To Survive Climate Change, Coastal Cities Need Strong Communities

Extreme Cities / Sierra Club

Ashley Dawson, author of Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change believes cities, which now hold 70 percent of the world’s population, are “ground zero” for climate change. This is because they contribute the largest amount of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere and are also the most vulnerable to rising sea levels. Mega cities, which are mostly found in coastal areas, are not “adequately prepared for the floods that will increasingly menace their shores.” Instead, the pursuit of development-as-usual — with the seemingly-unending growth of luxury condos and insulated “live work play” communities — means many coastal cities have effectively stuck their heads in the sand. Efforts to bolster cities’ protections through resilient planning and design have largely been superficial and won’t protect the most vulnerable.

Despite the warning signs of impacts to come, like Hurricane Sandy in the Tri-state region, cities remain focused on growth, growth, growth. Dawson cites the economist David Harvey, who argues that a “‘healthy’ capitalist economy must expand at annual rate of 3 percent. If it ceases to do so, it goes into crisis, as it did in 2008.”

In our capitalist system, continuous growth has resulted in great gains, so the world is now “awash with ‘surplus liquity'” or excess capital. And all of that money needs a place to go: “Capital has turned to the city, where fixed plots of land promise to increase in value as more of the world’s population migrates to urban centers. Real-estate speculation provides a way for economies to grow as production declines. In other words, the city is a growth machine, and speculative real estate development functions as a sink for surplus capital. Sixty percent of global wealth today is invested in real estate.”

The resulting real estate boom, and rise in housing costs, can be seen everywhere from New York City to Rio de Janeiro, from Los Angeles to Shanghai. And for Dawson, it’s no accident that coastal cities are also the starting point for mass movements fighting inequality, like Occupy Wall Street, which began in NYC’s Zuccotti Park with its call to heed the “99 percent,” and the mass protests that began in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park.

Over-development in coastal cities has caused other problems beyond increasing social tensions and inequities. Market forces are driving development to “produce greater risk, vulnerability, and environmental disasters.” Cities are not only wrecking their immediate environments, but also causing deforestation, with their demand for commodities, and climate change, with their incredible heating and cooling needs, urban industries, and inefficient transportation systems. “As Mike Davis outs it, ‘city life is rapidly destroying the ecological niche — Holocene climate stability — which made its evolution into complexity possible.”

The “luxury city” — the most-elite slice of urban life — is even more destructive. In New York City, high-end condos are the most polluting. “In a report entitled Elite Emissions, the Climate Works for All coalition notes that ‘a mere two percent of the city’s one million buildings use 45 percent of all the city’s energy.”

While he sprinkles in cases from Jakarta, New Orleans, Rotterdam, and other cities, Dawson mostly focuses on New York City, where he examines how the city’s leadership and communities have responded to increased vulnerability to climate change. He is largely critical of governmental efforts, but sees hope in how local community groups have formed to devise solutions, like the Sandy Regional Assembly, an alliance of forty groups that came together in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to create a more equitable city-wide resilience strategy.

He is particularly critical of PlaNYC, a comprehensive planning effort by the administration of mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007 to address climate change. It’s described as “an effort to promote an urban sustainability fix, a solution to capitalism’s periodic crises of accumulation that combines rampant real estate speculation with a variety of enticing yet relatively superficial greening initiatives.”

While the Bloomberg administration pushed for emissions reductions through PlaNYC — largely through energy-efficient buildings and switching from coal to natural gas — it also promoted waterfront development at a massive scale in Lower Manhattan, far west side, and in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg, DUMBO, Red Hook, Gowanus, and Coney Island. All this waterfront development had the unfortunate side effect of making coastal communities even more vulnerable.

Dawson argues that in reality, a serious climate plan “would involve moving people and buildings out of flood zones,” an approach the Bloomberg administration opposed as it ran counter to their “ambitious — and lucrative — plans for developing the city’s nearly 600 miles of waterfront.” Others called for the city to buy up waterfront property in order to prevent development — reserving these spaces as green buffers, which also failed to occur.

In later chapters, Dawson describes how environmental “blowback” is already having a major impact on coastal cities. As the estuaries upon which coastal megacities are built are being destroyed, it’s becoming even clearer the vital ecological role those underlying systems play.

Natural systems that once served as critical buffers to storm surges — like Jamaica Bay in Queens, New York — are degrading. And he argues “the transformation of devalued landscapes like Jamaica Bay’s marshes has also exposed nearby residents to even greater risk.” While restoration efforts are underway, there is no guarantee of success given the conditions of the area are shifting so fast with climate change.

In a chapter entitled “the Jargon of Resilience,” Dawson warns against the “utopian hopes of modern architects and urban planners,” particularly those associated with the Rebuild by Design program initiated by the Rockefeller Foundation, because they create a “false sense of security, leading people to build up risk in fundamentally unsustainable sites.”

He argues projects that came out of Rebuild by Design effort, like the Big U in Lower Manhattan, which will use parks made of berms and flood gates to protect the financial district and other neighborhoods, “actually increase risk rather than diminishing it.” Furthermore, the BIG U will just displace water to other places: “Where will the water that the BIG U turns aside go? It is likely to end up in adjacent communities with large poor populations such as Red Hook, where Hurricane Sandy hit public housing particularly hard.”

Dawson appreciates the ecological logic of the much-celebrated Living Breakwaters project by SCAPE Landscape Architecture but argues that it “confronts a number of intractable environmental problems that are likely to make it unsustainable in the long term.”

Dawson’s essential critique is that too much of the climate adaptation and resilience efforts of city governments in New York City and elsewhere have been top-down, without much real community input. He believes truly equitable resilience planning can only come if strong local communities make their voices heard. Socially-resilient communities can demand “radical adaptation” — “new forms of collective, democratic planning.” Empowered, informed communities can figure out the resilient plans and designs they need to protect themselves. And only these communities can survive the next storm and rebuild.

Waking up to the new realities requires getting a clear view of the risks — and even increasing exposure to them. For Dawson, landscape architects like Kate Orff, ASLA, founder of SCAPE, and educators like University of Pennslvania landscape architecture professor Anuradha Matur, and Harvard University planner Dilip da Cunha potentially have the answers, with their call for “soft” defenses that would buffer communities from storms but also be visible and integrated into the ecosystems of the coastal city.

The mega-city of the near future can build “more permeable borders, allowing for natural flux and for the flourishing of inter-tidal habitats such as wetlands and marshes.” This vision will require a re-balancing between city and nature, a retreat from high-risk areas, along with an end to luxury development on waterfronts.

One thought on “To Survive Climate Change, Coastal Cities Need Strong Communities

  1. Gus Drum 07/25/2018 / 4:20 pm

    Interesting article on the risks to coastal cities due to potential changes in sea level and future storms that bring storm surge and waves into urban areas. Katrina and Sandy were good examples of the types of storms that could be seen in the future and the damages and loss of life they caused should be a wake up call for coastal cities. Losses to some urban areas in MS were nearly total due to storm surge and wave impacts.
    I saw the array of proposals for NYC and its adjacent communities at a recent ASLA conference. They were nicely done, but given what was experienced during Katrina and Sandy, those proposals may not have performed very well. If we actually give any credence to future sea level rise and larger storms then we do need to consider evacuating portions of the coast that are now highly developed and at risk. Otherwise, urban designs need to start at 15-20 feet above the ground surface and go up.
    Without designing robust structures and landscapes that can weather the rigors of storm surge and wave energy, current development will continue to suffer damages and drive up insurance costs. Retreat in certain high risk areas is the best policy and converting that evacuated coast into low density recreation areas and wildlife areas might be the best solution.

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