New York adopts a flexible resilience approach to address climate risk

Contributor: Will Bugler

New York is one of the world’s great cities; towering sky-scrapers, major roads and large infrastructure developments abound in one of the most important global hubs for international business and commerce. In 2010 it had a gross metropolitan product of US$1.28 trillion, making it the second largest city economy on earth after Tokyo. However, it also has a coastline that stretches over 500 miles along the US east coast. The city’s infrastructure, housing and businesses are under threat from climate change, in particular from sea-level rise and flooding from the related threat of storm surges. Dealing with this adaptation challenge is complex, so to prepare for climate shocks the city has developed a flexible resilience-based strategy that is seen as one of the most progressive anywhere in the world. Despite this, there is increasing concern that the pace of action is too slow.

New York policymakers certainly recognise the threat. Mayor Bloomberg commissioned a thorough assessment of the climate risks that the city faces and his administration has invested in promoting common adaptation measures in the city, such as encouraging home flood protection such as moving sockets and planting roof gardens to absorb rainfall.

However, there is growing concern among climate specialists and planners that the pace of adaptation is not commensurate with the scale of the risk. New York’s transportation system, for example, is especially vulnerable to flooding. Last year the entire subways system was forced to close when Hurricane Irene struck the coastline, and coastal roads are highly exposed to storm surges.

There are some calls for New York to invest in greater ‘hard adaptation’ measures such as sea gates and barriers that could protect the city from coastal flooding. But such measures are expensive and policymakers find it hard to garner public support for such works in tough economic times. The urgency for adaptation may be further dampened due to the fact that none of the city’s eight million inhabitants can remember the last time that the city was hit by a hurricane, an event that occurred over 100 years ago. However, climate change will make it increasingly likely that major storm events such as this will hit the city in the coming decades.

In light of this the deputy director of New York’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, Adam Freed’s admission that “you can’t make a climate-proof city” is at the same time, alarming and empowering. Alarming because it points towards the fact that cities will almost inevitably face times of hardship at the hands of climatic events and empowering because it points to more inclusive, flexible and rounded measures to adapt.

In this vein, city officials are planning an adaptation strategy that is based on increasing resilience. A resilience approach does not only consider how to prevent damage from climate impacts but looks at how to increase the city’s ability to recover from climatic events and to continue to function as a city in spite of them.

This strategy is not one that excludes ‘hard’ adaptation measures but recognises that they are not the silver bullet response to climate hazards. A resilience approach recognises that vulnerability is affected by exposure to shock, how sensitive areas are to that shock and capacity that these areas have to adapt to the shock.

New York is highly exposed; it has a large number of people living less than a meter above sea level (second only to New Orleans in the USA) and sea level rise has meant that coastal waters have been rising at the rate of roughly 2.5 centimetres per decade in the last 100 years. Storm surges are likely to become more common and flooding is likely as at present over 10 percent of the city lies in areas exposed to flooding and that is before future sea level rise is accounted for. The city is also sensitive as it has a large amount of high-value development in coastal areas, from the skyscrapers of Manhatten to the large areas of chemical plants and other industry along the Brooklyn coast.

Increasing resilience in these circumstances uncovers a tension between continued water-front development and climate adaptation. Economic demand for high-value waterfront property is at odds with medium-long term adaptation in the region.

For New York, part of the answer is to build resilience measures into development from the planning stage through to construction and beyond. Offering a big boost to the cities adaptive capacity is the advice of the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) that is co-chaired by Cynthia Rosenzweig – a NASA climate modeller. The NPCC emphasises the importance of building in flexible adaptation measures into the core of infrastructure plans saying “strategies that can evolve through time as climate risk assessment, evaluation of adaptation strategies and monitoring continues are vital.”

Since the NPCC made these comments in 2009, such flexible adaptation measures have begun to take shape. A natural flood buffer has been created at Brooklyn Bridge Park that includes layers of porous rock and soft-borders of grassland that is able to grow in salt-water conditions. Such measures dampen the impacts of storm surges. Other measures are also being used as part of the cities planned US$2 billion investment in adaptation projects over the next 18 years; these measures include large ditches of vegetation and trees that are designed to fill with rainwater at times of flood and reduce surface flooding of road and rail links are also being used widely.

Despite the fact that neither the level of investment – which amounts to US$ 110 million per year or 0.007% of gross metropolitan product – nor the scale of the adaptation projects has been particularly great to date, policymakers continue to face problems in gathering public support for spending to increase climate resilience. The uncertain and perceived distant nature of the benefits from adaptation projects appears to be a major break on development. However, uncertainty must not be an excuse for inaction and decision-makers must focus on a science-based assessment of the risks that face the city in order to protect its citizens.

Many resilience measures can also be implemented cheaply, or are ‘win-win’, ‘low-regret’ or ‘no-regret’ in nature. In other words, there is much that can be done that will save money and increase resilience and other measures that will have other benefits such as improved quality of life, reduced air pollution or waste reduction at the same time as increasing resilience to shocks.

It is also important to stress that resilience measures over the medium term have been shown to be exceptionally good value with avoided costs frequently much higher than the cost of the adaptation actions themselves. The NPCC estimates that should a large storm surge hit the city there is a good chance that subway tunnels would be flooded and would have been unusable for up to four weeks. They estimate that the economic cost of such an event would run to around US$55 billion.

New York has positioned itself well to adapt to climate impacts, it has a good understanding of the risks that it faces, a credible plan, plentiful resources and a forward-thinking, resilience approach to risk management. However as in so many cities, what is required is increased urgency in implementing such measures, and vastly increased investment. The level of resources, both political and financial, that are being devoted to tackling climate change remain dwarfed by the scale of the challenges that it will bring.

Will Bugler is Editor at Get Resilient, he has worked within the ‘Adapting to Climate Change’ department at Defra, Friends of the Earth, and for the UK government’s advisory body on climate change issues; The Energy and Climate Change Committee.

This article first appeared on the Acclimatise Network on the 9th of October 2012 it can be viewed here.

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