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

Urban resilience and climate change adaptation in New York

A volunteer picks litter along a sandy beach in Great Kills Park, Staten Island one year after Hurricane Irene paid a visit

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend 3 weeks in New York City this July, staying at my cousin’s place in mid-town Manhattan. I first visited New York back in the early 1990’s on a J1 visa from Ireland. As a teenager, I travelled alone on my first trip out of the country leaving behind the familiarity of rural West of Ireland for the most exciting and fast-moving city in the world. Incredibly I hadn’t been back since then although I’ve dreamt about it many times. I’m a firm believer that it’s rarely possible to relive the experiences and emotions evoked by a place no matter how long you wait. Expectations are meant to be broken. But this time I had a clear sense of purpose to justify revisiting the Big Apple. I wasn’t just another tourist with a photo album to fill with smiling pictures next to iconic city landmarks. I was an ever so slightly advanced version – a photographer with an empty leather-bound portfolio to fill. Views of the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building were replaced by those of power stations and litter-strewn beaches.

Rather ominously, the mercury tipped 100F on the day I arrived as large parts of the US Mid-west suffered from an epic drought causing crops to fail. New York is not the kind of city that you want to be lugging a heavy camera bag and tripod across. Heat, humidity, crowds, noise, traffic and air pollution all conspire to beat the most driven of photographers into submission. It was pretty clear to me after a couple of days that the most striking feature of New York was not the height of gleaming skyscrapers nor the bustle of grand avenues but rather how the man-made city interacted with it’s natural surroundings. Most dramatic of all is the spectacular view across a verdant Central Park hemmed in on all sides by towering blocks of concrete and glass.  But take a walk or subway ride far enough in any direction and sooner or later you will encounter water. Strutting bridges, cavernous tunnels and chugging ferries criss-cross the city’s harbour and rivers connecting all five boroughs and the rest of the mainland. I found myself spending a disproportionate amount of time along the waterfront visiting places that many native New Yorkers have never taken time to see. From marshes on wildlife reserves to beaches on the city fringes, from industrial landscapes to desirable riverside residences, I tried to get a sense of the city’s relationship with the water from a landlubber’s perspective.

Walking along Battery Park and the southern tip of Manhattan really brings home just how close one of the global centres of finance is to sea-level. Battery Park City, juts vulnerably into the Hudson on land reclaimed using earth excavated from the original World Trade Centre site. Housing the World Financial Center and a population of more than 10,000 living in high spec condominiums, it takes some stretch of the imagination on a sunny July day to picture this affluent neighbourhood under water.  But that is what happened earlier this week when the boardwalk was flooded by the tidal surge caused by Superstorm Sandy. Is this a waterfront development gone one step too far? This is not to say that city officials are guilty of ignoring the need to plan for the future sustainable growth and resilience of the city. After all, it’s rather hard to hide the fact that more than 200,000 New Yorkers live less than 4 feet above high tide – second only to New Orleans in the US.

PlaNYC was launched by the Mayor in 2007 “to prepare the city for one million more residents, strengthen our economy, combat climate change and enhance the quality of life for all New Yorkers” This is a rather grand plan that has now clearly been exposed as lacking teeth and real action on the ground. Enhancing and protecting wetlands, planning for sustainable storm-water management, adapting to climate change – there is certainly no lack of strategy at PlaNYC, although many of the reports are not freely available to the public. One such report prepared by a panel of leading science, legal and insurance experts with the backing of the Mayor’s office is entitled “Climate Change Adaptation in NYC: Building a risk management response”. Amongst the key findings, it says that “NYC should begin to adapt to climate change today…temperature increases and sea level rise are already occurring”.  And so this leads me on to question whether these leading experts are going to revise their assessment of the risks posed by climate change to the future resilience of NYC and whether the politicians are going to sit up and put concrete measures in place. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for New York in the same vein as other global cities such as London. The Thames Barrier is London’s main flood protection against tidal surges that make their way up the estuary from the North Sea. New York has no such luxury. A sea barrier would need to be constructed at multiple points across the waterscape at an estimated cost of $10 billion. But if the city takes a hit of $20 billion on the current superstorm disaster as widely reported in the media, would that not be money well spent? Earlier this year, Climate Central, a non-profit organization that conducts research on climate change and communicates findings to the public, launched an interactive map called “Surging Seas”.  Anyone can select their neighbourhood in the US and use a slider to adjust sea levels to see the impact on local population, homes etc. When I used the tool for The Battery in New York, I was told that there is more than a 1 in 6 chance that a combined sea level rise, storm surge and tide would exceed 10 feet on or after the year 2100. And yet floodwaters reached almost 14 feet this week – many decades before the end of the century. To my mind, this shows that far from scaremongering, our scientists are being over-conservative in their judgments.

New Yorkers and fellow Americans along the East Coast are still dealing with the more pressing issues of restoring power, pumping water from subways and repairing damaged property in the aftermath of the storm’s destruction. But it won’t be long before the American public begins to ask questions of its political, business and community leaders about why their neighbourhoods were so unprepared for an event such as this. You may say that there hasn’t been a precedent but that isn’t entirely true. Hurricane Irene came dangerously close to flooding the subway last year. Not to mention Hurricane Katrina – lessons learnt in one city apparently but the same logic has not been extended to other coastal communities. Comparisons with the single greatest destructive event in the history of New York will inevitably be made. Is this latest superstorm another 9/11 moment in the history of the city (and the nation) where general consensus is swayed into taking action against another rather undefined and unforeseen threat to the city? A so-called “tipping point”. I fully understand that making any comparison with such a momentous occasion that is ingrained in the nation’s psyche is controversial. Ground Zero is hallowed ground not just in a physical sense but in a metaphysical sense also. But equally, it would be irresponsible to ignore the many similarities between both events.

Climate change and environmental issues have largely been ignored in equal measure by the Obama and Romney camps in the current presidential race. The political future of America has been framed in such a way that leaves no room for discussion on a topic that we are told will not create jobs and will only become an unnecessary financial burden on an already debt-stricken economy. A fallacy of course, but not one that I intend to debate here and now. US politicians have always succeeded in rallying support by confronting real or imaginary enemies. A struggling economy as a threat to the American way of life or a terrorist-led Jihad as a threat to the nation’s security.  Perhaps now a new threat will be added to that list – the threat to the future resilience and indeed the very existence of major cities such as New York. Neither of the main political parties has seized upon man-made pollution as a threat to the nation’s health and future sustainability in this election campaign. It is probably too late with barely a week to go until polls close. Recent events are too fresh and too raw in the minds of citizens along the East Coast to make it a campaigning issue. Nevertheless, no matter which administration makes it into the White House, it will ignore the lessons of the past few days at its peril.

Taking the Staten Island Ferry across New York Harbour, one of the world’s great natural harbours, is an exhilarating (and gratifyingly free) experience. I made the extra journey down to Great Kills Park in the southeast of the island on a sweltering July day, past the hoards of beachgoers along FDR boardwalk and beach. I walked along a narrow deserted spit of land until I could go no further. There I met a bronzed and greying volunteer picking litter along the beach. Joe talked about the debris washed ashore when the tail-end of Hurricane Irene swept through the region in 2011. Back then the beach was strewn with great big hunks of driftwood. Today, the scene in nearby Great Kills Marina is rather more sobering. Boats are flung at odd angles onto Mansion Avenue and neighbouring streets wreaking havoc on the local community. Elsewhere on the island, helicopters pluck stranded residents from the roofs of homes as flood-waters swirl below. Perhaps a new frontline has just been drawn in the battle to protect America’s citizens from the ravages of an enemy (climate change) that too many people would rather believe did not exist.

Links –

Climate Central Sea Surge website

PlaNYC website

Climate Change Adaptation in NYC summary report

Staten Island live news story