Among the imponderable consequences of an election that hangs on a scant sprinkling of voters is the fate of some big-ticket chunks of New York that will affect the lives of millions. If Joe Biden does indeed scrabble his way to victory and then wants to start saving the world from fire and flood on Inauguration Day and beyond, he might want to start here. Ours is a city with urgent needs, specific plans, and a record of urban innovation. After enduring four years of presidential loathing from a prodigal son of Queens, New Yorkers are hoping we can finally talk to an out-of-towner who understands. Biden campaigned on a $2 trillion promise to confront climate change as a clear and present threat. His plan, for now more of a statement of principles than a strategy, calls for halving the carbon footprint of America’s buildings in 15 years, a goal that is probably both optimistic and insufficient. If he wins — and if he can somehow pry cooperation out of the Senate, which looks like it may stay under Mitch McConnell’s control — New York should send him an initial Build Back Better to-do list with three items on it: build Gateway, fix NYCHA, and green the shoreline. Climate-change adaptation can sometimes sound like an expensive form of self-punishment, a world of wan bulbs and slow buses. Not true: Climate-mitigation projects like these make cities more livable and prosperous, rather than grimmer and more austere.
There are good reasons to launch a new era in New York. More than 400,000 people live within the floodplain now, and that number will have tripled by the end of the century — not because the population has grown but because the floodplain has. That density is double-edged. Big cities concentrate pollution (emitting 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases) and economic activity, so every baby step toward a carbon-neutral metropolis pays multiple rewards. That era begins with Gateway, a proposed rail tunnel under the Hudson to take the strain off the two ancient, crumbly tubes feeding Penn Station. It’s a costly project — $10 billion, plus another $2 billion to upgrade the existing tunnels — and Republican hostility to public transit (and to the Democratic Northeast) has kept it stalled for years. The Obama administration promised to pay half, and New York and New Jersey agreed to cover the rest. Trump, motivated by vindictiveness and mystified by the idea of strangers sharing a vehicle of any kind, shelved it with the backing of Chris Christie. He has spent his life traveling by chauffeured car and private plane. Biden, the Whistle-Stop Kid, proud rider of the rails, can be counted on to get it.
Tech companies have been treating transportation as a fertile frontier, rolling out app-based scooter services, electric Hummers, robotic cars, e-bikes, underground vehicle cannons, and Hyperloop networks. But the future should belong to a 19th-century technology: trains, by far the most efficient and least polluting way of moving freight and carrying passengers farther than they can walk or bike. America has allowed its rails to become derelict, and efforts to reverse that neglect have been desultory so far. Now, anticipating the ascendancy of its most famous regular customer, Amtrak is making a pitch to do more than survive, but to grow, adding new routes across the country. It takes more than an enthusiastic president and a compliant Congress to make that happen, though: Obama’s plan to launch the era of high-speed rail with a Tampa-to-Orlando segment flamed out when Florida’s newly elected Republican governor Rick Scott killed the project and returned the government’s $2.4 billion check. That won’t happen in New York.
Fixing and expanding public transit costs a lot, but not fixing or expanding it costs more. As the pandemic has scared passengers away from public transit, people have bought cars and started driving more, letting their lives leach away in traffic and hazing the air. But this is just the trailer for a post-pandemic transit meltdown, when the Hudson tunnels could become unusable and a new one is still an abstraction. Reliable links between Manhattan and the rest of the world are not just a parochial matter. A new report by NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and the consulting firm Appleseed calculates that if the federal government refuses to rescue the MTA to the tune of $12 billion, service cuts will soon slash the region’s economic output by $65 billion per year. A new Hudson tunnel would serve Amtrak and NJ Transit, not the MTA, but the argument remains the same: Smooth passage into and out of Manhattan lubricates the flow of money. Gateway is where economic and environmental benefits align.
Once Biden has started digging the great hole beneath the Hudson, he can turn his attention to public housing, where environmental and social crises meet. Together, New York’s stock of buildings pumps out more than two-thirds of the city’s greenhouse gases, and the goal of reducing those emissions by 80 percent in the next three decades seems like a mirage. The city recently started scoring large buildings on their energy efficiency, and the grades are miserable. The worst and largest landlord in New York City is New York City. The authority’s 326 multi-building complexes are wheezing, antiquated contraptions that keep their energy use in check mainly via broken elevators and dead boilers. Last spring, NYCHA residents, confined by the pandemic in toxin- and mold-laced apartments and buildings with broken-down exhaust fans, died from COVID-19 at twice the rate of other New Yorkers.
NYCHA’s perpetual plight has attracted plenty of design creativity and some financial innovation but never enough actual money to get the lightbulbs changed, the elevators fixed, and the lead paint stripped away. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders floated a $180 billion Green New Deal for Public Housing. “It makes sense to start with all the things that are the public already owns: parks, schools, public housing,” says one of the plan’s co-authors, Billy Fleming, a landscape architect who runs the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania. To be fair, NYCHA has started tackling the problem, except that announcing a $105 million contract for energy-efficiency upgrades when you’re facing a $32 billion repair bill is like totaling a whole fleet of cars and then springing for a new set of spark plugs.
There are valid objections to the “New York first” scenario. With its bog of bureaucracy, geological pace, and stratospheric construction costs, the city tends to sabotage all the best intentions. After Hurricane Sandy, the Obama administration put out a call for ideas about how to restore communities pummeled by the storm. One that stuck was the Big U, a chain of barriers around lower Manhattan that is still inching its way toward construction, now in fragmented and pared-back form. Then there’s the fact that $2 trillion is a lot of money, but probably not enough to go around. The rest of the country — flood-prone midwestern towns, burned western states, current-deprived Puerto Rico, heat-scorched cities, poisoned rivers, and ravaged estuaries — will be clamoring for attention and deserve it. Dozens of landscape-architecture schools are participating in a nationwide collective effort to translate the Green New Deal into concrete projects in every state and on every different scale. Some writers have urged the creation of a national Climate Corps, modeled on the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which built trails, rejuvenated farmland, and planted trees by the billions. “There’s a clear analogue to today’s needs for the ecological restorations of brownfields and mines and climate adaptation for parks and forests,” says Nicholas Pevzner, a landscape architect who teaches at Penn and has written extensively about the implications of a Green New Deal for America’s manifold terrains.
But even in the context of a national effort to cope with a global crisis, New York’s size, complexity, and resources make it a laboratory for large-scale urban adaptations, especially ways to manipulate nature to protect against nature’s assaults. Like Miami, Houston, and New Orleans, New York can remain livable only by ringing itself with a system of spongy defenses: wetlands, permeable pavers, cisterns, green buffer zones, channels, and swales. Landscape architects have been applying these techniques for years in pinpoint interventions, but it’s going to take an all-out mobilization to cope with rising waters. The critic Karrie Jacobs wrote about a truly New Deal–style proposal from the Regional Plan Association: Turn New Jersey’s scarred and poisoned Meadowlands into a national park, restoring huge marshes that can suck water away from low-lying cities. That may seem starry-eyed in a region threaded with highways and train lines, fragmented into overlapping jurisdictions and tied up in innumerable private parcels. Sometimes, the economic climate threatens to muscle its way to precedence: A swath of storm-calming wetlands on Staten Island might soon be paved over for a big-box store.
And yet other nations do manage to shape the landscape in vast chunks. The Netherlands, which was fighting off the sea for centuries even before it started to rise, spends $1.5 billion every year on fighting climate change — peanuts by American standards, but a significant investment for a country with a population smaller than the New York metropolitan area. And it does more than just pour concrete. Instead, the government taps a stable of firms, like H+N+S, to engineer the nation’s landscape using mostly soil and plants, creating a flexible grid of polders, dams, dykes, canals, and fields and regulating the flow of water rather than just trying to keep it all out. In China, one of the world’s most egregious carbon belchers and also a leader in climate-change mitigation, the landscape architect Kongjian Yu has brought the gospel of the Sponge City to hundreds of urban coastlines. He and his firm Turenscape have designed ways to demolish concrete channels, terrace riverbanks, plant grasses and trees, elevate boardwalks above waterways, and create new wildlife habitats.
New York has a complicated coastline. Wetlands and stretches of rocky shore intermingle with derelict wharves, sewage plants, neglected industrial zones, and vulnerable neighborhoods, all of them subject to rising sea levels. This variety demands a palette of approaches, ranging from top-down multibillion-dollar engineering projects to the block-by-block care provided by kids and neighbors through organizations like Rockaway Initiative for Sustainability and Equity. The goal is the same, though: a network of urban greenery that softens, cools, and cleans.
Last year, Mayor de Blasio rolled out an ambitious (and optimistically priced) $10 billion proposal to waterproof Manhattan, which included plunking an artificial island (possibly with towers on it) in the East River to keep the Financial District dry. That decidedly un-spongelike solution was met with a murmur of Yeah, rights; protecting Manhattan from the water by building more of it in the water could wreak a whole new round of environmental damage. In the short term, the specifics hardly mattered, since the pitch for federal funding was futile in the Trump-McConnell era. Perhaps the way to read that document, though, was as a message in a bottle, addressed to some future administration and Congress: We’re thinking big, and we’ll be ready when you are.
*A version of this article appears in the November 9, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!