NEW YORK -- It didn't take long for critics to pounce on Mayor Michael Bloomberg's 250 ideas for adapting the Big Apple to more intense storms and floods. But a survey of experts produced a surprisingly unified view: For the most part, they approve.
In a campaign-style event last week, the three-term independent with less than 200 days left in office trotted out a 438-page report. It had nearly $20 billion worth of project ideas for defending the city.
The plan is heavy on protection, proposing to build sea walls, levees, embankments and artificial wetlands to help reduce the damage of future storms and divert water away from city structures. It is meant as both a response to Superstorm Sandy and a forward-looking playbook for how this low-lying metropolis adapts to the threats like sea-level rise and more extreme storms that scientists say are linked to man-made climate change.
The resiliency blueprint would also enact policies to help homeowners deal with higher flood insurance premiums, encourage microgrids and distributed generation to avoid blackouts, and, most controversially, start work on a new waterfront district called Seaport City on the east side of lower Manhattan meant to help with storm-surge protection.
It does not back earlier proposals for a massive multibillion-dollar sea gate in the New York Harbor, nor does it say much about how to avoid the massive flooding of the subway system that left millions of workers stranded or hoofing it to work after Sandy soaked the region last year.
To its most vocal critics, the plan is a bandage against future storms and floods that is too heavy on defense structures and too light on, say, moving neighborhoods out of low-lying zones. And the Seaport City idea has been panned by some as a bone for waterfront-hungry real estate developers that would bring no net "resiliency" benefit to an area that lost power for weeks after Sandy barreled past.
Too much reliance on barriers?
The Stockholm Environment Institute has been out in front of the crowd that says Bloomberg's approach is more bandage than solution to the underlying problem. SEI's Marion Davis warns that "a plan built entirely on fortification ... creates a very high-stakes situation: As long as the barriers hold, you're safe, but if anything fails, you're in a catastrophic situation."
SEI is spearheading a movement among low-lying in cities in Europe, some of which have been damaged by flooding in recent weeks, to adopt climate plans that would let the water in, rather than just building barriers to block it or divert it. The theory states that water is going to force its way in one way or another, so these cities might as well learn to live with it.
Bloomberg has included provisions on infrastructure to help absorb the water when it crests during a storm surge, but the defensive measures are sure to be the most expensive and likely to garner the most attention. SEI research fellow Åse Johannessen says humans living in coastal zones and alongside rivers have long changed where water goes to make those areas more livable.
So now that there's an opportunity to shift how we live where we live, he believes more thought should go into adjusting land use to reduce exposure -- not just absorb the water. "We have developed these river basins for centuries, and that has altered the water flows to increase flood risk," he said.
SEI has cited Copenhagen's resiliency plan as ideal along these lines. The Danish city has enacted a policy that seeks to defend flood-prone zones where it can but starts to look at larger sewers and expanded underground basins and pumping stations to drain the city more effectively. Davis urged New York City to adopt the same sort of mix of solutions, to possibly include a massive overhaul of how stormwater is managed in the city's aging sewer system.
Are high property values related to protection?
Vivien Gornitz, a scientist at Columbia University and member of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, says she gets the point of such arguments but believes the mayor's plan to strengthen coastal defenses and refit buildings to make them more flood-resistant "should largely be adequate to protect against coastal storms for at least the next few decades."
"There would be tremendous political and popular resistance to abandon existing built-up, low-lying neighborhoods at this time," she said, noting that she was expressing a personal view, not the official view of the science panel, which contributed work to Bloomberg's report.
Still, Gornitz worries the plan "may give us a false sense of security for the future," especially beyond midcentury. She added that she opposes waterfront developments along the lines of Seaport City because it could put more residents in harm's way.
"Unfortunately, these tend to have the highest property values," she said of waterfront zones. "Maybe it would take a few more Sandy-like storms before people would begin to realize that living right on the water's edge may not be such a hot idea."
Rae Zimmerman, professor of planning and public administration at New York University, thought barriers and fortification are necessary as a kind of front-line, first-blush approach "among many we'll need to [evaluate] in the context of other approaches."
"Broad-scaled, areawide hydrologic investigations ... would be needed to identify whether or not floodwaters are redirected from one area to another, and if so, how this can be avoided," she said.
Mitigation must be part of the mix
Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, found criticism of the plan's defensive posture "silly" because cities all around the world have taken similar measures.
"Embracing measures like moving new construction to higher ground is not mutually exclusive with also seeking to control water that could potentially flood areas of the city," he said.
Roland Lewis, president of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, called Bloomberg's plan "brilliant and innovative" except for the Seaport City idea, which he termed "a clunker." That idea has caught flak because it would be like an expensive infill project in an area that is among the lowest-lying in the five boroughs. (It was not included in the base-line $19.5 billion estimate.)
"The rest of the plan deserves a lot more attention," he said. "They've come forward with what I think are reasonable solutions for each of the areas, depending on the threat and the topography."
Lewis and others repeated that refrain several times: Many felt Bloomberg's staff had smartly tailored the long list of ideas to fit with each respective neighborhood. The plan, they said, avoided floating one big idea in favor of many locally crafted solutions, to include items like more ferry transit to aid in emergency situations or specific shoreline barriers in the Bronx to protect food storage facilities there.
"There is no silver bullet," Lewis said. "That would have been an unrealistic way to go."
Others in the environmental community are concerned about the emphasis on adaptation over mitigation of greenhouse gases. Cynthia Rosenzweig, co-chairwoman of the New York City Panel on Climate Change and senior research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute, said the city had no choice but to pursue active projects while also cutting greenhouse gas emissions locally. She argued for doing both at the same time, because the city doesn't have another option.
"We must mitigate to reduce the magnitude and the threat of climate change as well as adapt," she said.
Wave of resentment for Seaport City
Klaus Jacob, also a member of the panel and a researcher at Goddard, added that the adaptation process is crucial to assessing risk. In other words, if policymakers just focused on mitigation, the argument for doing something about greenhouse gas buildup might lack context.
"The pendulum is swinging right now a little bit towards adaptation," Jacob said. "But if we would have focused only on mitigation, we never would have realized how huge the risk is."
Andy Darrell, New York regional director of the Environmental Defense Fund, thought the plan struck "a pretty good balance between adaptation and mitigation." He noted a focus on finding ways to protect specific neighborhoods and supports the plan's ideas for creating microgrid pilot projects and distributed renewable generation to keep the lights on locally in storms and to create cleaner electricity options.
Darrell also opposes Seaport City. "Many of the smaller projects being proposed here may in fact have a bigger long-term benefit for the city," he said. "I wouldn't want to see progress on those held up."
Conor Bambrick, air and energy program director at Environmental Advocates of New York, applauded the plan's distributed generation provisions but said he wanted to see more direct work on offshore wind. He argued the Bloomberg report too easily defers to federal authorities, which could "drag out" offshore projects "a little more than we expected."
Then there are political worries. Many New Yorkers wonder whether the plan is headed for the dust heap as soon as there's a new mayor in town.
Leah Cohen is a policy adviser in Bloomberg's Office of Long-term Planning and a key adviser to the mayor on resiliency issues. She said the mayor is serious about his pledge to see as much of this plan enacted as possible before he steps back into private life.
"We're very aware that there are 200 days left in the administration," she said. "There has been a huge outreach effort as part of the special initiative. We have every intention of continuing the conversation."
'Starter kit' for the next mayor
This is the one area where local observers seemed the most wary about the plan's implementation. Bambrick noted a big gap between Bloomberg's commitment to the issue and the mayoral candidates' reaction to it.
For that reason, Bambrick said it made "perfect sense" for Bloomberg to try to shape the issue while still in office. Others made the same point, saying the mayor knew he had a narrowing window to exercise his influence as best he could.
"If anyone's going to start going forward with it, it might as well be him because I don't see anyone else out there acting like a national leader," Bambrick said.
Lewis agreed. "This is a good starter kit for the next mayor," he said.
Eric Goldstein, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it would be up to the interest groups involved to press upon the candidates the urgency of staying with the issue, especially as memories of Sandy recede. He and others would not comment on which candidate is most likely to shine on the climate issue during the upcoming campaign, though some pointed out that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the leading candidate, came out immediately after the storm with a proposal for building major new infrastructure.
"Our hope is that the overwhelming bulk of the measures will be sufficiently down the road so that the next mayor won't have to start from the beginning," Goldstein said.
As for the subway, the state under Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has more authority over the system through the regional Metropolitan Transportation Authority. So that part of the response to Sandy will require more coordination with the state, which may explain why Bloomberg left it out or did not specifically propose flood gates at stations in the 100-year flood zone.
Click here to read the Bloomberg resiliency report.