Five Years After Superstorm Sandy, Is New York City Better Prepared for the Next Mega Storm?

Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella

Five years ago, New York City began the long task of recovering and rebuilding in the wake of Sandy, one of the worst storms in the U.S. history in terms of physical devastation and loss of life. According to the National Weather Service, the cyclone generated a “worst case scenario for storm surge for coastal regions” in New York and its neighboring states. Today, as severe storms correlated with climate change escalate nationwide, is the city better prepared for the next mega storm? The answer is yes and no.

More nimble than the federal government, New York has taken a tactical, diversified approach to solutions that has some advantages. The NYC Panel on Climate Change 2015 triggered new thinking about human health risks and vulnerable populations and also built awareness that flood risk reduction must account for stormwater in the future.

OneNYC, an on-going mayoral initiative, seeks to strengthen community-based organizations to prepare and respond to disasters.

NYC’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency’s (ORR) climate change resilience guidelines introduced extreme heat and extreme precipitation to the area’s list of natural disasters and moves the discussion away from “protection” to “resilience” of the useful life of a critical infrastructure investment.

And the Department of City Planning (DCP) has recognized that the city’s zoning codes are ossified, opening significant opportunities for designers to produce a more resilient urban realm.

However, with the exception of Build It Back projects, no federally-funded resilience program has been implemented, leaving New York area residents virtually as vulnerable as, and certainly more frustrated than they were immediately after the storm.

More local agencies need to move the needle towards better waterfront planning and design by addressing ecological system benefits and increasing awareness of neighborhood needs. And the city needs to take steps to curb the root causes of climate change in the absence of federal leadership. If nothing else, the many resilient design lessons learned from Sandy have revealed the need for widespread change at the federal, local, and community levels.

At the federal level, most resilience implementation funding is based on stringent Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) requirements, including the reconstruction of a damaged or destroyed property in the same location and elevation and using the same materials. The National Flood Insurance Program requires that you rebuild on affected land even if it is repeatedly flooded. Low-lying areas demonstrate that these approaches are no longer fiscally responsible. Relocation must be considered.

A post-Sandy design team, including Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA), McLaren Engineering Group, Garrison Architects, LTL Architects, Sage & Coombe Architects, and several city agencies, worked to address beachfront restoration location concerns in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens by providing modular, elevated lifeguard stations and comfort stations on their own “islands” to recoup area beaches. The team employed integrated wave attenuation and topographic change along with shoreline plantings to mitigate future storms.

Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella
Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella
Phase 1 Beachfront Restoration in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens / Elizabeth Felicella

Locally, slow decision-making on FEMA-certified projects by operationally-strapped city agencies is being exacerbated by federal and local flood protection data variances. Additionally, FEMA’s maps do not adequately account for sea level rise and rapid rain accumulation, and it is politically challenging to change National Flood Insurance Program maps. Federal agencies should consider local conditions and seek to provide broader solutions on a local basis.

New York realizes that resilience requires a regional response, but action often succumbs to inertia in the face of budget shortfalls and cost uncertainty due to natural and physical conditions related to soils; contamination; utilities relocations; and stormwater collection, storage tanks, and pumps; and other considerations.

Many touched by Rebuild by Design planning and design efforts now feel they are not getting promised ecosystem services and broader community benefits and remain concerned about aging infrastructure, basement and street flooding, contamination, water quality, zoning, and related issues.

Communities are often confused by projects that purport to offer “protection” versus “flood risk reduction.” The elevation of these measures seems guided more by available construction dollars than by intelligent, regional strategies.

In partnership with Civitas, MNLA developed a visionary plan to support growing sentiment that the East River waterfront can serve as a major recreational and environmental resource for East Harlem, the Upper East Side, and all of New York City. We researched and analyzed conditions from 60th Street to 125th streets and conducted in-depth community and stakeholder outreach.

The result is a plan that identifies short, medium, and long-term opportunities that combine strategies to protect neighborhoods from storm surge, improve water quality, create littoral habitat, and expand waterfront recreation. This multi-faceted design approach is an example of feasible design solutions that can restore resilience to a critical link along Manhattan’s waterfront.

East River Esplanade / MNLA
East River Esplanade / MNLA

The key post-Sandy takeaway is that federally-promulgated resilience measures can have negative impacts on communities.

Instead, every dollar must be directed towards projects that provide multiple benefits that fuel future storm resilience.

As designers, we can enhance results through inclusive and comprehensive communications with all of our constituencies during the design process, engaging a spectrum of urban challenges, and proposing multi-faceted solutions for our clients.

This guest post is by Signe Nielsen, FASLA, a founding principal of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects (MNLA) and practicing landscape architect and urban designer in New York since 1978. Nielsen is also a professor of urban design and landscape architecture at Pratt Institute in both the graduate and undergraduate schools of architecture and serves as president of the Public Design Commission of the City of New York.

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