Dyson College of Arts and Sciences

Summit on Resilience II: The Next Storm

Dyson College of Arts and Sciences - Year in Review 2011-2012

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17 The right to the resilient city requires democratic, participatory processes. Several speakers at the Summit on Resilience II spoke of incorporating stakeholders in resilience planning. In the Big U planning process, participants overwhelmingly chose vulnerability-reducing berms that would protect traditional neighborhoods, building a natural buffer that would absorb storm surges rather than high riverside floodwalls that would reduce visibility of the waterfront. This wasn't surprising: when it comes to issues of justice and equitability, the option that brings more natural amenities to all is likely to be the option chosen in a democratic process. Yet, there are large-scale forces against this option. The problem, as many of the Resilience II presentations made clear, is finance: how do we fund building the types of projects that bring resilience and public amenities? While Big U was not specifically discussed at the Summit, President Friedman, in his conversation with Director Foye, did mention the idea of building out into the river. Foye made the obstacles to projects like Big U quite clear: who is going to fund it? Building requires finance, generally bonds that require a financial return. Building projects require investors and investors need profit. Creating a bermed shoreline into public parks may be good for city residents, but they do nothing for investors' bottom line. Instead, investors want projects that create profitable real estate. And cities like New York, increasingly dependent on public-private partnerships for urban development, need to plan projects that are profitable for their private partners. HUD's design competition provided New York City with over $300 million dollars for a project that would, in the end, cost several billion. Director Foye's scenario instead described a riverfront development that paid for extensive berm development through large-scale shoreline development projects. What kind of projects would likely pay for the billions needed to create a bermed shoreline? Certainly luxury apartment housing would be more likely to provide the income by which the City could bond construction of the new shoreline berms. On a more micro-scale, another version of this scenario is playing itself out in Staten Island and on the Jersey Shore. Better-off residents who had adequate insurance are rebuilding larger, more luxurious houses while those who owned small vacation homes in these communities have either sold their ruined houses and land to New York State or they are still waiting for FEMA to send insurance checks. As a result, many of these residents are selling out at discount prices, creating more impetus for the well-off to buy land and rebuild. The character of these towns is changing rapidly, as reported in local newspapers. 10 The tension about FEMA action was evident during the Summit on Resilience II panel, when members of the audience asked about when residents could expect their payments. What does this mean for New York's future vulnerabilities? Building housing on riverside berms and new shoreline homes on higher pilings, may expose more people to more risk. As Janos argues, "technological solutions can end up causing even more damage, risk, and vulnerability, when people build into riskier landscapes and come to believe in the safety of these grand technological systems, which often live up to their Promethean qualities and contain embedded unintended consequences." Shoreline developments will be increasingly vulnerable to predicted sea level rises and increasingly strong storms. Some of the better-off may be able to build themselves cities that look invulnerable to nature, island fortresses buttressed by technology and cement, that are seemingly protected from a threatening environmental future. Well-off homeowners may think that their high pilings will protect their new housing investments on the Staten Island shore. However, as studies of past storm

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