Lessons of Climate Resilience in New York City

by |October 24, 2016

By Alix Schroder

Columbia’s Earth Institute and the School of International and Public Affairs’ MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program hosted a panel on “Lessons of Climate Resilience in New York City” on Oct. 19. Over 170 students, faculty and local professionals gathered in Low Library to hear a panel of experts speak on how New York City, and other cities like it, can take steps to become stronger and more resilient in the face of climate change. Many more tuned in on the live webcast, which can be found here.

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The panelists in Low Library on October 19 (from left to right) Steven Cohen, Curtis Cravens, George Deodatis, Kate Orff, and Adam Sobel. (Photo: Tim Lyons)

The panel, moderated by Steve Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute and professor of practice in the School of International and Public Affairs, featured George Deodatis, Santiago and Robertina Calatrava Family Professor and chair of Columbia’s Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics; Kate Orff, associate professor in Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and director of the Urban Design Program; Adam Sobel, professor of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics and of Earth and Environmental Sciences and director of the Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate; and Curtis Cravens, senior advisor for coastal resiliency in the New York City Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency.

The need to adapt to climate change is becoming more obvious in many cities, largely due to the impact of extreme weather events. In his opening remarks, Cohen pointed to Superstorm Sandy as a “profound wake-up call” for New York City, which showed just how vulnerable the city was to extreme weather events. The discussion focused on what strategies are most effective for urban resilience planning, how we can be most cost effective in our efforts, and what we can be doing differently to make our communities and infrastructure more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

 

Steve Cohen moderated the panel.

Steve Cohen provided opening remarks and moderated the panel. Photo: Tim Lyons

Cohen opened the panel with a simple question: Wdo we mean by resilience? “Resilience is the ability to recover quickly after something happens,” began Sobel, “rather than be incapacitated for a long time.”

Deodatis pointed to the capacity of civil infrastructure to return to its previous operation after a disaster, while Orff stated that, from a design standpoint, resilience involves thinking differently about the interaction between nature and human life, and incorporating both social and cultural frameworks in planning processes. Cravens explained that his office looks at resilience through a lens of equity, focusing on the most vulnerable populations and their ability to withstand and rebound from extreme weather events.

The discussion then turned to the risks of extreme weather events. What does science tell us about the risks of extreme weather, and how are those risks changing? Sobel, a leading scientist in the study of extreme weather and climate, said scientific advances now enable us to predict with more certainty which extreme weather events will occur. Heat waves, sea level rise and heavy rainfall events are expected to increase due to climate change, rendering coastal urban areas like New York City particularly vulnerable. And hurricanes, which are more difficult to predict, continue to pose a serious risk to coastal areas.

As Deodatis pointed out, there is no doubt another Superstorm Sandy will happen in the future. But next time, it will be compounded by sea level rise, creating an even more severe disaster.

The panelists agreed that the impacts of extreme weather are felt most tangibly in cities. Orff discussed the important role of urban design in resilience planning.

“Urban design has the ability to translate concepts into action, to really push things forward,” she said. “It gives us the tools to more broadly envision future cities, and relationships within these cities.” Design is particularly important on a local, applied level in New York City and other densely populated areas, where public space challenges are numerous.

Cravens agreed, saying that “in New York City, everything is on top of each other…you can’t touch one thing without affecting everything around it.” There is not one type of solution to the resiliency challenges ahead; solutions need to be a layered and involve multiple disciplines and approaches. We don’t want to live in walled city or turn back on the development of our coastlines or our green space. We need urban design to think creatively about how to re-purpose existing infrastructure to meet our needs.

Orff said that there is a need to shift the resilience conversation away from the sole idea of protection. She pointed to the levee failures in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina as an example. Instead of focusing on a single-sided solution, cities should be taking more layered approaches, with the main goal to reduce risk.

What are the major actions New York City is undertaking to increase resiliency and adapt to climate change?

The Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency has begun to implement a resiliency plan that will cost at least $20 billion before it is completed. Cravens discussed the plan and highlighted some of the current projects in progress. The city is advancing a multi-layered strategy, including planning and policy studies, legislative actions and investments in buildings, critical infrastructure and coastal protection projects. New codes and laws are in place to support resiliency, including 16 new building code laws, and the city is working to better collaborate with utilities. Cravens said the city prioritizes working with the most vulnerable communities.

A few examples of the plan’s coastal resiliency efforts include a $7 million project in East River Park, which will protect the largest area of low-income housing in New York City; a $41 million project in Hunt’s Point in the Bronx; a $60 million project on the South Shore of Staten Island (working with Orff’s landscape architecture studio); and a $10 million project in Red Hook in Brooklyn.

Deodatis pointed to the Netherlands as another leader in resiliency efforts, and one we can learn from. The Netherlands’ resiliency strategies were successful because different components were implemented slowly over the course of many years. Deodatis argued that we should copy this hierarchical approach, focusing not just on the areas impacted by Sandy, but on the areas that are most high risk.

“If we had unlimited funding, we could protect New York City from everything,” Deodatis said. However, funding is restricted. We must optimize the use of the funding available. Cravens agreed, stating that if the tide had been different, Sandy would have hit very different areas of the city.

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A packed audience in Low Library. Photo: Hilary Osborn

The panel concluded with a discussion of how to bring climate information into the policy process. As policy decisions increasingly depend on science, Cravens emphasized that the science needs to be right. Sobel acknowledged that the area of extreme weather and climate is young, and many scientists are still not communicating it effectively. However, there is a lot of potential, as the field brings together many disciplines.

Cities are unique in that resiliency efforts must take into account social and public space, and urban designers are developing solutions to address this. “It’s an interesting point of innovation between design and science,” said Orff. This also demonstrates the important role of partnerships. A truly resilient city depends on close partnerships between the many stakeholders involved.

Urban climate resiliency is a complex, layered issue and presents both physical and social challenges. It isn’t realistic to view these challenges as “solvable” problems. Rather, we need to view them—as Cohen put it—as problems we can “make less bad.” New York City is leading the world in resiliency efforts. We are lucky to be in a city where leaders are committed to addressing the future impacts of climate change.

Alix Schroder is the special assistant to the Executive Director at the Earth Institute.

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