My Climate Resilient Hood

Jackson Heights, NY

Jackson Heights, NY

This is not about buildings on stilts, or inflatable plugs for subways, or barriers to keep the Atlantic at bay. Nor is it a plea for replacing your second car with a boat.

It’s just about my humble little neighborhood, Jackson Heights, Queens, which fared quite well during Sandy. We didn’t lose power, thanks to utilities that are mostly underground, we didn’t get flooded (it is, after all, called Jackson HEIGHTS for a reason), the only thing we lost really was cable and internet for 36 hours, and, arguably, it’s not the worst thing being without television for some time. We also bounced back pretty quickly – on Tuesday evening, bus service resumed and by the next day everything was pretty much back to normal.

Because we live not in Manhattan, quite a few people have cars, and that allowed me to hitch a ride with a neighbor, when subway service was still suspended. Since we don’t work in Manhattan, the commute was a breeze, in fact much more pleasant – instead of one hour on a crowded subway I had a 20 minute drive with pleasant conversation. For the poor souls who work in Manhattan, the experience was quite different – friends of ours tried to get to Midtown from Forest Hills by car, usually a 20 minute drive, but on said Wednesday, it took them three hours before even getting to one of the bridges, when they decided to call it a day and turn around.

Why am I telling you all this? Because now after the storm a lot of the talk about climate resilience is about the expensive stuff, the barriers, the houses on stilts, the break away walls, the mechanical space on roofs, rather than cellars (which is great in a storm but more expensive to build), etc. This is all certainly smarter than just rebuilding something as it was. After all, Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. It is sheer madness, when there are incentives that encourage that sort of behavior. The New York Times reported on a Biloxi, Mississippi, home valued at $183,000 for which the federal flood insurance program paid $1.47 million to rebuild 15 times over the last decade.

I would argue, however, that rebuilding something safer is only the second best way to approach the issue. First of all, it’s more expensive.

Second of all, the results are not always aesthetically pleasing – would you want to walk or live in a neighborhood, where life is happening 10 feet above street level or have your ocean view enhanced with a 15 foot seawall?

Thirdly, it’s not always safe. Many proposed safety features are binary, meaning, they either work or they don’t. Take a storm barrier or seawall – if it’s high enough, good, if not, sucks for you. The tsunami in Japan tragically demonstrated what binary safety means – many communities had invested billions, but when the seawalls failed the results were catastrophic.

Fourthly, many of the proposed solutions to the problem are not fail-safe and are quite complex. If you lived in one of the tricked out newer buildings in downtown Manhattan or elsewhere in the flood zone, you were probably lucky and your building’s mechanical systems were not flooded because they are on the roof. This doesn’t really help you a whole lot, though, if you can’t get electricity to your climate resilient building – you still might have to climb 20 flights of stairs in darkness to carry up water to flush your toilet, as happened. Of course you could get a back up generator. But what if the generator runs out of fuel, or fails, as happened to the Langone Medical Center? Of course you could back up the back-up, but that is just getting into an ever more expensive arms-race to protect yourself against ever less likely contingencies (it also makes for great entertainment – just watch Doomsday Preppers).

Coming back to my own building: Even if we would have lost power, we still would have had water and the walk up and down a maximum of only six flights of stairs, not only for able-bodied people but also for emergency personnel helping the disabled and frail, would have been manageable (if, however, gravity should ever fail, we probably have other things to worry about than flushing our toilets).

The aftermath of Sandy made sustainability and resilience buzz words that are often used synonymously. In many instances that might be true – building a house in a flood zone is neither sustainable nor a particularly great strategy to avoid disaster. But there are also cases were sustainability and resilience are at odds. Sustainability is about efficiency, and resilience about redundancy. Redundancy is not efficient, hence not sustainable, because you provide systems that you do not need for normal operation, just in case.

Take density: High densities are more sustainable because they are more energy efficient, as they allow for energy efficient transit systems that move people with much less energy per capita than a car occupied by one person. In case of a disaster, however, density can become a problem – when the subway failed, traffic collapsed – the city is simply too dense to handle the alternative, automotive transportation (as the Brooklyn-Manhattan “bus-bridge” showed when everything south of 34th Street didn’t have power, even buses couldn’t solve the problem). When a big building fails, many people are affected. Many systems are sustainable because of their efficiency, and in many instances efficiency is a function of the economies of scale. Central air conditioning systems are generally more energy efficient than window units; but if the central AC fails, the whole building sweats, while if one of my window units breaks, I go to the next room and close the door.

Density, of course has other potential pitfalls in a disaster– if everything gets really bad, a very dense place is harder to evacuate than a less dense place. Put a very dense place on an island with limited access through bridges and tunnels (the letter ones apparently particularly vulnerable to flooding), it becomes a nightmare.

The best thing to do, therefore, is building in areas where you don’t need to be climate resilient, and you need to rely on as little technology as possible to keep you safe. The boiler in my building’s basement did just fine, no need to put it up on the roof, especially since it would be very expensive to move all the mechanical systems up there.

For planners, therefore, the challenge is not to come up with more sustainable cities that are per se resilient. The challenge is to find the sweet spot where sustainability and resilience are balanced.

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2 Comments on “My Climate Resilient Hood”

  1. monikajain2012 December 5, 2012 at 1:18 am #

    Very interesting read. You point out the right dilemmas but I feel the approach you are looking at may be too short-sighted. It is lucky that the neighborhood that you live in is at a higher ground and was not impacted by Sandy. My neighborhood too was not impacted by Sandy in Manhattan UWS. Yes there was no subway, there were traffic jams and people could not go to work, hence many things were closed down. But instead of throwing away all the positives of public transportation, density and passive survivability, we should learn from what failed and what could be done to be better prepared for such and worst storms next time. The answer cannot be to just move away from the danger zones (which by the way are encroaching more and more interior which will be visible in the new FEMA maps) because most of NYC is built up (when you look at dense neighborhoods). The buildings are not going anywhere, so you have to think about strategies where boilers & back up systems can be installed away from harms way. Dense neighborhoods have to be established to accommodate the ever increasing population of this diverse city. Density also creates critical mass for jobs, employment and livability in the neighborhood. Transit systems help millions of passengers to commute. If everyone resorted to automobiles, then it would be a disaster for the air quality and for the climate.
    Thank you for a thought provoking read. I do not agree with all the points in your article about not building redundancies like sea walls, etc., but I do agree with your conclusion about balancing sustainability and resilience.


  2. rgb2000 December 5, 2012 at 10:39 am #

    I agree with you that density in general is a good thing, for all the reasons you’ve mentioned. This wasn’t meant as an article against density. It was meant about thinking more comprehensively about density.


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