Friday, November 02, 2012

The Future of Coastal Cities

Millions of people and billions of $ of assets are located in Northeast coastal cities.  How will we individually and collectively protect them?  Will we simply embrace a single "Manhattan Project" style engineering fix such as giant Sea Walls?  Or will different cities explore many different strategies for adapting to the "new normal"?  If we view Hurricane Sandy's aftermath as a field experiment, how will different actors respond tot he treatment?

In Manhattan, how can better drainage and more green space be used to reduce flood risk?  Read this Jim Dwyer NY Times piece about tidal wetlands as a buffer zone for Manhattan.   Those who own that land and have developed on it would need to be compensated but assuming this "takings" could be achieved, an organized shrinkage of Manhattan could take place and a safer city would emerge.  That's adaptation!

For buildings in flood zones, what changes can be made to minimize the damage to their contents and to their ability to function? For example, how can hospitals such as NYU guarantee that the backup power supply will work in dire circumstances?  What investments must be made to further reduce the probably of electricity disruption as close as possible to zero?

Adaptation represents a large suite of policies including moving to higher ground and public investment projects in Sea Walls and small ball steps of improving existing infrastructure.   Adaptation will be encouraged if Sandy is a wakeup call for the region and if cities and states that are affected by Sandy have "skin in the game" to rebuild in a more resilient way.  Yes, NYC is an old city but there is no reason why in rebuilding Southern Manhattan that the "old city" should emerge again.    We learn from our mistakes as we learn about the robustness  of our infrastructure and as we learn about what climate change will do to our coastal cities. The net effect of this adaptation is a robust national economy that is able to withstand the new shocks posed by climate change.    Mike Tidwell's piece on coastal cities in The Nation is worth reading.

Within coastal metropolitan areas, there is "high ground".  We need zoning laws that allow for high density in such areas.  We need greater flexibility over where economic activity can move to. If below sea level coastal areas are not safe, then we need to allow households and firms to "vote with their feet" and move to higher ground.  Wall Street will continue to leave Wall Street and that's a good thing!

Look at this "man hug" between the President and the Governor of New Jersey.  They are not buddies but for different political reasons they need each other.  There is moral hazard associated with this man-hug.  Will Christie and New Jersey rebuild a resilient New Jersey, using other people's money?  Would a more resilient New Jersey have emerged had he and the rest of NJ knew that they must spend their own resources to rebuild and they are on the hook for the risk taking they are engaging in?

UPDATE:   I see that PBS' Newshour had a very strong segment covering several of these issues.  Read through the transcript here.

The NY Times offers a thoughtful Room for Debate on defending NYC.