As the searing images of the devastation caused by Sandy finally begin to lose their painful edge, two things are becoming clear. The first is the scale, in both time and money, of the rebuilding effort, particularly in New York and New Jersey. The second is the equally enormous opportunity that comes with such rebuilding.
I am proud to have served on Governor Cuomo’s NYS 2100 Commission, which released its report on January 6. The governor has shown great leadership at a critical moment, and at his urging the commission has developed wide-ranging recommendations, including expressly recognizing that infrastructure includes not only man-made structures such as roads and bridges, but also the natural systems that provide key protection from the changing climate. My experience on the commission has convinced me that New York can now be the champion of investments in natural capital that benefit human and natural communities alike.
The key to those investments is understanding how we use land, our most basic resource. The Land Use and Environment Committee on which I served examined that fundamental issue and developed recommendations for three areas: protecting coastal communities; reducing damage from flooding and drought in inland areas; and protecting and upgrading wastewater infrastructure.
New York’s coastal regions — including the Atlantic Ocean, Hudson River, and Great Lakes — account for only 12 percent of its land mass, but 90 percent of the state’s population lives and works here. On the fringes of New York City, communities that not so long ago were small, seasonal escapes like Totenville, Coney Island, the Rockaways, and Long Beach have become year-round home to thousands of people.
Communities like these up and down the Atlantic seaboard depend on natural features that serve as green infrastructure — beaches, dunes, barrier islands, and wetlands — for their survival. Sandy changed the profile and location of these ecosystems, and in turn exposed the fragility of much of the critical infrastructure that we have built, like roads, bridges, floodwalls, and storm drains. Catastrophic consequences of severe storms are not inherent in nature, but rather are a direct function of the decisions we have made in the past about where we build, what we build, and how we build. And our future resilience will depend upon the decisions we make now with respect to both our built and natural infrastructure.
The built infrastructure needed to support dense coastal development threatens the natural processes that, when intact, protect coastal communities. Naturally functioning beaches, dunes, barrier islands and wetlands rely on the flow of sediment, water quality that promotes ecosystem health, and the necessary space to move and change over time. Poorly thought out development of our shores does not account for the realities of such an interconnected and dynamic natural coastal system. This destructive cycle will only increase as climate change and sea level rise continue.
Hurricane Sandy has made it clear that addressing coastal resiliency and protecting coastal communities is fundamental to public safety, health and economic well-being. The commission’s recommendations recognize that a capital investment in natural coastal systems is cost-effective, provides permanent protection, offers significant co-benefits, and is an essential part of a solution which will ultimately be the right mix of natural and built approaches.
Sandy may be a harbinger of a new and challenging weather pattern; drought and deluge. Such extremes will have impacts far beyond the coast. Droughts hit communities across the country last year, so millions of people saw first-hand the damage they do to drinking water, agricultural production, top-soil resources, water-based transport, and water dependent industrial and recreational economies. Many of those same communities know the devastation that deluges bring as well, including damage to public and private infrastructure, threats to public safety, and the release of toxic chemicals, petroleum, debris, sediment, nutrients, and sewage. Together, the cycle of drought and deluge poses significant challenges for every part of our landscape and infrastructure.
As with our coastal areas, investing in natural capital can help here, too. Conserving our natural defenses include protecting and restoring critical features such as wetlands and flood plains. Natural engineering systems include green infrastructure such as green roofs, street trees, and parks. Both of these nature-based options are designed to keep more rainwater where it falls and away from infrastructure. These systems also provide multiple co-benefits such as cooling urban areas, habitat preservation, and open space protection. Engineered systems include dams, levees, and floodwalls that should be hardened and re-sized to serve as critical protections during large floods. The natural and engineered systems approaches in tandem will help to re-establish the natural water-cycle on urban and rural landscapes to protect people and infrastructure.
The final component of the commission’s land-use recommendations concern protecting and upgrading our vulnerable and outdated wastewater treatment infrastructure — the pipelines, treatment plants and pumping stations that together make up a fundamental pillar of the state’s public and environmental health. This infrastructure transports wastewater from homes, buildings, and factories to treatment plants, which treat sewage and discharge effluent to New York waters, directly impacting upon water quality and the health of our communities. As we focus on ensuring that these facilities will survive severe weather, we also have the opportunity to upgrade the systems to meet water quality standards that protect public health.
New York is not the only place facing these challenges. But New York, on the strength of Governor Cuomo’s commitment and the recommendations of the NYS 2100 Commission, can be a leader. The expertise the state is developing matches or exceeds that found anywhere in the world, including the Netherlands, rightly praised for its foresight in planning for environmental change. That expertise will help New York adapt to the changing climate and will also bring new business opportunities as other cities and states look to New York for guidance. A partnership — among governments, financial and academic institutions, businesses, and the environmental community — that finds innovative ways to invest in and benefit from our natural capital can offer a brighter future for a post-Sandy world.