Resilient Reads: Managed Retreat, and "Can New York Be Saved in the Era of Global Warming?"

August 10, 2016

 

In confronting the increasing severity of tomorrow’s climatic events, solutions proposed by architects and science range from the practical—like storing batteries for power failures—to the fantastical—like futuristic geoengineering that imagines manmade ecosystems on a regional scale. Relocating, a practice well understood by our resilient ancestors, however, curries little favor.

 

When the idea of “deprivatizing” some 139,000 million square miles of the American West to create a Buffalo Commons was first proposed in the 1980s as a way to spare residents from the economic stagnation of life in a semiarid, tornado-prone, and blizzard-swept country, reactions were anything but contemplative. Today the notion garners more attention, but that is in a region already on the decline.

 

What about New York City? No one is yet calling for NYC to be abandoned, but a recent article in the Rolling Stone nonetheless askes, “Can New York be Saved in the Era of Global Warming?

 

Author Jeff Goodell’s article is less about retreat than it is about the solutions New York is currently developing to plan for rising sea levels of the not-so-distant future. This includes to so-called “Big U” project that envisions a 10ft tall wall erected around all of Manhattan and also create public green space, artist venues, courts, and vendor space. The question for many, however, is will it ever be built given its prohibitive costs and dependence on both residents’ and politicians’ patience for long-term planning.

 

It is interesting to note in Goodell’s article that the cost of tomorrow’s Hurricane Sandy 2.0 is rarely measured in potential human lives, but rather by skyrocketing flood insurance, a sputtering economy, displaced businesses, and falling property values. It’s the “economic and political chaos” that seems to scare people the most. And yet in spite of the seemingly insensitivity to the 44 individuals that perished during Sandy, the calculations strike at the heart of the question of whether New York can be saved or not.

 

We possess the ingenuity to engineer our way out of problems created by climate change, but can we muster the political will to prepare, and whose New York City will be spared? Proposals like the Big U call to mind the type of monumental public works project on the order that the United States has not seen since Eisenhower’s interstate highway system or the Public Works Administration of the New Deal era. One could imagine the protection the America’s economic heartbeat on Wall Street or developments in the most valuable real estate in the world from rising tides gaining political traction, but what about more impoverish areas. Already we are seeing government agencies initiating “voluntary buyout” programs because it is cheaper to buy people out of their homes than to continue rebuilding structures through insurance payouts.

 

Perhaps, as the article notes, portions of New York could consider a “managed retreat.” If sea level rise is inevitable, then perhaps we need to discuss preparing certain coast areas for their eventual reclamation by the ocean by relocating people and infrastructure, and removing waste and toxins that may prevent sustainable ecosystems from taking root. It is a well-known truth that you can’t stop the tides, after all, and as one planner from the article says, “We are beginning to realize we can’t keep building walls forever.”

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