Teaming up for Coastal Resilience and Climate Justice in New York

Teaming up for Coastal Resilience and Climate Justice in New York

by Paul Gallay, Annel Hernandez and Eddie Bautista
|January 31, 2022

A photo of a UPROSE March for Climate Justice in September 2021. UPROSE is a member of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance.

New York’s historic waterfronts have been transformed since their heyday in the mid-20th century, with legacy activities like shipping, manufacturing and waste disposal giving way to new parks, office complexes and entertainment, large retail and often controversial. density residential developments. Even still-industrialized waterways like Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal are increasingly sharing space with residential and commercial developmentsyou it seemed unimaginable just a few decades ago.

As significant as this waterfront transformation is, the New York coastline will face far more drastic risks and changes in the years to come. According to recent projections by the New York City Panel on Climate Changesea levels in the 2050s are likely to be 11 to 21 inches higher than in 2000. Heavy downpours like Hurricane Ida and huge storm surges like those seen during Super Storm Sandy will become more frequent, with the greatest impacts affecting communities already most vulnerable due to a history of redlining, divestment and other policies of inequitable land use. Yet these same communities are often sidelined in the planning and development of projects that take on a top-down and exclusive character.

The urgent need to address the increasing risk of storm surge, flash flooding and sea level rise, locally and globally, in an inclusive and holistic manner, has led the Climate School to make coastal resilience one of its top four priorities. transdisciplinary initiatives. Here in the New York metropolitan area, this initiative will be served by a new Resilient Coastal Communities Project (RCCP), under the auspices of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University, in partnership with the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.

flooding on the highway

Flash flooding on the Long Island Highway from Hurricane Ida, September 2021. Flooding killed 11 people who lived in basements. Photo: Tommy Gao

The primary goal of the project will be to foster new collaborations between environmental justice communities, practitioners, and researchers, as envisioned by Columbia’s Directed Action Working Group Reportto help develop achievable, fundable and equitable solutions to flood risk that also provide co-benefits, such as habitat restoration, job creation and greater community cohesion – and putting into practice the The Climate School’s commitment to equity, social justice and anti-racism.

Columbia’s partner in the RCCP, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA) is a citywide network connecting grassroots organizations from low-income neighborhoods and communities of color in their fight for justice environmental and climatic. NYC-EJA member communities are disproportionately burdened by flood risk, proximity to potential toxic waterfront exposures, lack of green and open spaces, air pollution, and extreme heat. NYC-EJA research has shown that areas designated by the city as “significant marine and industrial areas,” designed to encourage the clustering of heavy, polluting industrial infrastructure, are primarily located in environmental justice communities and all located in storm surge areas. Yet the risks of cumulative toxic exposures from sources such as major petroleum storage facilities, bulk chemical storage, and auto shops to workers and nearby residents still require further analysis. Looking ahead, NYC-EJA envisions innovative climate adaptation and resilience strategies that include green infrastructure, nature-based solutions, functioning waterfronts, and good local jobs.

However, to make the most of these potential opportunities, NYC-EJA and the Climate School must address a series of risk scenarios, given that New York City and other coastal communities are subject to at least three threats from: distinct floods: storm surge, sea level rise and flash flooding. Fortunately, a 2019 report released as part of the Army Corps’ Study of the Port and Tributaries of New York and New Jersey identifies over 40 different flood control techniques, including structural measures such as levees, berms and surge barriers, non-structural approaches such as extensive street-level green infrastructure programs and combined sewer overflow reduction strategies, and nature-based solutions like living shorelines, wetland restoration, aquatic vegetation, and oyster reefs. The RCCP will help identify which of these techniques are likely to work best along the New York and New Jersey shores, so that they can be combined into community-specific coastal resilience plans addressing the three threats of flood described above.

After the loss of life and physical damage to our communities during Super Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Ida, it is clear that we need better flood risk reduction plans as quickly as possible. Investments in coastal resilience are not keeping pace with urgent climate risks. But, at the same time, we must confront the flaws of previous flood planning exercises that failed to center communities and consider ecosystems. Resilience planning and federally funded investments after Super Hurricane Sandy failed to meet the needs of diverse local communities. On the Hunts Point Peninsula in the Bronx, resilience planning processes have not centered neighborhood priorities calling for ecologically grounded coastal protection and its many co-benefits including open space, stormwater retention , heat mitigation and improved air quality. At Newtown Creek in Brooklyn, a recent storm surge barrier feasibility study did not extend to all riverside communities and did not fully assess the impacts of heavy rains and combined sewer overflow, as well than the benefits of shoreline interventions. To develop fair and effective solutions to the flood risks we face, we must center the deep store of wisdom that resides in our communities and put government expertise to work in a true planning partnership with communities.

Fostering greater community empowerment in coastal resilience planning is at the heart of the Resilient Coastal Communities Project. That’s why NYC-EJA and the Center for Sustainable Urban Development are launching their new partnership by inviting representatives from local environmental and climate justice organizations to share their experiences from past resilience planning efforts, give their perspective on what constitutes a truly fair and equitable planning process. would look at and explain the resources they would need to participate fully and effectively in future planning projects. The RCCP team and advisors share what has been learned and work with community, academic, government, and nonprofit stakeholders to develop more effective and collaborative decision-making models. Other key objectives of the RCCP include supporting research to help inform the design of resilience plans, helping the public better understand coastal flooding, and building on the momentum provided by recent legislative and policy commitments centered on climate resilience and equity.

In New York, the most significant of these recent climate commitments is the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA of 2019), a transformative law with aggressive goals and an investment mandate for disadvantaged communities. At the federal level, the Justice40 Initiative, modeled on the CLCPA, set a similar goal that 40% of overall investment profits should go to disadvantaged communities to advance environmental justice. This directive means that new and existing federal climate change investments must prioritize disadvantaged communities and provide benefits that can include community resilience plans, technical assistance and community engagement, increased flood mitigation through restoration of wetlands and green infrastructure, and more.

This is a time when change is possible. Federal support for coastal resilience continues to grow, thanks to recent legislation like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act 2021which will pump over $13 billion in flood protection projects, and Water Resources Development Act 2020which orders the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to enhance past resilience planning efforts taking a closer look at sea level rise and heavy rains, becoming more committed to natural solutions to flooding, and engaging in more effective consultation with local communities, especially on concerns environmental justice and climate justice. Locally, the new NYC Full Waterfront Plan presents its own set of goals and recommendations for better protecting and utilizing New York’s waterfront and coastlines. Of course, these new laws won’t apply on their own – we still need our federal, state and local officials to put in place a more inclusive planning process, provide appropriate funding for community engagement to this process and sponsor further research on flood risk reduction strategies. .

Nine years after Super Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers are still waiting for the needed infrastructure investments in coastal protection and shoreline resilience that can protect frontline communities, as well as provide new opportunities to strengthen community networks and create the new jobs needed for effective resilience strategies. If the Resilient Coastal Communities Project is successful, the next coastal transformation of New York City and surrounding communities could not only find us drier, but live in communities that are more equitable, vibrant, connected, and ecologically healthy.

Paul Gallai leads the Resilient Coastal Communities Project and is a senior executive at Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development. Annel Hernandez teaches environmental justice and climate resilience at Columbia’s School for International and Public Affairs. Eddie Bautista is the executive director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance.


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