New York is far from alone in attempting to adapt to the threat of climate change. For cities that want to learn from other cities, the United Nations International Strategy Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) offers a number of case studies, including:
Venice – flooding tides that cover up to 90% of the city’s surface area have become more frequent. To close inlets during high tides, the Italian Ministry of Infrastructure is constructing a moveable tidal barrier system called ‘MOSE’. In addition, Venice is raising the pavement on sidewalks to improve pedestrian access.
Kuala Lumpur – With a tropical climate, Kuala Lumpur receives around 100 inches of rainfall annually, with downpours causing frequent flooding in the city center. Minor landslides are also common. The city’s disaster reduction program allocated RM2 billion to build the SMART Tunnel, designed to absorb a third of floodwater, and another RM140 million for flood retention ponds and high-volume drainage systems. In addition, zoning regulations ensure schools and hospitals are not located in flood-threatened areas.
Mumbai – the city has identified 20 discrete vulnerabilities. Many of these challenges are yet to be fully addressed, but Mumbai as steps to mitigate flood damage. Many of its rivers have been deepened and widened through excavation; storm water run-off systems have been de-silted and expanded, with new pumping stations; flow gauges have been installed upriver to provide earlier warnings of flooding; and a number of Cyclone Mitigation Shelters have been built with the help of the World Bank.
New York, in some ways, continues to avoid the reality of future threats. Residents received nearly US$8 billion in government-subsidized flood insurance compensation, and some are rebuilding in areas that are likely to be struck by future storm surges. One of the Task Force's conclusions was that flood insurance should be priced at the full risk assessment. "If we end public subsidies and move to market-priced flood insurance premiums, businesses and homeowners faced with premiums in the tens of thousands of dollars will realize that rebuilding is clearly unaffordable", McIlwain said. While some areas, such as Manhattan, are too economically critical to abandon, it may not be worthwhile to continue to make large public investments in some low-lying residential areas.
Meanwhile, the city’s infrastructure is under threat from other weather events – not just flooding. For example, the number of days reaching over 90oF (32oC) has increased – reaching a similar level to Atlanta – and has put the power grid at risk.
Storms like Sandy may become a more regular part of New York’s future. A study by MIT and Princeton University concluded that 100-year floods – so called because they are expected to occur just once a century – are likely to occur within three to twenty years, due to the combination of rising sea levels and warmer oceans.
In New York, and throughout the world, the need to make cities more resilient is recognised by citizens and governments alike and much is being done to adapt to climate change. But is it enough? Cities face many short-term challenges that demand immediate attention, taking the focus away from expensive solutions to long-term issues. Often, it is only when extreme weather events occur, or when threats are imminent, that cities spring into action. At this point, some cities may have the focus, foresight and resources to ‘bounce forward’, while other cities may only ‘bounce back’. In a perfect world, government leaders would be directly addressing the threat of climate change and developing solutions to avoid having to ‘bounce’ at all.
Originally published : November 2013