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.