Mayor de Blasio surveys damage from Ida (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)
When the long tail of Hurricane Ida brought record rainfall to our region earlier this month, public officials claimed they were blindsided by the damage that resulted. While it’s notoriously difficult to accurately predict rainfall, the devastating societal impacts of the storm were not a surprise to those who follow these issues closely.
An inundated transit system, flooded homes in lower-income neighborhoods, residents trapped in basement apartments. These tragedies were foreseeable, in part, because the city has consistently failed to effectively link its climate adaptation strategy to a social equity and environmental justice strategy.
These recent events are a stark reminder that disasters are not “natural.” They are a function of a system that fails to protect everyone equally, and those in the most economically precarious positions are also the most vulnerable to climate-related hazards. We simply must do more to address the intertwined challenges of climate change and social justice before subsequent stronger storms wreak even more havoc.
Unfortunately, New York City is woefully under-prepared for the climate crisis. Eleven city residents perished as a result of Ida’s floodwaters. It is our civic duty to heed this wake-up call and assure that those lives were not lost in vain.
Complacence, fiscal limitations, and politics are some of the root causes that stymie efforts to adapt in real time to a changing climate. But more than any other factor, we have continually failed to heed nature’s most important lesson, as ecologist Barry Commoner succinctly summarized in his 1971 book Closing the Circle: “Everything,” Commoner explained, “is connected to everything else.”
This single rule, had we ever stopped to consider it, might have helped us avoid the climate quagmire we find ourselves in today. But it can still help us now.
There has been much talk since Ida about how the city needs to more effectively deal with stormwater, refine its emergency alert systems, and protect residents of basement apartments. Yes! Yes! And yes! But we are destined to fail if we view these as standalone problems with unitary solutions. Instead, we need to embrace and harness complexity instead of ignoring what we know to be true: your zip code and your income, more than any other factors, also determine how vulnerable you are to disaster.
As an urban planner, I was trained to think of cities as complex systems, but for a long time those just seemed like hollow academic concepts. Three years ago, I was in the Netherlands trying to better understand how the Dutch have so famously built a thriving, vibrant, livable nation on a marsh that sits mostly below sea level. One afternoon a Dutch engineer grew exasperated by my pestering questions about technical remedies and dressed me down.
“You’re asking the wrong questions,” he told me. “You can always solve a water-related problem with engineering. That’s the easy part, just spend enough money and you can fix anything. But if you don’t use that opportunity to solve a social or economic or environmental sustainability problem at the same time, then you’ve squandered the money the public entrusted to you.”
My friend the engineer, it turns out, perfectly encapsulated everything New York has failed to do in addressing our climate-related challenges. Sure, rain gardens and bioswales have been installed around the city, trees are being planted, and agencies are implementing the City Council’s Unified Stormwater Rule requiring developers to address stormwater risks when they build.
But these piecemeal solutions must also be part of a holistic and comprehensive plan to rethink how we do almost everything in the city, from economic development, housing, and transportation to how we build our parks and schools, what we do with our waste, and where we get our power. A veritable alphabet soup of city agencies will need to rethink what they do and how they do it and collaborate in ways that they have never done before. Most importantly, every decision, no matter how small, will need to be considered through the dual lens of risk mitigation and social justice. This, indeed, is the stated purpose of Mayor de Balsio’s signature OneNYC plan. But despite its pretty pictures, OneNYC, like many of the mayor’s other signature initiatives (looking at you, Vision Zero), has led to few meaningful changes in how the city actually operates.
And those old ways of doing business are anachronisms. In 2019 the city’s Charter Revision Commission failed to advance a proposal to require the city to adopt a comprehensive planning mandate, so the city will continue to pretend that land use and development decisions are wholly separate from decisions about school siting, infrastructure, and transportation. Instead, the city’s antiquated Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) will continue to minimize community input into impactful new real estate developments and fail to connect these projects to any kind of long-term strategic vision for the kind of city we want to see.
Thousands of other U.S. communities have long understood that these issues must be addressed holistically, and this mindset is critical if we want to be more strategic about confronting future climate risks. Council Member Justin Brannan, in fact, introduced legislation back in 2019 to require a citywide waterfront resilience plan. Along with colleagues like Costa Constantinides, Brannan has also been a real leader in pushing the city to recognize and address its vulnerability to climate change. But these are just the first steps, and what we need is not only new and better plans, but a wholesale reimagining of how the city operates, including a true commitment to social and environmental justice.
New York’s climate change adaptation efforts need to heed the lessons that other communities, and even the federal government, have already begun to internalize. A week after taking office, President Biden put forth the Justice40 initiative creating a direct link between the nation’s investments in climate change mitigation and the effort to empower disadvantaged communities.
These efforts are not silver bullets, but they are a start. In New York City, we hear a lot of lofty rhetoric, but the pace of true change feels glacial, while the societal toll from climate change continues to accelerate. The city’s myopic and siloed approach to climate change adaptation results in contentious battles like the one currently playing out over the city’s East Side Coastal Resiliency project, and is why even seemingly simple climate justice solutions like equitably distributing safe bicycling routes seem unattainable.
Massive public investments and politically difficult regulatory decisions will need to be part of New York City’s efforts to address the perils of climate change. Just as importantly we will also need to remake our entire governance apparatus, acknowledging once and for all that risk mitigation and social justice are inextricably linked and foregrounding these intertwined goals in every single decision we make. This evolution won’t be easy, but anything less squanders the painful lessons of Ida and every disaster before it, warnings we ignore at our own peril.
Donovan Finn is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Design, Policy and Planning in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University. He is also a proud resident of Jackson Heights, Queens.