When Mayor Bill De Blasio assumed office eight years ago, he was elected with a promise to address “the tale of two cities” and narrow the inequality gap. He also inherited the challenging process of rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy, including billions of dollars of federal recovery funds. In the ensuing years, however, climate change has moved to the forefront of the city’s agenda, and in several key pieces of policy and legislation, the de Blasio administration has highlighted the complex challenges facing the people of many coastal cities around the world.
De Blasio has achieved some measure of success working towards the ambitious goal of making New York City carbon neutral by 2050, but his administration has had less success in breaking ground on its storm surge and sea level rise infrastructure projects.
Some of the setbacks were due to matters out of his control, including the challenges of running the most populous city in America with heavy oversight from federal and state officials. The COVID-19 pandemic stalled several climate resilience projects. Pushback has also come from New York City residents who don’t want resiliency projects constructed in their neighborhoods – and developers who want to build in threatened sections of the waterfront.
At a time when dramatic action is needed to address the harsh realities of climate change, another tale of two cities is now being written. It’s a story where some neighborhoods have already had enormous storm surge barriers built, while others have been left unprotected. The City Council has passed a handful of important pieces of climate resilience legislation – while also supporting rezonings that will move thousands of new residents into hazardous waterfront flood zones.
When Hurricane Sandy devastated the city’s coastal neighborhoods in October 2012, it revealed just how unprepared New York was for major storms and sea level rise. The aftermath largely dictated which infrastructure projects the city would undertake over the next decade to protect its shoreline from the impacts of climate change. De Blasio assumed office just 14 months after the storm, in January 2014, and most of the large-scale climate resilience projects that have broken ground during his tenure have been attempts to fortify the coast from similar storm surges.
With budgets for post-Sandy proposals ranging up to $119 billion for a single harbor-wide seawall, the city has been dependent on federal funding to enact its own large-scale plans. In the aftermath of Sandy, the city received approximately $15 billion in federal disaster recovery grants, which it allocated to projects across more than a dozen city agencies.
“A lot of the focus was on coastal storms, because that’s what we got during Sandy, and we needed to protect against that,” said Jainey K. Bavishi, the director of the Mayor's Office of Climate Resiliency, in an interview with WNYC/Gothamist about de Blasio's climate change legacy. “That’s what the federal money that New York City received after Sandy was really meant for, so we’ve advanced those projects.”
Working With The Feds And Albany
The largest climate resiliency project completed by the de Blasio administration to date is the $341 million reconstruction of the Rockaway Boardwalk, which was finished in 2017. A collaboration between the Parks Department, the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), this project replaced the entire 5-mile-long wooden boardwalk with a massive reinforced concrete barrier – lined by retaining walls, sand dunes and other protective measures. It created a coastal defense system explicitly designed to resist the impacts of climate change.
As the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy draws near, none of the administration’s other major coastal barriers are near completion, leaving coastal neighborhoods vulnerable.
“The City has made halting progress in spending dollars appropriated for Superstorm Sandy Recovery,” according to a 2019 analysis by city Comptroller Scott M. Stringer, titled Safeguarding Our Shores: Protecting New York City's Coastal Communities from Climate Change. This report found that the city had spent only about half of the $14.7 billion in federal funds it had received after Sandy and that “much of our coastline remains unprotected from the next storm.” The COVID-19 pandemic has further hindered this work.
The de Blasio administration’s other large-scale waterfront barriers include the contentious $1.45 billion East Side Coastal Resiliency (ESCR) project, which has been repeatedly delayed by lawsuits and protests. Earlier this month, under police protection, workers began chainsawing the trees in East River Park to make way for an 8-foot-high storm surge barrier before being halted by a restraining order. Meanwhile, the Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency (LMCR) project – a collection of different coastal barriers ringing the southern tip of Manhattan – is still in the early phases of design and construction.
The city is also working with USACE on the $336 million Rockaways - Atlantic Shorefront project, which will build 14 new stone barriers and a reinforced dune system along the coast of the Rockaway Peninsula, adding additional layers of protection onto the already completed boardwalk project. Several shoreline fortifications spearheaded by the federal and New York state officials are also underway, including the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery’s Living Breakwaters and the USACE’s coastal barrier in Staten Island.
Despite the billions of dollars set aside for these projects, New York City remains largely unprotected from another major storm. In Red Hook, Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Seaport District, residents are protected by a patchwork system of temporary flood barriers created from four-foot-high HESCO bags. In Tottenville, Staten Island, homes are only protected by a wall of crumbling sandbags erected in the years after the storm. If another Hurricane Sandy came today, many of the same neighborhoods would be badly damaged once again. And, as Hurricane Ida made clear, climate change will not just impact the coast – it will cause inland flooding, heat waves, droughts and a myriad of other challenges.
Success Closer To Home
Under de Blasio, the city has had much better success building smaller-scale climate interventions and replicating them across all five boroughs. This includes the Department of Environmental Protection’s largely unheralded Green Infrastructure program, which has built, or is in construction on, more than 11,000 bioswales, catch basins and rain gardens across a wide swath of the city since its founding in 2011. While each of these individual installations is small in scope, the total network is helping to manage 1.8 billion gallons of stormwater annually reducing street flooding and sewage overflows in the city’s antiquated sewer system.
Similarly, the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) has greatly expanded the networks of protected bike lanes, bike share stations, dedicated bus lanes and busways across all five boroughs under de Blasio. Each of these smaller interventions into the streetscape is a part of the administration’s larger long-term goals of reducing fossil fuel emissions from cars and trucks – and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.
In January 2018, de Blasio kicked off his second term in office by announcing that the city’s pension funds would divest from fossil fuels, joining cities like Berlin, Copenhagen in Denmark, Stockholm and Norway’s capital Oslo. This goal was largely achieved by January 2021, when two of the largest pension funds voted for a $4 billion divestment, described as “one of the largest fossil fuel divestments in the world.”
"A major centerpiece of this mayor’s legacy has been around the regulatory structures and resources devoted to decarbonize and shift away from fossil fuels, in both our buildings and the electricity used to power those buildings,” said Ben Furnas, the director of the Mayor's Office of Climate and Sustainability, during a WNYC/Gothamist interview about the mayor's climate change legacy. “You’ve seen really major actions taken on transportation, buildings, on electricity and to reform our waste system.”
During the mayor’s second term in office, several key pieces of climate change legislation have made their way through the City Council and into law. The highlight, touted as “the largest climate solution put forth by any city in the world,” is the Climate Mobilization Act, which passed in 2019. The act includes five laws, which mandate dramatic cuts to carbon emissions in larger buildings across the city and require green roofs or solar panels on new construction. The full impact of this legislation will not be seen for decades.
When asked to highlight other climate change legislation, however, both Furnas and Bavishi had just a few examples – all of which were passed in 2021, the mayor’s final year in office. This March, the City Council passed legislation requiring a set of climate resiliency design guidelines, which every municipal capital project would have to meet or exceed in the future, and in October, it passed legislation requiring a citywide climate adaptation plan. New York City is not currently required to have an official plan for climate change, and, after the USACE halted its study for storm surge barriers in 2020, there are presently no government studies underway for a citywide infrastructure project to address storms and sea level rise. The mayor may also soon agree to accept legislation banning gas stove hookups in new buildings.
Many of the initiatives, ideas and projects put forward by the de Blasio administration have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic – along with red tape, community protests and pushback from the fossil fuel industry. The city’s beleaguered attempts to roll out a household composting program, for instance, were halted by the pandemic and only revived in recent months.
“Certainly, obviously, COVID has been a challenge to everyone across the whole city,” said Furnas. “It's been a difficult challenge to balance both the need to respond to the crisis and also to keep focused on the medium to long-term [future], which are the time scales we tend to think about when making these critical climate investments.”
Several of de Blasio’s other major legislative achievements - namely, the rezonings of the Harlem River in Inwood, Flushing Creek in Queens and Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal – have been directly at odds with the realities of climate change. These three projects, part of a larger package of rezonings championed by the de Blasio administration, will bring thousands of new residents to flood zones on the city’s industrial waterfront and create hundreds of units of affordable housing in places that are expected to repeatedly flood as sea levels rise.
More and more city officials and agencies are now embracing the idea of a managed retreat away from the waterfront, including Comptroller Stringer, who is currently the city’s Chief Financial Officer.
“Homeowners across the city should be offered the opportunity to participate in an optional home buyout program, targeted at communities at risk of repeated flooding,” Stringer states in his 2019 report Safeguarding Our Shores. “Having acquired flood-prone homes, the city should use the land to create resilience easements designed to absorb the brunt of future flooding, protect other area homes and provide green space.”
Instead of embracing the inevitability of this retreat, the de Blasio administration instead allowed developers to build dozens of new residential towers in the city’s flood zones, including at the mouth of the Newtown Creek, which Sandy badly flooded. These actions stand in direct contrast to the predictions for sea level rise made by the city’s own panel of climate change experts, which anticipates that New York will see up to 9.5 feet of flooding in the next 80 years. Yet even as the city’s coastal barriers linger in construction limbo, thousands of new residents are moving to the water’s edge.
It will be left to Mayor-elect Eric Adams to decide which of his predecessor’s unfinished climate initiatives, projects and goals he will choose to support. In the decades ahead, New York City will need decisive and effective leadership – if it is to survive the impacts of global warming, climate change and sea level rise.