA Executive Vice President for Capital Projects, Raymond Ribeiro, testified yesterday that construction will take place at 35 developments. Some of the projects will begin this summer, and will take between a year and a half to 3 years to complete, depending on the scope of the work.

Approximately 10,000 construction jobs will be created by the upgrades, Ribeiro noted. Council members and NYCHA tenant leaders say they will be watching closely to see how many residents obtain these jobs.

According to the City, the FEMA grant is subject to NYCHA’s recently negotiated Project Labor Agreement with the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, as well as its affiliated unions – which gives NYCHA residents access to union jobs and training.

Council members and tenant leaders will also be tracking NYCHA’s development of specific timelines for work at each of the 35 developments, and the agency’s community engagement process as it carries out the upgrades.

“We want to ensure that this investment is appropriately monitored…and that public housing residents benefit from this funding,” said Reginald Bowman, President of the City-Wide Council of Presidents, which represents NYCHA residents. “The first priority must be an assessment and plan by engineers and architects that specialize in…these types of projects,” Bowman said.

Losing Time and Money

Temporary boiler installation at Red Hook Houses after Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: Leticia Barboza / NYCHA.

Time is of the essence. NYCHA is reportedly spending nearly $467,000 a month to rent the temporary boilers that are still in use at impacted developments across the city.

And the city’s public housing stock is just as physically vulnerable today as it was before Sandy struck in 2012. Several major NYCHA developments lie in the city’s greatly expanded flood zones.

“Residents have serious questions regarding when work will finally begin…and when their lives will finally return to normal after hearing about this historic $3 billion [federal] commitment…Progress must be made on behalf of those families,” said Council Member Treyger.

No “Climate Plan” but NYS Still Moving Ahead, says Cuomo Administration

Finalization of a “Climate Action Plan” for New York State, which is mandated by a state Executive Order, is not a priority for the Cuomo administration. So says Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner Joseph Martens, who spoke on Central New York WCNY’s Capitol Pressroom friday.

Rather than an overarching plan, Martens said, the focus is “action.”

New York City, by contrast, continues to release plans detailing its approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation. This Earth Day, the de Blasio administration rolled out its “OneNYC” plan, which links climate resiliency and environmental sustainability with social equity.

Commissioner Martens was asked by radio journalist Susan Arbetter about the state climate plan mandated by Executive Order No. 24, which set a goal to reduce New York’s greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, relative to 1990 levels.

Executive Order No. 24 also created the New York State Climate Action Council, which is supposed to prepare an action plan that would assess how all economic sectors can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change. The Plan would also identify the extent to which these actions support New York’s goals for a clean-energy economy.

The Climate Action Council never finalized a plan, but it did release a detailed interim report in 2010, which includes an examination of what is needed to achieve a low-carbon, clean energy economy in New York.

Concrete actions on climate change are more meaningful than “a plan on a shelf,” Commissioner Martens argued. He noted that the state’s mitigation and adaptation objectives are built into current initiatives, such as requiring state agencies to take future climate risks like storm surges, sea level rise and flooding into account when planning, and overhauling how energy is produced and consumed in New York.

Five billion for clean energy- but the devil is in the details

Martens pointed to a $5 billion “clean energy fund” proposed by Governor Cuomo, along with the state’s 10-year, $1 billion commitment to developing a self-sustaining solar market in New York.

The $5 billion fund Martens spoke of friday represents a seismic shift in how the state plans to expand the development of renewable sources of energy.

As discussed in an article by GreenTechMedia, the state plans to raise $5 billion from electric bill surcharges over the next ten years to create a Clean Energy Fund, which would “essentially take over responsibility to ‘ensure the delivery and continuity of clean energy programs’ statewide.”

The state plans to transition from renewable-energy and efficiency mandates, which are expiring this year, to a “new regulatory and economic model that brings distributed, customer-owned [not utility owned] energy assets into account.”

Examples of customer-owned energy assets include rooftop solar, on-site generation, energy storage systems, and smart home or building energy controls.

New Yorkers pay a variety of surcharges on their utility bills which are set to expire, creating an opportunity for the state to adjust its approach to energy planning. One example is the Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard. The EEPS has helped to fund state energy efficiency programs with the goal of reducing New York’s electricity usage by 15 percent, relative to forecast levels for 2015.

Some of the existing surcharges support programs that assist low-income New Yorkers with their energy costs. Consumers could also see lower costs in a restructured energy market, say proponents.

Instead of the EEPS and other state-led initiatives, New York’s ratepayers will eventually support a Fund designed to encourage private investment, through market development and “technology and business innovation”, to meet the state’s greenhouse gas reduction targets.

“Rather than mandating a certain share of renewable energy or better efficiency,” GreenTechMedia explains, “the Clean Energy Fund will create a market for making this investment worthwhile.”

Advocates push for a climate framework

Peter Iwanowicz, Executive Director of Environmental Advocates of New York, an Albany-based watchdog group, said that decisions in the absence of a comprehensive climate plan lead to bad public policy. “In the end, whatever progress made is undermined by poorly-vetted decisions that exacerbate our climate challenges,” he said in a statement.

Finalization of the State’s Energy Plan, a planning process separate from the market restructuring described above, is now more than two years late, Iwanowicz pointed out.

Iwanowicz referred to inconsistencies in clean energy policy, such as the state’s “bailout” of a coal-fired power plant in Dunkirk, located in central New York.

Under Governor Cuomo’s plan, according to Capital New York, “the 435-megawatt plant is to be converted from burning coal to natural gas, which requires a new pipeline to bring in gas fracked in Pennsylvania. Taxpayers will contribute $15 million to the project, which despite the administration’s promises that it would be cleaner will still be able to burn coal on some days.”

Environmental groups have also criticized a recent “$41 million budget raid of the state’s premier carbon abatement program.”

“Governor Cuomo has embraced an Executive Order that says New York has a goal to reduce climate pollution 80-percent by 2050 and that all New Yorkers will know the plan to achieve that goal…Whether the Governor reconsiders that order or develops another, New Yorkers deserve a climate action plan,” Iwanowicz said.




With Equity as Goal, City Releases New Sustainability and Resiliency Plan

“Environmental and economic sustainability must go hand in hand,” declared Mayor de Blasio today as he released the City’s new sustainability and climate resiliency plan: OneNYC.

OneNYC builds on PlaNYC, the multi-pronged “sustainability blueprint” created under the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. According to de Blasio, OneNYC will expand on the targets established in previous plans, while also incorporating the priorities of his own administration.

Growth, sustainability, and resiliency remain at the core of OneNYC – but equity is now an additional guiding principle throughout the plan.

The City highlighted four goals in its release of OneNYC today:

  • Lifting 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty over the next 10 years
  • Zero waste to landfills by 2030
  • The cleanest air of any large city, and a dramatic reduction in emissions
  • Elimination of long-term displacement from homes and jobs after shock events by 2050

“This is a bold and ambitious plan – and New York City requires nothing less,” de Blasio stated.

The plan is organized around four major “visions”- “Our Growing, Thriving City,” “Our Just and Equitable City,” “Our Sustainable City,” and “Our Resilient City.”

The Challenges Facing New York City

New York City faces a number of challenges, says the City, including a rapidly growing population, rising inequality, an aging infrastructure, and climate change. OneNYC lays out a series of targets and initiatives to “prepare New York City for the future generations,” including:

  • Making New York City home to 4.9 million jobs by 2040.
  • Creating 240,000 new housing units by 2025, and an additional 250,000 to 300,000 by 2040.
  • Enabling the average New Yorker to reach 25% more jobs – or 1.8 million jobs – within 45 minutes by public transit.
  • Lifting 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty or near-poverty by 2025.
  • Cutting premature mortality by 25 percent by 2040, while reducing racial/ethnic disparities.
  • Reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, over 2005 levels.
  • Sending zero waste to landfills and reducing waste disposal by 90 percent relative to 2005 levels, by 2030.
  • Ensuring New York City has the best air quality among all large U.S. cities by 2030.
  • Reducing risks of flooding in most affected communities.
  • Eliminating long-term displacement from homes and jobs after future shock events by 2050.
  • Reducing the city’s Social Vulnerability Index for neighborhoods across the City.
  • Reducing annual economic losses from climate-related events.
  • Continued investment as part of an over-$20 billion program that includes a range of physical, social, and economic resiliency measures.

Does the City’s Plan Prepare Us Sufficiently for Climate Change?

As you read the City’s plan, here are some questions to consider, especially in its discussion of climate resiliency.

How Will the City Carry Out Its Vision?

The New York League of Conservation Voters applauded the Mayor for “laying out an aspirational vision of the city we want to become, a city that is not only environmentally sustainable but also economically sustainable,” in a statement today.

But, the League added, “as PlaNYC showed us…successfully achieving our ambitious goals requires a roadmap that allows us to measure progress. The de Blasio administration should quickly follow up with an implementation plan that includes funding sources, a timetable, baseline indicators to track progress, and an agency responsible for implementation.”

Awaiting the Next Storm: Staten Island Balances Long-Term Planning, Short-Term Needs

Editor’s note: This article was published in conjunction with a citywide analysis- Assessing Resilience Planning: Is the City Preparing Smartly for the Rising Risks of Climate Change?


Just over half of the deaths caused by Superstorm Sandy, 22 to be exact, occurred on Staten Island’s East and South shores, as the storm’s waves battered homes and swept some off their foundations.

Now the island is in a race against time to prepare for the next major coastal storm. Multi-million dollar resiliency projects are coming to Staten Island, from a sea wall on its East Shore to the expansion of innovative “natural drainage corridors.”

The projects are on target, say local officials, but the pace needs to be faster.

The island’s East Shore is directly exposed to the New York Bight, a coastline formation that can channel powerful storm waves and surges into areas within New York Harbor.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is planning to construct a “mega” sea wall that will protect over half of the East Shore, from the Verrazano Bridge to Oakwood, said Staten Island Borough President James Oddo in a phone interview.

The Army Corps will be releasing a draft feasibility study on the proposed wall to the public next month.

Oddo estimated that the wall would be completed by 2020 or 2021. The city and state are also assisting with its construction, he said.

“This is a different timetable than [the initial plans] we talked about,” added the borough president. “Help has been all too slow in coming…There will be several hurricane seasons.”

What happens between now and 2020 or 2021?

Oddo said that smaller-scale protective measures were underway, such as the elevation of several hundred homes using new FEMA flood maps as a guide.

The city has also rebuilt 26,000 linear feet of dunes between South Beach and Conference House Park. But “[the dunes] were not designed to handle an historic storm,” said Oddo. “They were designed to handle beach erosion.”

What happens if you’re not behind the mega wall?

One area on the eastern shore that won’t benefit from the Army Corps mega-wall plan is the district of New York City Council Member Vincent Ignizio.

There, a package of other solutions has been developed in conjunction with the city, the state’s New York Rising program, and the federal government. They include construction of a series of “living breakwaters” and protective berms, home elevations, and, in some cases, strategic retreat.

Ignizio expects these initiatives to be effective, and the lack of a wall not necessarily a problem. “People want to be protected but not walled off,” he explained.

But what is missing, Ignizio added, is a more robust home elevation program. The city’s Sandy rebuilding program, Build It Back, will only pay for an elevation if half or more of the home was damaged, he said.

Since the goal is to elevate, the city and homeowners could share the cost in cases where less than half of the home was damaged, Ignizio argued. The city is reviewing his proposal, the council member said. The Mayor’s Office did not respond to questions about the idea.

Ignizio said that the de Blasio administration is moving at a faster pace than that of its predecessor, but he added that no matter what, “The sad reality is that these projects will be extremely helpful but will take a long time.”

Concluded Ignizio: “I’m getting tired of the studies and the reviews. …I want to see shovels in the ground and hammers in the streets.”

It’s more than coastal flooding

Staten Island’s vulnerability to flooding is tied to both a changing environment and lack of planning by the city over several decades.

Oddo said some neighborhoods along the East Shore still have no storm drains because of their haphazard conversion from summer bungalow to year-round communities.

“This community still remains vulnerable to moderate rain,” he said. “We are paying the price in 2013, 2015 for what we did in the 1950s and 1960s.”

The city has started to construct storm sewers and drains where possible. Some areas – like Midland Beach – are below sea level, a further complication.

The city has also been acquiring land for a “comprehensive Mid-Island Bluebelt,” which would drain a 5,000-acre area, encompassing the South Beach, New Creek (Midland Beach), and Oakwood Beach watersheds.

“It’s a decades-long, 30-year plan,” said Oddo. “We’re still a ways away.”

The hope is that the Mid-Island Bluebelt will mirror the success of the Staten Island Bluebelt, which makes use of natural drainage corridors — such as streams, ponds, and other wetland areas — to convey, store, and filter stormwater. Concrete pipes along the corridors move stormwater from conventional storm sewers into the Raritan Bay or the Arthur Kill.

The city describes the Staten Island Bluebelt as “one of the most ambitious stormwater management efforts in the northeastern United States.”

Ready to move inland

The ultimate objective, said Oddo, is to “help people re-start their lives.” And for many Staten Islanders on the East and South shores, this means moving back from the sea.

Oddo said that he and Council Member Ignizio brought the concept of acquisition for re-development to the Bloomberg administration in March, 2013 – about five months after Sandy. The idea was to allow residents to sell their homes to the government in order to be able to rebuild more safely somewhere else within the area.

The state and city have launched an acquisition program in three neighborhoods: Ocean Breeze, Oakwood Beach and Graham Beach. Representatives from neither the city nor the state responded to questions about the status of the program.

“Bloomberg should have embraced acquisition for redevelopment,” argued Oddo. “If you can acquire a block, then you can raze structures, and raise property — that never happened. Two years, four months later — what are the holdups?”

Failure to embrace the concept of acquisition for redevelopment is self-defeating, maintained Ignizio, since using the approach would limit exposure of homes to storm surge and lessen the need for resiliency projects.

“It’s hard not to be frustrated and angry,” said Oddo. “No mayor of New York City has stood up and told the people of Staten Island, ‘We fully believe in acquisition for redevelopment and are committed to it.'”

The city could show the type of truly resilient housing that may be constructed, said Oddo. And concerns about government [effectiveness] could be overcome. “People can buy into their neighborhood again.”

Added Oddo: “I believe in this program. It truly would have worked on a wide scale if we had gotten support from the Bloomberg administration. [It would be] a really powerful message if Bill de Blasio stands up [and] says ‘we’re ready to go.’ You’ll see lots of Staten Islanders come forward.”

Assessing Resilience Planning: Is the City Preparing Smartly for the Rising Risks of Climate Change?

At one of many such meetings now taking place throughout the city’s waterfront, residents of Red Hook, Brooklyn, gathered recently at a local community center to hear about the dramatic expansion of federal flood zones in their area and what the new designation would cost them.

As in other coastal neighborhoods, Red Hook struggles with a variety of flooding-related issues. Area homes, businesses and public housing developments suffered heavy damage from a five-foot storm surge during Superstorm Sandy. Red Hook also has long-term stormwater drainage problems.

So as the March 31 meeting night wore on, and residents sat closely together staring grimly at maps of their neighborhood, their fatigue and frustration was palpable.

One described still not being back in his home more than two years after major damage during Sandy. Another, in exasperation, asked city officials and their Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who presided over the meeting, “What are you going to do? We are having meeting after meeting [about recovery and resiliency] and the neighborhood is still flooding.”

Red Hook is not alone. Similar issues and worries are being played out in waterfront communities throughout New York, from the Lower East Side to the Rockaways.

Problems like localized flooding will become all the more urgent as climate change progresses. But the threat to each neighborhood is different, depending on where it is located relative to the city’s 500-plus miles of coastline, and factors like socio-economic conditions, building stock, and critical infrastructure.

City officials are far from indifferent. Its strategy, in a nutshell, is to gradually strengthen the coastline, upgrade building stock, and protect critical infrastructure. Next week on Earth Day, April 22, the city plans to release a major progress report, the first in four years, on its multi-pronged sustainability framework, known as PlaNYC. As in the past, the report is expected to include discussion of climate resiliency, that is, the city’s ongoing and developing preparations to manage for the effects of climate change.

The PlaNYC update is the result of “an extensive engagement process,” city spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick recently told Capital New York, including meetings in every community board district, a survey available in seven languages, and an “expanded advisory board.”

In anticipation of the city’s report, news partners Gotham Gazette, AdaptNY, and the NY Environment Report raised a series of key questions about resiliency planning with a group of planners, engineers, architects, elected officials, and other experts.

  • What is the pace of preparations? And are there sufficient financial resources?
  • Is the city using the best data possible?
  • What’s the impact of expanding flood zones? And is retreat an option?
  • Can we improve the decision-making process? Expand public engagement?
  • What are the institutional obstacles?
  • What are the social implications of resiliency planning?

The overarching question: can the process of becoming resilient make New York, in the end, a better city – more livable, environmentally sustainable and socially cohesive?

Among other key takeaways, we found:

  • The city’s multi-faceted preparations for climate change are viewed as sound, but greater public clarity is needed on fundamental details of project rollout and funding.
  • There is fairly widespread frustration with the pace of execution, and ways to speed up the public review process should be examined.
  • It’s unclear how residents will manage rising insurance costs within expanded flood zones.
  • Better data could improve the understanding of the climate risks ahead, and there is an open question about how far to look into the future.
  • Residents could be engaged more meaningfully in the planning process, such as through participatory budgeting.
  • In a number of ways, civic society is coming forward with proposals for how the city can further improve its resilience plans.

Although creating resiliency is an ongoing process and climate change is long-term, the need to plan is urgent. “We are holding our breath,” said Staten Island City Council Member Vincent Ignizio about the approach of this year’s hurricane season.

“There will be more sea level rise; there will be more frequent storms; they’ll be more intense,” said Steven Cohen, who directs the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “If it [another catastrophic storm] comes in the next year or two, we’re in trouble. If it comes 5 or 10 years from now, we’d be better off.”

Added Cohen: “The question is can we build a city that’s strong enough to withstand that and then recover quickly. And I believe we can.”

What’s the timetable?

One outgrowth of PlaNYC targets a ten-year approach to resiliency. The city’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, or SIRR, was first released by the Bloomberg administration post-Sandy, in June 2013, and subsequently endorsed by the de Blasio administration.

The SIRR plan includes 257 separate projects and major coastal flood protection initiatives. It has a particular focus on five vulnerable areas: the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, the East and South shores of Staten Island, South Queens, South Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan.

As of last fall, at least 200 of the SIRR projects have been started and 29 were complete, said Daniel Zarrilli, director of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resilience. For instance, the city, with support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has been replenishing beaches in vulnerable areas like Coney Island and the Rockaways, and rebuilding dunes on the Staten Island coast.

Critical infrastructure is being hardened throughout the city, Cohen pointed out. Hospitals are moving generators to higher floors. The Con-Ed power plant on the East River has been made more storm resilient, and the MTA is developing contingency plans to keep water out of subway tunnels, he stated.

But all of the major flood protection projects appear to be in some sort of “study” phase. For instance, an “integrated flood management project” for Red Hook, which could include a natural greenway, deployable flood walls, elevated streets, and drainage pumps, was originally scheduled for completion in 2016. Now, the City is currently issuing “requests for proposals” for the project, and hopes to begin construction in 2017.

A much larger project, the elevation and expansion of riverfront parkland adjacent to Manhattan’s Lower East Side meant to protect thousands of local residents, could take seven years to move through the review and permitting stages, and another three years or more for construction, according to a 2014 city feasibility study.

The “multi-purpose levee” is only the first section of Manhattan’s “Big U” flood protection project, which is supposed to one day stretch from West 57th street south to the Battery and up to East 42nd.

In the coming weeks, the Army Corps will also be releasing public studies for how best to protect the Rockaway peninsula and the East Shore of Staten Island. And flood protection feasibility studies for Coney Island Creek, the Gowanus Canal, Jamaica Bay, Hunts Point, and Lower Manhattan are also ongoing.

Flooding in Lower Manhattan.

So how fast can the city realistically move?

Making New York truly climate resilient will require years and, in some aspects, decades. The raising of individual homes and their mechanical systems above flood levels alone “will take a generation,” observed Cohen.

Flood protection infrastructure in the Netherlands has taken decades to put into place, observed Henk Ovink, a Dutch advisor to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Even SIRR has a caveat – climate change is a long-term problem, it notes, and “many of the strategies and initiatives [in SIRR] will evolve over a similarly long period of time.”

But growing anxiety and some frustration with that pace is evident in conversations with local elected officials, such as in Staten Island, which is racing to prepare for another Sandy.

The Rockaways also has worries, in part because of historic stormwater drainage issues like in Red Hook. City Council Member Donovan Richards, who represents roughly half of its almost 120,000 residents and chairs the Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection, said he is anxiously awaiting the results of the Army Corps study. Richards expressed concern that it could take as long as a decade to fully execute the Corps’ recommendations.

Meanwhile, plans to repair the Rockaway peninsula’s protective bulkheads are mired in inter-agency confusion, Richards maintained. Besides beach replenishment and the eventual repair of the bulkheads on the Rockaway coast, asked Richards, “How are we really protecting these people?”

Where’s the money?

With the launch of the SIRR plan in 2013, city officials made clear that about one-half to three-quarters of its estimated $19.5 billion price tag was in hand. The rest would need to be raised from various sources, such as federal or state funds, and the city’s utility ratepayers.

Capital projects and studies outlined in SIRR would cost almost $14 billion. Another $5.5 billion is needed for “various other housing, business, and city agency recovery and resiliency needs,” said the report.

But, according to SIRR, that $14 billion is associated with only the first phase of its projects and programs. It doesn’t include implementation costs for projects, for instance, that are to be completed beyond the 10-year time frame of the plan.

Think of SIRR as laying the groundwork for the city’s ongoing resiliency work, and realizing a first round of projects. Phase 1 projects, such as beach nourishment in Coney Island or a storm surge barrier in Newtown Creek, are included in the $14 billion. But “full build” SIRR projects, like an integrated flood protection system for West Midtown, or a storm surge barrier for the Rockaway Inlet, are not.

City Council Member Mark Treyger, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Recovery and Resiliency and represents Coney Island, argues that the pricetag for the SIRR plan is steadily rising, and that the flood protection studies happening right now are going to drive the real cost of the projects.

“I am fairly confident when I say we don’t have all the money to actualize that vision. I’m not even sure if we’re anywhere close to it,” said Treyger, referring to what he saw as the mounting complexity of each flood protection project.

According to the city’s “Sandy Funding Tracker,” which is current through the end of 2014, more than $13 billion in federal recovery funding has been earmarked for projects in the city. This includes $7.3 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a $4.2 billion Community Development Block Grant from HUD, and $840 million from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

City officials declined to clarify how much of that $13 billion is actually for SIRR. For instance, it appears that at least $1.7 billion of the HUD CDBG funds was allocated to Build It Back, the city’s controversial rebuilding program for homes damaged by Sandy.

It’s also unclear whether the portion of the $4.2 billion HUD grant covering some of the new flood protection projects is totally secure.

Council Member Ignizio of Staten Island raised the concern that by 2018 the city must have shovel-ready plans – with all the relevant permits and such – or else possibly lose some of the money. “The city is pretty far behind,” said Ignizio. “There’s a lot of stuff that still hasn’t been planned out.”

City officials did not respond to questions about the HUD grant either.

Nonetheless, federal funding for Sandy rebuilding is already helping to make New York more resilient.

“The city is now required to come up with certain resiliency measures when they take federal [rebuilding] dollars,” said Treyger. An example is the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation, which received a $1.6 billion FEMA grant to both repair and elevate critical infrastructure.

Similarly, the federal government has just allocated $3 billion to repair and make more climate resilient 33 public housing developments that were heavily damaged during Sandy. Included in the grant are all six New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments in the Rockaways, along with 14 developments in Manhattan, and 12 in Brooklyn. The grant is the largest in FEMA history, said the city.

How good is the data?

The starting point for the city’s resiliency plans is its understanding of flood risk along New York’s hundreds of miles of coastline. That, in turn, is largely guided by FEMA’s designation throughout the five boroughs of 100-year flood zones, areas that have a one percent chance each year of flooding.

The last time that FEMA’s flood maps were completely overhauled was in 1983, over thirty years ago. Updated maps are to be released next year, and the drafts of the new maps indicate that almost 85,000 buildings in New York will soon lie in a flood zone. That’s a three-fold increase.

But there is a very practical reason for using FEMA’s flood maps as a planning guide: Only projects that address flood risks identified by FEMA are eligible for federal funding.

“By necessity, the SIRR was set up to put New York City in a good position to receive federal money to do these projects,” explained Guy Nordenson, a structural engineer and member of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, a body of climate and social scientists and risk management experts which advises the city.

But Nordenson, who worked on the SIRR plan, argues that the city could benefit from a more robust assessment of coastal storm hazards.

In the simplest terms, Nordenson maintains that hazard assessments for New York also need to include projections for 500-year and 2500-year flooding events.

Why? Because these types of events are already happening. “Depending on how you calculate it,” said Nordenson, “Sandy was definitely greater than a 500-year” event. “It was closer to what we’re looking at as the extreme [2500-year] event.”

Another way of understanding this, said Nordenson, is that the FEMA maps used by the city look at flood events with a 40 percent likelihood over a 50-year span. But over the next 50 years, what type of flood has a 10 percent likelihood of occurring? Or a 2 percent likelihood?

The 2 percent standard is what the U.S. uses for earthquake and tsunami protection guidelines, said Nordenson, who served in the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program in the 1980’s.

Nordenson, who is collaborating with the Army Corps, is also incorporating climate change projections into his flood risk models. Significantly, FEMA is not using climate change data as it updates its flood maps.

While Nordenson believes that “[New York] City is way ahead of the majority of communities up and down the East Coast” in terms of resiliency planning, the ultimate goal, he said, is to “do a better job of encompassing the full range of uncertainty.”

He pointed out: “If you consider what happened in Katrina and what’s happened in many cases in floods, there’s always something that goes wrong. There’s always flooding in places that we don’t expect. There’s always failure of some levee or other form of protection.”

What’s the impact of our growing flood zones?

Over 400,000 city residents will soon be living in 100-year flood zones.That’s an increase of 84% from the current 218,088. What does adding tens of thousands of residents to the updated FEMA flood zones mean in financial and social terms?

The most pressing issue is the specter of working class, waterfront communities facing steadily rising flood insurance costs on top of other economic challenges. Council Member Treyger calls it an approaching “financial storm.”

FEMA maps with 2010 updates compared to proposed 2016 FEMA maps. Photo credit: Federal Emergency Management Agency via FEMA

To control the costs, FEMA currently recognizes elevating one’s home as the only mitigation step. But because elevation is untenable in many cases, the city has been pushing FEMA to take New York’s existing housing stock into account.

Otherwise, the only viable option for many New York homeowners will be to abandon the first floor of their houses. That’s often a critical source of rental income. “Many of us are losing one-third of the value of our houses,” said one angry Red Hook resident at the March meeting.

The dilemma was brought home by Alexandros Washburn, an architect and chief urban designer at the Department of City Planning under the Bloomberg administration. He rode out Sandy at his home in Red Hook, which was heavily flooded.

“If I were to follow the regulatory path of least resistance [by using FEMA guidelines],” Washburn explained, “I’m supposed to take out my Victorian storefront, fill my basement, pour a concrete slab and park cars…Then my house is resilient.”

But then Red Hook would become a neighborhood of parking garages, he argued. “We would have killed the social heart of our neighborhood.”

There are solutions. Neighborhood flood protection projects, in planning now, could eventually provide mitigation credits for homeowners. That, in turn, would lower their flood insurance rates, said Treyger.

And the city’s resiliency projects could do more than help lower the cost of flood insurance for residents. They could also help whole neighborhoods get out of the flood zones altogether, said Washburn.

“If we succeed in making a beautiful and effective perimeter protection for Red Hook, we take Red Hook out of the flood zone, out from under the requirement for FEMA [flood] insurance. We remove the problem,” he said.

Is that realistic? “Totally doable,” Washburn responded. “That would be the [city’s] end-goal.”

Added Treyger: “My message to the city is that when we’re planning resiliency, are we aligned to the FEMA standards? We have to make sure that we have the relevant city agencies on the same page with FEMA, who have to be on the same page with the Army Corps.”

Is retreat an option?

Is there a point at which New York residents should simply move away from an increasingly flood-prone coast? That question begins to make sense when you look at the findings of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, or NPCC, whose most recent report was released in February.

The NPCC has found that since 1900, New York has seen sea levels rise around a foot, nearly twice the observed global rate over a similar time period.

This trend is expected to continue, and even accelerate, as the century progresses. According to the panel’s most recent report, sea level could rise another 11-21 inches by the 2050s, and 18-39 inches by the 2080s. By 2100, according to the panel’s worst-case, though lowest probability scenario, it could increase as much as six feet.

Indeed, after Sandy, some homeowners on Staten Island had already made the decision to give up their homes. They are participating in a joint city and state program under the state’s NY Rising community reconstruction initiative. The acquisition program is currently only available in three Staten Island neighborhoods and Suffolk County.

Despite this, the city has maintained a “no retreat” policy thus far. “New York City will not retreat,” the SIRR plan declared. “[It will] stand with its waterfront neighborhoods.”

But how far into the future should we try to look? “For the foreseeable future, we can manage risk and we can make neighborhoods safer,” argued city resiliency official Zarrilli, in an interview last month on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show.

“And in the future if things are going either faster or slower in the climate than we anticipated, we can continue to react,” Zarrilli maintained. “It’s not an all-at-once implementation that needs to happen.”

A concrete example is the City’s approach to inundation. By the 2050’s, some neighborhoods are expected to experience weekly or even daily tidal flooding due to sea level rise. The city said it plans to monitor the situation and raise the height of coastal edges, with bulkheads and beach nourishment, as necessary.

But others see it differently. “I think we need a realistic, thoughtful conversation about what a sustainable strategy looks like with our waterfront,” said Mary Rowe, vice president of the Municipal Art Society, a century-old organization with a special focus on design, planning, architecture and resilience. “There’s a significant question about what does New York look like in 50 years. What are the alternatives?”

And some go even farther. For instance, Klaus Jacob, a geo-physicist affiliated with the Earth Institute, who also sits on the NPCC, has pointedly argued that the city must plan now to move coastal residents to higher ground.

But the Earth Institute’s Cohen responded that “abandoning [the coastline] is not practical and not cost-effective.” Part of Cohen’s concern relates to the working class makeup of many of the city’s coastal communities. Given the current housing affordability crisis, asked Cohen, where are the almost 700,000 residents of the city’s most vulnerable coastal areas going to move?

Another issue Cohen raised is the massive financial loss that would be incurred by walking away from the critical infrastructure, like powerplants and wastewater treatment facilities, that has been constructed all along the city’s coastline.

In any event, Cohen is not convinced that the most dire projections made by the city’s climate scientists are inevitable. In 2014, greenhouse gases actually stabilized, he stated.

The global economy is moving away from coal, and will eventually replace all fossil fuels with renewable sources, Cohen said, and that will slow the pace of climate change. Fossil fuels will be driven from the marketplace “long before we’re under five feet of water in New York City,” he argued.

Can we improve the decision-making process?

One of the challenges of resiliency planning is that the timetable for infrastructure projects is guided by lengthy public review processes, which were originally established to provide more oversight and opportunities for the public to weigh in.

“The pace of climate change is such that we have to find a way of speeding up the public process,” observed Washburn, the city’s former chief urban designer. “The ability for top-down and bottom-up to come together and reach a decision is critical. You can’t act without deciding first.”

He added: “The expeditious part, for me, is not the amount of time it takes to build the thing…It’s the time it takes to get to a decision on what you are going to build and how you’re going to pay for it.”

Washburn believes he may have one piece of the puzzle. He now runs a coastal resilience research lab at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., and said his lab, along with architecture firm NBBJ, has developed a computer software program that will “let us plan coastal protections together with the community in real time.”

Local residents can use this so-called parametric analysis tool to gain a much deeper understanding of the physical effectiveness, social impact, and cost of each proposed project, Washburn argued.

”[You] let everybody get into the room, whether it’s a virtual or actual room, and play with the parameters,” Washburn continued. “If you substitute a concrete wall for a vegetative berm, you can keep track of the costs. You can see what it looks like. You can see what the view from the street is. … It’s tools like that that let you go through the same interactive process that ULURP [the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process] is hoping to establish of community input and top input and modification.”

Washburn added: “The tools are now out there for the city to get to success. The city’s got a pretty good foundation. The number one smart thing the city is doing is taking a neighborhood approach. The question is can they take it the last step and make a reality that’s effective but also improves quality of life.”

Do residents have enough say?

Another concrete way to engage the public is to give people more direct say over how resiliency dollars are spent, say some policy advocates. This is already a pressing issue in cases where residents have been heavily involved in developing resiliency proposals, but risk being left out of the final decision making process.

A case in point is the Hunts Point community of the South Bronx, which has actively participated in developing one of the winning coastal resiliency projects chosen by HUD’s Rebuild by Design program.

The revised price tag for the Hunts Point Lifelines project is now $481 million. So far, HUD has allocated $25 million, and the city is prepared to offer another $20 million.

Some community leaders are asking how what is ultimately built in Hunts Point will be decided upon, and who will participate in that process.

We need “clear points of decision making,” said Kelly Terry, executive director of The Point CDC, at a public meeting about the project on April 10. She said the community is looking for clear criteria on who gets to participate in a working group created by the city, along with accountability and open communication.

There are multiple potential ways residents can participate in resiliency budget discussions.

One possible first step could be for the city to provide financial support for some of the “first responder” community groups who were so essential during Sandy. This is a “no-brainer,” argued Michael Menser, an assistant professor of Earth and Environmental Science at the CUNY Graduate Center.

“Where is the funding program for [the first responder groups] to build their own capacity, to improve their spaces and community infrastructure, to hire more, to have better relationships with the [city] agencies?” he asked.

A next step, said Menser, chair of the non-profit Participatory Budgeting Project, would be to utilize participatory budgeting for certain types of local resiliency projects. Participatory budgeting is already used in almost half of New York City‘s council districts, including several Sandy-impacted areas.

“What’s been missing is any kind of process that connects neighborhoods to city agencies and city government in a medium-term way,” Menser said. “There’s been no real defined way that people could participate.”

To be clear, Menser is talking about actual decision making, not just offering one’s opinion at a community board meeting or in a survey. Community boards can only make non-binding recommendations in the city’s land use review process, for example.

Giving residents a pot of funding could “really enliven and strengthen the city’s resilience-enhancing goals,” said Menser. As part of the participatory budgeting process, communities would work with the relevant city agencies to develop resiliency proposals that are technically and legally appropriate, he said.

Going even further, using participatory budgeting on a citywide level would significantly ramp up the city’s resilience process, Menser argued, and be especially useful for overcoming the isolation of Sandy-impacted communities. Referring to the fact that climate change will ultimately affect every New York neighborhood, whether coastal or not, Menser observed that “this is a regional issue.”

But the underlying question for Menser is how to maintain substantive public involvement in resiliency planning on an ongoing basis. In the participatory budgeting paradigm, “expertise plays a critical role, but it’s driven by community need,” he said. “And in the process, you create more trust among the government and the community, but also within the community, and also you help to promote interagency coordination.”

How are residents being engaged?

Our previous reporting found striking disconnects in communication between the Bloomberg administration and some of its community boards regarding resiliency planning.

Additional interviews last fall with several dozen residents in two of the city’s most vulnerable areas found that a significant number were simply unsure what measures, if any, were being taken to protect their communities. The overwhelming majority thought they were no safer, two years after Sandy, from the risks posed by climate change.

As noted earlier, the de Blasio administration has pledged to increase community engagement as it updates PlaNYC, and, so far, has done so by meeting with all 59 of the city’s community boards, and disseminating a survey about a variety of sustainability and resiliency topics.

The administration has decided not to re-activate two task forces that were convened after Sandy to enable communities in vulnerable areas to weigh in on resiliency planning.

But resiliency planning bodies and advocacy groups are springing up throughout the five boroughs. Resiliency and rebuilding task forces have been established by the borough presidents of Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens, Council Member Treyger noted.

Treyger said that he has jump-started a resiliency task force in his community, Coney Island.
“I would encourage all of the communities [with] these studies underway [to organize],” said Treyger. “Let’s not wait for them,” he said of the city. “We can do it ourselves.”

Resiliency task forces are even being formed at the hyper-local level. For instance, residents in some of the public housing developments in the Rockaways have set up planning groups, said Council Member Richards.

Richards observed that a major challenge for the city was figuring out how best to “intertwine environmental justice communities with PlaNYC planning. They have been left out of the conversation.”

The Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, a citywide coalition of labor unions and community, faith-based, environmental, and policy organizations formed after Sandy, shares Richards’ concern.

The city’s rebuilding process must include a commitment to “the elimination of environmental disparities across communities,” the alliance says on its website. The goal is a process that “prioritizes transparency and community inclusion, [and] creates new economic opportunity for all New Yorkers –particularly low-income communities and communities of color.”

Richards stressed that he believes community involvement in resiliency planning is a “personal issue for the mayor.” He said that the de Blasio administration was making an “honest effort” to engage the public and to “really listen” to feedback.

What are the institutional obstacles?

All levels of government, including Congress, will have to collaborate closely to protect the eight million-plus residents of New York City from the impacts of climate change. At last month’s meeting in Red Hook, Rep. Velazquez ruefully observed how hard the New York delegation has had to fight for funding in the Republican-led Congress.

One issue that is often overlooked in resiliency discussions is the impact – positive and negative – of state funding decisions on the city. Insufficient funding for basic water infrastructure projects, like upgrades to wastewater treatment plants and water mains, has reached a crisis level across the state, say Democratic and Republican legislators in Albany.

This relates directly to climate change because New York is projected to see increases in the frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme precipitation events. Yet some coastal neighborhoods in Queens, Staten Island, and Brooklyn still lack the proper infrastructure to handle run-of-the-mill rainstorms.

The city is struggling to play catch-up and is engaged in stormwater infrastructure projects in several communities. This includes building grey infrastructure, like sewer mains, as well as green infrastructure, like blue belts (natural drainage corridors) and bioswales.

The good news, according to those interviewed for this report, is that individual city agencies are increasingly working together on resiliency planning.

Challenges remain. For instance, despite ongoing pleas from residents and elected officials, the city cannot seem to determine which agency has ultimate responsibility for repairing some of the bulkheads that will protect the Rockaway coastline until larger coastal flood protection projects are in place. Council Member Richards described the situation as “convoluted.”

The Rockaway Peninsula.

But there are concrete measures that could enable city agencies to work more effectively together, says CUNY’s Menser.

“It would be a really good time to have a [city] charter review in a year or two,” argued Menser, referring to the fact that city agencies now function in the complex and shifting world of climate change. The issue affects their responsibilities, and may alter how power needs to be distributed, especially vis-a-vis the public, he said.

A charter review could also address jurisdictional issues relevant to resiliency planning, or even increase the power held by community boards. The last full review was in 1989. An examination of how government is structured is merited, Menser said. “We’re due.”

And the underlying point, said Menser, is that climate resiliency is going to require more than technical solutions. It will also require “social support” and “bureaucratic changes” – a point echoed by others. More specifically, true resilience “requires a remaking of bureaucratic institutions, and the relationship between the public and those institutions,” Menser continued.

As an example, Menser cited the city’s housing authority, NYCHA, which has been plagued by reports of internal dysfunction. Many public housing developments were badly damaged during Sandy, taking an enormous toll on residents.

“Remaking the buildings isn’t going to be enough,” he said. For NYCHA residents to be able to control resiliency spending in their developments, set their own priorities, and get their needs met, said Menser, “requires a reforming of the Housing Authority.”

What are the social implications?

It’s likely that the city’s resiliency plans will ultimately be judged by how well the most vulnerable in society – the disabled, the poor, the elderly, non-English speakers, and others – survive the next crisis.

After Sandy, for instance, some of the most harrowing stories to emerge came from disabled residents who were trapped in group homes and other living facilities in the devastated areas. In testimony to the City Council after the storm, some described losing power, water, and, eventually, access to food and medication.

As MAS’ Rowe observed, the communities that fared the best during Sandy were the ones with the most social cohesion. It’s a lesson born out time and again.

Case in point: NYU Professor Eric Klinenberg’s research on the 700-plus deaths that took place during a 1995 heat wave in Chicago. The tragic death toll, he concluded, was the “result of distinct dangers in Chicago’s social environment” – not primarily the forces of nature. Death rates were far lower in Chicago neighborhoods where social ties were stronger.

Building social cohesion and social capital – strengthening the foundation which underlies communities – can come in many forms. The de Blasio administration’s “One City” plan seeks to make all publicly-owned buildings more climate resilient and less polluting, creating scores of local jobs in the process, and potentially a whole new sector of the economy.

Menser described the plan as empowering for city residents and an “incredibly ingenious extension of the SIRR plan.”

The more the city can empower residents in its resiliency process, the more its resiliency plans will truly respond to the conditions of each community, and the more residents will be able to help protect each other from what is to come, whether it is a devastating storm or a heat wave.

“You tend to tilt yourself to focus specifically on the disaster that most recently occurred to you,” observed Rowe. “Whereas what you really want is to build the capacity of those neighborhoods to anticipate any number of kinds of challenges that may come…It may be something quite different.”

The city has a tremendous base of social capital on which to build- think of the bands of neighborhood volunteers who canvassed public housing developments across the city after Sandy, providing food and medical assistance to homebound residents; or the volunteers that cleared debris from ruined homes and businesses; or those who set up kitchens in storm-battered neighborhoods.

And as much as there are tremendous risks posed to New Yorkers by climate change, there are also opportunities to build a stronger city, both physically and socially. The two are completely linked with, and reinforce each other, Rowe argued.

She also pushed back against referring to city government as one monolithic entity, which will “solve” the climate change “problem.”

“Resiliency is too important an urban challenge to just be left to government,” she said. “Resilience is really a movement. One of the important principles of resilience is there are many, many, many parts – no one solution, no one answer. That’s the challenge – how do you mobilize and then connect those many parts.”

But it is equally important to point out that government is the only entity in society whose core responsibility is to maintain public safety and well being. This point was raised more than once during our interviews.

And only government has the resources and legal status to carry out the large-scale resiliency projects that are needed.

“Climate change is the issue of our time,” agreed Council Member Treyger. “It’s already happening…Now we have to ask ourselves, what are we doing? Are we doing enough?’”