New York Needs to Become a City That Floods Now and Then

When Red Hook was cut off from the rest of the city during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, community groups relied on their histories of organizing to form self-reliant networks. Photo: Tyler Sparks

Nine years ago today, Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New York City, killing 44 people, destroying 70,000 homes, and causing $19 billion in damage. As flash floods over the past few months have evoked Sandy’s deadly storm surge, the lessons learned from the 2012 disaster have been on the mind of Kian Goh, an architect and urban-planning professor at UCLA, where she is the associate director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy. In her new book, Form and Flow: The Spatial Politics of Urban Resilience and Climate Justice, Goh looks at a decade of climate-adaptation plans in three cities — Rotterdam, Jakarta, and New York — and how the goals of global think tanks are often at odds with the grassroots efforts of local groups. As communities brace for the inevitable next storm, Goh spoke to Curbed about “water squares,” why cities need to shift their infrastructural focus to maintenance, and what the word resilience really means.

Your book focuses on two vulnerable New York neighborhoods, Red Hook and the Lower East Side, that were hit hard by Sandy.

In both these neighborhoods, we saw community organizations relying on their histories of organizing and social-network building. The Red Hook Initiative built upon its work with constituents to develop self-reliance and collective social capital to help vulnerable community members and get the word out. They’ve continued to develop the community-based Red Hook WiFi program, which was so critical immediately after the storm, and advocated for public-housing residents against closures of parks and wholesale disruption of the housing projects. On the Lower East Side, organizers from Good Old Lower East Side built coalitions and led participatory engagement with planners and designers and continued to oppose luxury developments. The storm may have jump-started some of the specific actions, but the real work was already being done well before. And they’ve continued, now with maybe more attention to climate issues and disasters.

These networks were already in place to fend off other disasters, like displacement.

When you talk to folks like Jill Eisenhard, the founding director of RHI, she really emphasizes how they had to face systemic, structural oppression and that these are place-based struggles. Everyone understood why, for example, they couldn’t find fresh food in their neighborhood. And why it took so long to get anywhere: because there were few transportation lines going to the Red Hook Houses.

The city is finally looking to the strength of these networks during actual emergencies, talking about going door-to-door to make sure that people can get out of apartments that are not safe.

And this has certainly been done in many places. One place I and some of my colleagues have looked at is Banda Aceh, on Sumatra island in Indonesia. We were there ten years after the Indian Ocean tsunami, and a lot of the conversations were about how you come up with a place that people know that they can go to and then tell them how much time they have — sometimes it’s only a few minutes — to actually leave. There they are called “escape buildings,” these multistory fortified buildings. And after something so devastating, like the Indian Ocean tsunami, everyone came to a tangible realization: Whether you are on the coastline or not, this could happen again. Knowing New York, I don’t know if people will have such a realization about the kinds of risks they may be facing. It’s not a matter of resources — it’s a matter of planning.

New York City has now had three major cloudburst-flooding events over the past two months. In some ways, we’ve spent the past decade preparing for another Sandy, but this is a different type of water-related climate disaster.

There were floods in places that were quite unexpected when Ida hit. Totally not places that one would say, “Oh, it’s low-lying, coastal, it’s prone to storm surges.” These were floods happening in the middle of Brooklyn and Queens. For folks who have been studying the geology or the infrastructure of the built environment, it wasn’t that surprising. If you paid attention to where some of the infrastructural inadequacies are, you would know that there are a lot of drainage issues.

We’ve written a lot over the past few weeks about the vulnerability of basement apartments in particular.

There are some pilot projects on cloudburst plans, mostly in Queens. There’s one around a NYCHA project to take care of cloudburst-related flooding: What are the ways in which we can increase infiltration and vegetation that can capture and hold stormwater and slow it down before it goes into the sewer systems? And these are important, but one of the things that is always a challenge is that the pilot projects themselves take a long time to get going. Pilot projects are good for localized demonstrations, but in many ways this has to be seen as a much more interconnected system. It will not always flood in the same places because of the dynamics of different storms and different infrastructural conditions.

And we don’t really have any more time to test these.

We need to get things done on a systemwide level pretty fast. These weren’t things that came up because someone knew ten years before Sandy that a hurricane would hit. They came about because of historical marginalization and community organizing. In both cases, many of those affected lived in public-housing projects. And even though New York, arguably, has the least problematic public-housing system in the country at this point, it’s still a pretty challenged system.

Every time we have a flooding event, everyone says, “Well, if only we were more like the Dutch,” and those are the consultants New York has largely hired for its resilience plans. But these stronger storms and heavy-rainfall events are happening in part because New York is now a humid, subtropical climate, more like the Southeast Asian countries you talk about in your book. So which of these regions should we be looking at?

In places like Rotterdam, a lot of the flooding threats that they face are [now] from cloudburst events, because the water levels in the Netherlands have been so controlled — so much of it is behind dikes and under sea level. They haven’t had the same kind of North Sea floods that initiated so much of the mid-to-late-20th-century infrastructural work. There’s this water square in Rotterdam — they’ve built a number of these now — but there’s one in a square called Benthemplein where it’s a recessed area in a courtyard between several buildings that also serves as a recreational space, so there’s, like, a half-basketball court plus seating areas …

A stormwater conversation pit! I love it. 

Exactly! And a place for stormwater during extreme precipitation. This one fairly small project has really taken a prominent place in a lot of international conversations about climate adaptation. And one of the things that struck me while talking to the designer of this water square is that it required rethinking a relationship with water. When you talk to these folks who are a part of it, they make the point that they’ve dealt with water in one way for so long that they just tried to keep it away. And now that’s not always in the cards. So it’s a change of thinking that there might be places within the city that are variably allowed to flood.

Rotterdam’s “water square” in Benthemplein. Photo: stadtlandschaft/CC via flickr

Even in places like New York, I think this is not a big ask at all, because we have done it in the past. The cycle of retreating from the edge of the water and putting up hard sea walls or ports or elevated freeways — that cycle is reversing. We’re moving back to the water’s edge. We’ve done it before. And it’s about convincing engineers and maintenance crews and city budget officials that there’s a different way to do things. You need to put more attention and money toward maintaining places that are not immediately supposed to shed the water off.

And that’s basically how we’ve designed every city: with these low-maintenance impermeable surfaces.

In places like Jakarta, they have to rethink the way that they’re living with water because from Dutch colonial times through now, they’ve relied on, a canal system. And now they have to fix the drainage system. They know that one of the things that they really need to be doing is not counting on the canals and rivers solely to drain the water away. We need to infiltrate more, we need to open up space more, to re-create these low-lying, marshlike wet conditions from the very beginning. And the plans that we see, the more top-down plans, are not necessarily geared toward that. There’s one large-scale plan that I end up critiquing quite a bit in the book called the Giant Sea Wall. It’s a plan to create, really, a whole new city on reclaimed land in the bay, with these very large retention ponds that could be pumped low enough that the rivers and canals in the city could drain into them. The planners think they need something big that can really take care of all the problems that we’re seeing in the city, from the flooding to the traffic. And I’m not sure they’re learning enough from what’s being offered as alternatives.

In the book, you talk a lot about problems with the term resilience, something we hear a lot from city officials.

The idea of resilience can easily be invoked to protect the status quo and foreclose more transformative change, but resilience can be more just. Jill Eisenhard from RHI describes how they talked about resilience with Red Hook youth way before Sandy hit. And resilience, for them, was both the strength, motivation, or confidence within each of them to get back up when life knocks them down and, more importantly, the sense that they were part of a collective, with an experience of shared struggle, that’s going to help them if they can’t do it for themselves. I think this idea of resilience that’s always positional, always political and grounded, is really important. But it may not be enough.

New York Needs to Become a City That Floods Now and Then