Soon after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city’s ambitious plan to extend lower Manhattan into the East River, Klaus Jacob, a special research scientist with Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, received a surprising invitation. The Milken Institute, a global think tank, was hosting an event to discuss financing the mayor’s proposal. “Everyone from Wall Street was there,” Jacob recollects. “I don’t know why [they invited me] because I told them upfront I don’t think much about this thing.”
Jacob has based his scientific career on studying climate change and New York City—and pointing out that most residents, planners, and politicians haven’t fully confronted how its effects will transform the city to its core. At the event, he listened as people in the room strategized funding for the $10 billion plan, including development schemes on top of the extended land. “I was sitting there, my jaw dropped down, and finally I raised my name card as an indicator I had to say something,” Jacob says.
He intimately knows the official scientific forecast for lower Manhattan: about six feet of sea level rise in the next 80 years, which would bring regular flooding and more frequent intensive storm surges to the shoreline. The carbon levels in the atmosphere guarantee that sea level will continue rising past 2100; by how much depends on if the world can mobilize around climate change.
Extending the landmass of lower Manhattan may serve as a short to mid-term solution, but he believes it cannot stand up to long-term climate threat.
Jacob wanted to tell the crowd as much. “I said, ‘Well, congratulations how quickly you found a way to finance this,’” he recalls. “‘But I want to tell you how it looks to me. You just declared war to sea level rise. As many politicians declare war quickly, I want to know your exit strategy when you can’t sustain it any longer.’”
Silence followed. Without a response, the group decided to break for lunch.
This tense moment reveals a larger disconnect looming in a city with 578 miles of shoreline. Since New York City’s inception, its residents have turned to the waterfront for myriad reasons: industry, commerce, housing, leisure, and tourism. But a growing chorus of scientists, planners, activists, and academics is suggesting a wholly different relationship given the threat of climate change. It’s known as managed retreat, or “the strategic relocation of structures or abandonment of land to manage natural hazard risk.”
This is an overwhelming proposal for a city defined not only by water, but its ability to build its way out of a crisis. In lower Manhattan—an area that includes the Financial District (and other neighborhoods), the World Trade Center redevelopment, a half-million jobs, 90,000 residents, and nexus of almost all our subway lines—the city has proposed all manner of fixes: extending the southernmost shoreline of the island by two blocks, berms, barriers, dams, sand bags, physical walls, and “deployable flip-up barriers.”
The work in lower Manhattan reflects citywide resiliency planning that has been underway in the seven years since Hurricane Sandy: a strengthening of 2.4 miles of coastline as part of the contentious East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, flood walls and flip-up barriers for Two Bridges Coastal Resilience, an integrated flood protection system for Red Hook, zoning changes, and improved transit as part of a “Resilient Neighborhoods” plan for Rockaway Park and Rockaway Beach, among other projects.
But scientists like Jacob say the billions of dollars the city will spend on such measures are temporary solutions to a larger and longer-term crisis. It can be hard to conceptualize such a threat, especially because sea level rise still depends on if the world can enact urgent and unprecedented measures against climate change, and its effects will not look the same for every community in New York.
But retreat is already happening here, and elsewhere across the United States. Efforts in a few New York neighborhoods offer a hint of what’s to come. But the city has no official strategy on utilizing retreat to address the long-term sustainability of New York’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. The longer the city waits to integrate retreat into its climate planning, the harder and more uncertain it will be transitioning New York shorelines back to nature.
“Is New York City on the right path, in the long term, to deal with climate change?” asks Jacob. “The city has done certain measures that will work for certain storm or flood heights. It’s not that they have been complacent, but all these are short or mid-term at most solutions. It’s probably fair to say we have no concept, right now, of what the city might steer for the year 2100 and beyond.”
When Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, it revealed how much the city has at stake in the face of a major storm. Sandy killed 43 New Yorkers; 6,500 patients were evacuated from hospitals and nursing homes; 90,000 buildings were affected in the inundation zone; 2 million people lost power; all seven subway tunnels under the East River flooded, and it took six days to restore 80 percent service. (Repair of the subway tunnels is ongoing.) There was a total of $19 billion in damage, according to the city.
In the months following, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a recovery plan called Build it Back. “As New Yorkers, we cannot and will not abandon our waterfront,” he said at the time. “It’s one of our greatest assets. We must protect it, not retreat from it.” In defiance of retreat, Build it Back consisted of repairing damaged homes, rebuilding them in place, and acquiring properties so the city could “strategically redevelop.”
“Bloomberg was talking right away about framing Sandy in terms of climate change, but using that to double down on this waterfront redevelopment agenda,” explains Liz Koslov, assistant professor of Urban Planning and Environment and Sustainability at UCLA. (Throughout his three mayoral terms, Bloomberg upzoned waterfront land across Long Island City, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and the west side of Manhattan—now Hudson Yards—all of which became hotbeds of luxury development.)
Koslov is working on a book about Staten Island communities that rejected the rebuilding narrative. She recalls the first community meeting she attended in the borough, a few months after Sandy: “It was striking,” she says. “A church basement packed to the gills with residents affected by the storm, overwhelmingly saying, ‘We don’t wanna live here anymore, no one should live in these neighborhoods anymore, buy us out and return this land to mother nature.’” City officials’ preferred approach, by contrast, was to densify and redevelop the shore, which had the highest Sandy death toll in the city.
Koslov followed a coordinated grassroots effort by residents of eight waterfront neighborhoods demanding buyouts of their properties to return the land to nature. Oakwood Beach residents, the first to organize in favor of buyouts, found little support from local and city officials, so moved on to the state. In January of 2013, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a state pilot for buyouts focused on Oakwood Beach; by March, more than 2,500 residents formally registered interest in such a program. “My sense is that the state didn’t expect there to be so much demand,” says Koslov.
The pilot did become an official state program, but eligibility was restricted in Staten Island to a small number of designated “enhanced areas” and excluded many households whose owners sought buyouts in the aftermath of the storm. Those enhanced areas were picked due to a variety of factors, according to Koslov, including the expression of collective interest from the community, past flood damage, and the makeup of renters versus owners.
Though Staten Island emerged as a model of what grassroots retreat could look like, remaining residents still receive “mixed signals,” as Koslov puts it. Properties that the city, rather than the state, acquired under Build it Back can be auctioned off and redeveloped, for example. In Ocean Breeze, not far from newly vacant land, developers have erected two new blocks of luxury townhouses.
It’s one of two vulnerable areas of New York where formal retreat is happening alongside development. The other is Edgemere, Queens, a long-neglected community that sits between the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay. Sandy damaged or destroyed much of its housing, leaving predominantly low-income residents without electricity, heat, or clean water for weeks.
It took a few years for the city to take full inventory of Sandy’s damage, then establish a formal community assessment of the area. In 2015, the city launched a joint community planning effort, with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) now overseeing the resulting Resilient Edgemere Community Plan.
The city owns about 30 percent of Edgemere’s land, according to HPD, and the plan calls for keeping the most vulnerable properties uninhabited, as well as buyouts to facilitate relocation from extreme flood hazard. (The city has acquired about 15 acres of land to keep as open space, according to HPD, and bought out and relocated seven households out of the neighborhood and three households into less-vulnerable property within the neighborhood.) It also calls for sizable investments into an elevated berm along the shore and at NYCHA’s Beach 41st Street Houses, as well as the construction of affordable housing and mixed-use retail.
“We are trying to draw back housing development from the coast and concentrate it more on the transit and commercial spine in the neighborhood,” explains Leila Bozorg, HPD’s deputy commissioner for neighborhood strategies. But it’s unclear if Edgemere’s commercial spine will be habitable by 2100. The low-lying neighborhood isn’t only at high risk during storms; frequent “sunny day” tidal flooding will be exacerbated by sea level rise. By 2050, two and a half feet of sea level rise predicted by the New York City Panel on Climate Change puts a significant portion of the neighborhood at risk of daily inundation from high tide alone.
For Bozorg, city planning in a still-populated community, especially one that’s faced significant neglect from city government, can’t only focus on the long-term climate future. “If you take a bird’s eye view of a flood map, for example, you can easily ask questions of if we should be investing in this neighborhood at all,” she says. “But when you get down to the ground, and realize there are thousands of people in Edgemere, we can’t just have a binary conversation about whether you invest or not. We have to have a nuanced conversation about how you make the neighborhood more resilient, how we support current residents, and what type of investments are sound.”
Such complicated questions about planning in the face of climate change are now seeping into the New York offices of urban planners, architects, politicians, and developers. “It’s affected the design industry, and especially my office and a lot of my colleagues, in a profound way,” says Illya Azaroff, founder of architectural studio +LAB. “When we are asked to design in areas of known risk … if we’re building to a 50- to 100-year life cycle, there’s a lot of science behind advising that client to find a different place to build. It’s an ethical question; it’s what we have to do.”
But, Azaroff says, “this realization has not caught up with actionability.” Ask anyone deeply engaged with New York climate science about continued development along the waterfront and you’ll get an impassioned response. Jacob is pointed: “That we are still putting high-rises into flood zones like Two Bridges … it is absolutely in my mind, bordering on being criminal, though maybe reckless is a better word.”
Still, there is much working against a comprehensive proposal for retreat. At a time of federal tax cuts, many U.S. cities have become increasingly dependent on financing through development growth; in New York, that means a dependance on property taxes. And in the post-industrial era, the most enticing growth opportunities have been along the water, as Bloomberg’s upzonings proved. (Years of aggressive rezoning and environmental cleanups that culminated under Bloomberg primed sizable tracts along 600 miles of waterfront in all five boroughs for development, according to the New York Times.)
“Now, there’s a desire to utilize this highly-valued land and not prohibit development,” Koslov explains. “Then for the city to protect people already living in places like the lower East Side, what pays for protective infrastructure and adaptation is more development.”
Buyouts, on the other hand, have high upfront costs, though Koslov argues they can generate longer-term savings. “The story I’ve found, over and over in my research, is there are often demands from people recurrently flooded to get bought out, but buyouts are 75 percent federally funded with a 25 percent local match,” she says. “Often local municipalities aren’t willing to support homeowner’s applications because they completely depend on property taxes.”
Lost property taxes are backed by a slew of other concerns, according to Koslov. Those include fears about setting a precedent, losing affordable housing, and the fact that buyouts can benefit higher levels of government, which don’t have to pay out future flood insurance claims or disaster aid, while local governments are left with costs of maintaining newly-vacant land and providing local services to a reduced population.
Then there are the numerous unanswered questions. Who makes the decision to stop rebuilding, and when? If we’re moving people away from the waterfront, shouldn’t we upzone less vulnerable, inland neighborhoods to accommodate them? Who pays for relocation? And what does retreat look like for the astounding variety of buildings and other developments along the New York waterfront, from luxury condos to public housing to the city’s largest food hub? “There are 800,000 people in New York City’s floodplain,” Koslov says, “Once you decide to grant a buyout, how do you draw the line and stop?”
Such questions have discouraged local politicians from touching the subject. (Roland Lewis, president and chief executive of the Waterfront Alliance, called retreat “the third rail of resiliency discussions in politics—most politicians don’t want to go near.”)
But the sooner we delve in, Koslov suggests, the sooner we can flesh out “a vision for what ‘just retreat’ would look like and how it would actually happen.” Climate change disproportionately affects low-income communities across the world, New York included. If retreat takes place without government support, residents in luxury condos will likely have more resources to implement their own ad-hoc plans than residents of public housing. A well-planned managed retreat, on the other hand, “can be potentially empowering and a force for reconstructing communities and making the waterfront public again,” she says.
Equity is front of mind for the Resilient Edgemere Community Plan, according to Bozorg. “We’re engaging [community members] in a way that is meaningful, co-creating goals and strategies that address the core issues, which is resulting in a plan that clearly lays out what the city is committing to do and how we plan to get there,” she says. She believes that community engagement, particularly around the buyout program, could serve as a model for other neighborhoods threatened by climate change.
Voluntary buyouts are not part of the city’s resiliency efforts at this time, according to the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency, though the city is employing some land-use tools, such as designating select high risk areas as Special Coastal Risk Districts, to limit future density in flood prone areas. It still remains a question if, and when, the city will release a comprehensive plan across the five boroughs that tackles retreat and fully restricting waterfront development, like what happened on Staten Island.
Roland Lewis, of the Waterfront Alliance, and Kate Boicourt, that organization’s director of resilience, argue that New York’s current initiatives should not substitute for a long-term plan that addresses hard questions. “We don’t have a public study of where more density can be built based on infrastructure and need, and where it can’t,” explains Boicourt. “There’s no study of pathways if individuals and communities decide to leave, what are their options, and how many resources we need.”
In lieu of that, Waterfront Alliance will launch a major campaign in 2020 to encourage increased public discourse around the threat of climate change, mobilize voters around those issues, and push public officials to address the climate crisis with more urgency. “There’s a large public disconnect from the reality of no matter what we do with greenhouse gases, we are facing six feet [of] sea level rise, or more, by the end of the century,” Boicourt says. “We really need a campaign to get people to that reality, which means Coney Island and the Rockaways may no longer exist.”
“We can’t build our way out of it,” Lewis simply says.
It is a terrifying, uncertain future. And also one of possibilities. “We have to rediscover the fact we are a water city,” suggests Azaroff. “Sandy made us afraid of water. Yet, how do we celebrate being a great coastal city, and contend with water in a positive way? That’s our trajectory, and we’re still at a tension place. It’s something that could be—and must be—tackled together, in a positive way.”