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Editorial> Make Sandy A Climate Game Changer
Alan G. Brake calls for a new emphasis on resiliency as we face a new climate reality.
David Sundberg/ESTO

As The Architect's Newspaper embarks on our tenth year of publishing, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the region with its unprecedented storm surge. Many in the affected zone, including architects, planners, and landscape architects, are pondering how to move forward, knowing that rising ocean levels have left coastal cities—including the nation's largest urban area—alarmingly vulnerable. "Resiliency" seems to be the answer coming from many peoples' lips. Certainly planning for future storms—which will likely be even more damaging—is essential, but in the rush to build everything from storm surge protection barriers to new soft-edged waterfronts, is something being forgotten? Has local resiliency trumped national resolve when it comes to addressing the worsening weather events and rising sea levels, namely slowing or reversing manmade climate change? Where is the national—or even tri-state—conversation on global warming? How will we stave it off, in addition to mitigating its damaging impacts?

One of the most significant achievements of Mayor Bloomberg's tenure is his administration's now five-year-old PlaNYC, which set an ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. (The plan also addresses energy, water and air quality, transportation etc. in a highly integrated and comprehensive way.) A report card on the plan—published by the city this year—claims a 12 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since 2005, an impressive and largely painless achievement in a short period of time. The report is a bit vague on how this reduction has been achieved, but PlaNYC itself is a remarkable blueprint for how local actions can begin to have global impacts. But is it scalable?

New Jersey's Governor Christie, for all his leadership following the storm, has pursued a largely anti-urban, pro-sprawl agenda by cutting state funding for transit oriented development along the state's extensive commuter rail network, and more publicly, killing the ARC tunnel, which would have added needed rail connections to New York. Christie seemed transformed by Sandy’s devastation, so there might be an opening for him to rethink his policies as they relate to climate change. Given his stature nationally, and within the Republican party in particular, his public leadership on climate change could transform the conversation on the topic and move climate change denial to the extreme fringe (former New Jersey governor Christie Todd Whitman, also a Republican, is a vocal advocate for addressing climate change and could prove to be an ally).

Governors Christie, Cuomo, and Malloy, of Connecticut, shared an experience of dealing with tragedy and destruction, and all three performed well, often working in tandem. Using PlaNYC as a template, these three governors could craft a regional agreement to address the shared vulnerabilities of climate change and rising sea levels. Home to the nation’s largest media market, these governors have the power to take significant action and create models for climate change adaptation and prevention that the rest of the country could follow. The governors’ legacies will be judged not just by how they respond to one tragic weather event, but how they react to the new reality of our warming climate and fragile coastline.

Alan G. Brake