NYC-Centric Post-Sandy Thoughts

by Reihan Salam

Steve Coll of The New Yorker has a sobering post on New York city’s vulnerability in the face of large-scale disruptions of all kinds — not just extreme weather events, but terror attacks, cyber-attacks, and much else. His essential point is that New York city’s infrastructure is very brittle, and that disruptions will prove increasingly costly as New York city’s relative economic importance increases:

Globalization, the knowledge economy, computers, and speedier communications mean that New York will increasingly be a center of concentrated power, wealth, creativity, and learning. Its proportionate importance to the country and the world will likely grow, even from the current high level. Stanford University, Cornell, and New York University all are planning major expansions here; Wall Street, fashion, technology innovators, and media remain concentrated in the city, despite predictions after September 11th that those industries would dissipate or migrate. Yet the same forces all but ensure that the city will be regularly attacked and disrupted.

Felix Salmon offers a discursive take on (a) “the utter lack of chaos in downtown Manhattan after the power went out,” a fact that was notable during the 2003 blackout as well and that is presumably a legacy of the developments Franklin Zimring chronicles in his fascinating new book The City that Became Safe, and (b) the infrastructure challenge:

[T]he bigger-picture lesson of Sandy is the importance of investment in infrastructure. Our electrical utility, unable to find $250 million to spend on things like submersible switches and moving transformers above ground, is making adjustments only gradually — with the results we saw on Monday night. And $250 million is small beer compared to the kind of money it would take to protect New York Harbor from hurricanes, and to protect those subway tunnels from Sandy-level storm surges. Still, $10 billion or even $50 billion spent up-front would not only be a large economic stimulus for New York, but would more than pay for itself if and when global warming means that more hurricanes hit this area.

New York city currently has very forward-looking leadership. For all his faults, the most important of which has been a serious failure to reckon with the need to reform the terms of public employment, Bloomberg’s data-driven, technocratic style has suited the city well in a time of great dislocation. One wonders what will happen as we transition to the post-Bloomberg era. 

Update! My friend Cassim Shepherd has co-authored a comprehensive, leftish take on how green infrastructure can improve New York city’s resilience: 

[R]etrofitting impervious streetscapes with permeable paving (to absorb some of the stormwater flooding down streets and rooftops and overwhelming our sewage systems) will not save coastal homes from destruction or prevent saltwater storm surge from infiltrating and corroding subway or utility tunnels. But, as a category of urban innovation, green infrastructure speaks to a responsive turn in the philosophy of urbanism, wherein mixed-use doesn’t just mean ground-floor retail. Instead, all public spaces are asked to perform in multiple dimensions and across multiple scales: parks must offer more than fitness and recreation, streets must become more than transportation networks, and shorelines must be more than the sites of transforming post-industrial landscapes into waterfront views. All of these spaces must continue to carry out their basic functions, but they must also produce environmental benefits. Thus, responsive urbanism requires an expanded notion of public infrastructure and its under-appreciated role in addressing climate change, an expanded understanding of what it takes to create and maintain the public goods we hold in common, whether it’s the street tree — which sequesters carbon dioxide, and can, like the new street tree bioswales recently installed along Dean Street in Brooklyn, mitigate combined sewer overflows – or the subway system – the biggest piece of public transit network responsible, in part, for New Yorkers having some of the nation’s smallest individual carbon footprints.

Much of the discussion centers on what municipal governments can do independently of national governments. 

Another Update! Vishaan Chakrabarti has offered a very attractive approach to dealing with storm surges, which he described in an interview with Matthew Chaban of the New York Observer:

And he has an ingenious idea to help protect the city while at the same time paying for the infrastructure to protect it. In addition to the sea gates, barrier islands would help protect the city from flooding and storm surges. But rather than building small, disaggregate land masses, Mr. Chakrabarti proposes large islands and peninsulas that can accommodate new development on them. The investment in these new spaces would generate millions, even billions of dollars in tax revenues that would help pay for the critical waterfront infrastructure the city needs.

Specifically, Mr. Chakrabarti came up with a proposal known as LoLo, a 20-acre stetch of in-fill created using dredgings from the harbor—a job the Army Corps already has to do on a regular basis, so why not put that earth to a productive use? Over time, LoLo would be built up around Lower Manhattan, eventually connecting it to Governors Island, which would also become a more vibrant place as it would no longer require a ferry to get to.

“I think we just have to think of this in different terms,” Mr. Chakrabarti said. “And a proposition like LoLo, it could pay for itself. It would be interesting to see if people think twice about that kind of action because we’re going to need to generate the revenue to invest in that kind of infrastructure, and that could do it.”

The most appealing aspect of this scheme is of course the fact that it could pay for itself. If Steve Coll is right and New York city becomes more central to the national and global economy, expanding the city’s footprint is a potentially very lucrative proposition.