New York takes leadership role in climate resilience

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $20 billion plan to safeguard New York City against a future Hurricane Sandy and other climate risks is the most ambitious effort yet by any U.S. city to prepare for the expected impacts of climate change.

The mayor last week announced “A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” a comprehensive plan to protect communities and critical infrastructure, and proposed significant changes to New York’s building codes for new construction and major renovations that will help buildings withstand severe weather and flooding. Its 250 recommendations include building new infrastructure (like installing armor stone shoreline protection in Coney Island), changing how services are  provided (like encouraging redundant internet infrastructure), and establishing standardized citywide communication protocols for use during disruptions.

Sandy added new urgency to New York’s climate resilience efforts. The storm caused $19 billion in damage and exposed New York’s substantial vulnerability to storm surge and extreme weather.

The city also did a fresh assessment of the growing climate risks New York will face by 2050.  Among other things, “Climate Risk Information 2013” projects a 4-6.5 degrees F rise in average temperatures, another 11 to 31 inches of sea-level rise, and a tripling of 90-degree days.

Using Swiss Re’s natural catastrophe models to assess future losses from storm surge and wind damage, “expected annual losses” were projected to increase from $1.7 billion today to $4.4 billion in 2050.  An event like Hurricane Sandy was modeled as a 1/70 year event today, but by 2050, events as costly as Sandy will be 1/50 year events. Future 1/70 year events will be expected to cost $90 billion instead of $19 billion.

New York’s strategy represents a significant step forward in adaptation planning in the United States. The report includes the kind of detailed information that can be used as a basis for decision making. Fourteen areas of city infrastructure and the built environment are covered such as Coastal Protection, Utilities, Health Care and Transportation. For five areas still coping with lingering damage from Hurricane Sandy, the report includes targeted efforts to record what happened during the storm, analyze current and future vulnerabilities, and help neighborhoods recover and become more resilient.

A key vulnerability in New York is the projected growth of the 100-year floodplain over the next 40 years.  The city identified two critical areas for closer attention: the Brooklyn and Queens Atlantic shoreline and waterfront in both boroughs on the East River. When information is available at this level, concrete plans can be made on a street-by-street basis.

High resolution maps of Hurricane Sandy’s inundation area and projected future 100-year flood zones from the “A Stronger, More Resilient New York” report.  Original image source is FEMA and CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities.

PlaNYC, the city program that drew up the resilience strategy, has created a risk assessment matrix to prioritize climate hazards today, in the 2020s and in the 2050s. Key risks today for multiple areas include high winds and storm surge—two of the components that made Hurricane Sandy so costly. However, different stressors pose different risks. Extreme heat is classified as a significant risk for public health while heavy downpours are a key risk for wastewater management. The example below, from the “Buildings” chapter, shows how risks to the built environment will evolve. Prioritization is key as the city looks to achieve the maximum impact for its investment in increased climate resilience.

Risk assessment from the buildings chapter in “A Stronger, More Resilient New York.”

New York’s groundbreaking efforts are providing a roadmap that other cities can follow as they develop their own adaptation plans. There’s more the federal government can do to support local adaptation efforts, but the real planning and implementation must be done locally, and it’s critically important that cities like New York are taking a leadership role.