Northeast
The Hutchinson River as it flows into Eastchester Bay in the Bronx. (Photo by Jim Hendersen)

NY - Opinion: By Design and Democracy, NYC Must Move Toward Equitable Waterfronts

‘Whether we like it or not, we need to adapt our city to manage the mounting risks that sea-level rise and climate change pose to New York’s waterfront communities.’

The design of our coastal cities has increasingly become straight, concrete, and hard. Instead of learning from nature, we have created physical barriers: concrete bulkheads, pavements, railings, and fences, that keep us from being able to touch the water. We have also created social barriers: parks paid for by luxury housing; crumbling infrastructure lacking resources and public investment; systemic inequities that keep some people out, and some people in.  

A study by The Pew Charitable Trusts found that 14 percent of U.S. coastlines are what researchers describe as “armored,” or fortified by rock or hardened structures. Other studies show that if we keep going at this rate, as much as one third of our natural coasts could be hardened by 2100. Yet we know that natural shorelines suffer less damage and recover more quickly from devastating coastal storms. The breathing curvatures that provide nooks and crannies for wildlife also absorb our rising tides.  

These physical and social constructs are worsening New York City’s greatest threat: climate change. The last several weeks have been marked by intense hurricanes, flooding and loss of life across the Country. In June, the president rolled back parts of the National Environmental Policy Act which, while imperfect, helps to reduce environmental impacts to coastal development.

Whether we like it or not, we need to adapt our city to manage the mounting risks that sea-level rise and climate change pose to our communities. To do this, we need to understand how each millimeter of New York City 520 miles of coastline is an amalgamation of our physical and social landscapes, rooted in stories of our past, our present, and hints at what we will become in the future.

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