Building a Resilient New York City Begins At The Water’s Edge

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Jonathan Hilburg, C+S ’17

Any New York City history buff can tell you how closely the city’s fortunes are intertwined with the rivers and estuaries that snake around the five boroughs. Manhattan alone has 32 miles of coastline, but public access to that waterfront has fallen under the shadow of expressways on both the east and west sides of the island.

In 2017, New York’s waterways are a shadow of what they once were, and that could spell disaster.

Decades of industrial dumping along both rivers, up until the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1977, has left both the Hudson and East Rivers — the two rivers that flank Manhattan — contaminated even 40 years later. Polychlorinated biphenyls are a group of cancer causing chemicals produced as industrial waste that can still be found in local waters today, making most fish caught in the rivers unsafe to eat.

Climate change is now adding a new layer of complexity to the Manhattan shoreline. Coastal communities such as the Upper East Side and East Harlem are becoming more vulnerable to environmental disaster as seas rise. In the event of a typical 100-year storm, these areas would likely flood all the way into the eastern half of Central Park.

While these specific neighborhoods were not impacted as severely as others in the city during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, this was due to the low tide in New York Harbor at the time of the storm.

A flood map of the Upper East Side and part of East Harlem (Source: FEMA)

The work I’m doing with CIVITAS, a non-profit environmental and planning group focusing on the Upper East Side and East Harlem, aims to remedy these problems. Through pushing for a redevelopment of the East River Esplanade — the stretch of waterfront from West 60th St. to West 125th St. — I’ve been involved with helping bring climate change resiliency and open-space access to the East Harlem community all while trying to improve river health.

The esplanade runs for more than 60 blocks and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to updating it. In some areas, the platform will have to be raised an additional 8-10 feet higher. In others, artificially created hills will be installed at the edge of the FDR. Importantly, no proposed solution can cut into space meant for pedestrians. That means usability won’t be sacrificed for the sake of storm protection infrastructure.

The recent proposed rezoning of East Harlem by the New York Mayor’s Office has provided a unique opportunity to address resiliency issues. By taking community concerns into account, a redevelopment plan for the waterfront can solve both ecological as well as social challenges.

CIVITAS, jointly with City Council Member Ben Kallos, has commissioned a comprehensive study of sustainability-focused development schemes for the Esplanade, breaking it into several smaller sections.

Proposed Esplanade redevelopment scheme (Source: Matthew Nielsen Architects and CIVITAS)

A study by Hunter College found that East Harlem is uniquely vulnerable to natural and manmade disasters. Any redevelopment would also have to protect against climate change-related coastal flooding from the Harlem and East Rivers.

Demographics in East Harlem skew poorer and older than the city as a whole. There are also many older buildings in disrepair as well as critical electrical and transportation infrastructure hubs in low-lying areas. Compared to issues like job security or open space access, residents ranked natural disaster risk at the very bottom of their quality of life concerns when surveyed.

Restoring the health of the river was also seen as a priority goal by CIVITAS and environmental organizations. Working with the New York Harbor School, a marine biology oriented high school on Governor’s Island, CIVITAS is planning to re-introduce native oysters to the area.

While some areas of the river are more than capable of supporting life, others are dead zones where surveys have failed to find even microorganisms. An important part of the redevelopment is to foster aquatic life wherever possible, with the hope that the new oysters will help to improve the surrounding water quality and increase biodiversity.

All of this planning is built on top of public visioning, a process where stakeholders come together and lay out what they think should be the project’s top priorities. Because the New York City Parks Department and Office of Recovery and Resilience are handling the actual construction, making sure that the public has a say in the process is mandated under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s OneNYC plan.

Pitched as a roadmap to a sustainable future City, OneNYC requires resiliency projects to involve the community and to attempt to tie climate and social solutions together.

Over the course of my time with CIVITAS, I’ve seen how hard this can be. My role has been to not only research resiliency and ecological strategies for the esplanade itself, but to also act as a mediator between CIVITAS, the city, and the community.

It hasn’t always been easy. Stakeholders include the city and private interests as well as local residents, and meetings on any phase of the project inevitably involves juggling different priorities while making sure that everyone’s voice is heard.

Despite working towards a common goal, the politicians involved have, at times, not been the easiest to work with. While everyone wants to contribute, there are often times where the elected officials lean more towards wanting the project to favor their represented neighborhood, or simply don’t have the time to meet with us.

Whether it’s with the Parks Department, the Mayor’s Office, or the local community boards, my project manager and I have had to deal with shifting budget priorities, physical seawall collapses, and at times, an unclear direction. Hopefully we will be able to keep everyone on track, and help build a more resilient New York.

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