Using wetlands to protect New York City from future flooding disasters

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge part of the Gateway National Recreation Area in New York

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge part of the Gateway National Recreation Area in New York

For those looking for solitude and a slice of beach-life within the confines of New York City, Breezy Point is without doubt an attractive proposition. Located near the tip of the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, it faces onto the Atlantic Ocean on two sides with the Rockaway Point Boulevard as the only access route, unless you have a boat that is. The wooden bungalows follow a tightly packed street grid shaped like a wedge and with no natural firebreaks. Both factors contributed to be the most devastating fire in New York City for 150 years when more than 111 properties were destroyed in a single night exactly one month today (October 29, 2012).

Sandwiched between Fort Tilden and Jacob Riis Park to the North-east and Breezy Point Tip to the South-west, the largely summertime settlement of Breezy Point interrupts what would otherwise be a 4.5 mile long stretch of relatively undeveloped parkland, beach and strangely enough a parking lot for 5,000 cars. Lax planning laws and subsidized insurance premiums that neglected to price the true risk from flooding and other disasters allowed the birth of a new middle-class community at Breezy Point in the 1960s. A cooperative was formed with its own private security force and no fewer than 3 volunteer fire departments, which ironically were of little use when Hurricane Sandy struck land. Today it is home to the 2nd highest concentration of Irish-Americans in the US comprising 60.3% of the local population. Sandy has not only burned their homes to a cinder but has also potentially ripped apart an entire community. As an Irishman in exile myself, I could also have been easily lured to the shores of what is affectionately referred to as the Irish Riviera or “Cois Farraige” (Gaelic for “by the seaside”).

Breezy Point is the more affordable alternative to the well-healed communities further along the Atlantic coast in places like the Hamptons on Long Island. However, this is likely to change due to stricter planning requirements in newly mapped flood hazard zones making it affordable only for the rich. Insurance premiums are likely to increase by 20% per year according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with the National Flood Insurance Programme already mired in debt to the tune of $18 billion in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Building urban resilience is not just about investing in the right kinds of infrastructure but also about building sustainable communities that can afford to support themselves now and into the future, based on the true cost of potential natural disasters due to climate change.

One alternative, albeit a controversial one, is the notion that the entire neighbourhood of Breezy Point should be allowed to revert to Nature as part of a strategic withdrawal. Replacing residential and commercial land uses with spaces safe to be flooded is a technique called “managed retreat”. Brooklyn Bridge Park is one good example. However, this is unlikely to appeal to the fighting spirit of those who are instilled with the belief that it is unpatriotic to submit to an enemy. A recent headline in USA Today exclaimed “Breezy Point: Drowned, burned, but unbowed”. Breezy Point is largely a community of retirees with a population that triples during the summer months. Relocation with compensation could be possible but that is unlikely to pay for the break up of an entire community and a lost paradise. This only serves to underline the importance of getting planning laws in order so that homes such as those at Breezy Point are never built in the first place. President Obama has pledged to rebuild storm-torn neighbourhoods in Queens and Staten Island – but is this really the best way forward?

I was fortunate to visit New York for the month of July when I fought hard not to succumb to the seductive lights of Manhattan and instead took a path less travelled in search of urban nature lying within the city boundaries. Two of the sites I happened to visit, Jamaica Bay and Great Kills Park, reopened to the public only recently. These are part of a network of eleven parks that comprise the Gateway National Recreation Area visited by 10 million people annually and managed by the National Park Service. Fort Tilden, Jacob Riis Park and Breezy Point Tip on the Rockaway Peninsula are other outposts of this network. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Brooklyn is just a stone’s throw from the busy skies of JFK International Airport – an unlikely location for a birdlife haven in the US North-east. I took a stroll around the park in the searing summer heat through extensive salt marshes, spotting white egrets, Canadian geese and an abundance of horseshoe crabs along the way. The freshwater West Pond I walked along has since been breached by the sea in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, leaving local wildlife in a precarious position. I entered the visitor’s centre, which is housed in an energy efficient Gold LEED certified building, and asked one of the rangers about climate change adaptation in the park. He described how the island marshes in Jamaica Bay are disappearing due to sea-level rise and erosion. Now he has a whole new set of problems to address as the impacts of climate change are felt on an entirely new scale.

But although New York’s wetlands have taken a battering by Sandy, they are actually a key defence for the protection of the city’s citizens against future flooding disasters. Wetlands provide natural flood control by temporarily holding and absorbing floodwater, reducing the energy of storm surges and helping to control erosion of the shoreline. They also provide critical habitat for fish and birdlife, as well as unique opportunities for recreation and education within the confines of a bustling metropolis. They even sequester some of the CO2 in the atmosphere that causes climate change and the resultant predisposition to severe weather. In 2009, PlaNYC published a report entitled “New York City Wetlands: Regulatory Gaps and Other Threats”. Although the NYC Park System includes more than 10,000 aces of undeveloped forest, tidal and freshwater wetlands, the city has only 1% of its historic freshwater wetlands and 10% of its historic tidal wetlands. The Wetlands Transfer Task Force (WTTF) found that the extent of smaller wetlands, which are outside the protection of the State and Federal Law, is unknown. Detailed mapping of these small wetlands is a critical next step using satellite imagery and aerial photography.  Another key step they proposed was to identify areas where natural expansion of tidal wetlands is likely and possible. Leading New York architectural firm, Architecture Research Office (ARO), who proposed enhancing soft infrastructure along New York’s waterfront, lends further weight to this argument. Impacts to New Orleans and other communities along the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina were in part due to development decisions that reduced wetlands and the natural protections from storm surge that they provide.

Soft infrastructure comprises initiatives such as the restoring and building of wetlands, porous pavements and offshore natural reefs as opposed to hard infrastructure, which includes building levees, dykes and sea-walls. For instance, ARO propose creating a “soft edge” around Lower Manhattan where the borders between land and water are blurred by an artificial wetland. The terms “hard” and “soft” can also be extended to personalities – confrontation versus collaboration – the US Army Corps of Engineers on one side facing a coalition of landscape architects, ecologists and creative-thinkers. Governor Andrew M Cuomo recently declared his support for building a seawall to protect New Yorkers, whereas Mayor Michael R Bloomberg is predisposed towards investment in soft infrastructure. But the cost of building storm surge gates at key-points such as the Verrazano Narrows and the Arthur Kill could cost a staggering $23 billion. Building a seawall is an all-or-nothing approach – potentially lulling people into a false sense of security until they are one day breached. Sea level rise due to climate change is based on a set of predictions based on different scenarios that err of the side of caution. What if the scientists have underestimated the extent of melting polar ice and sea levels rise even further than predicted? Building new wetlands and restoring existing ones, which are allowed to flood and cushion residential areas and offices, is potentially a far more affordable approach.

Returning to the 500-acre Breezy Point, it is perhaps more obvious than ever that this small community, which is surrounded on two sides by the Gateway National Recreation Area, is no longer sustainable in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Maybe it is time to not only extend the Gateway National Recreation Area on Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, but to also consider expanding the network of soft infrastructure for flood defense across all New York boroughs? Hurricane Sandy may have hit Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn and Great Kills Park on Staten Island hard but they are reopening and will recover with time. Nature has a way of healing itself.

Useful Links –

USA Today –  Breezy Point: Drowned, burned, but unbowed

Architecture Research Office – Soft waterfront infrastructure

PlaNYC – New York City Wetlands report

Gateway National Recreation Area website

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *