Vishaan Chakrabarti

Vishaan Chakrabarti

The tragedy of Hurricane Sandy has raised many profound questions for us. Some may worry about the vulnerability of big cities, asking whether, when we concentrate density, do we put too much in harm’s way? Some may worry about our financial system, asking, should the NYSE remain in Lower Manhattan? Some may worry about subways: Should we be so reliant on mass transit? And some already may have questioned coastal development: Should we build big along urban waterfronts?

The answer to each question is a resounding yes, with some caveats. Far too much financial infrastructure is located downtown to consider relocating our financial district, but we should ensure that there are off-site redundancies. Far more environmental benefit than risk comes from our reliance on subways, but we should find the means to better protect our tunnels against flooding. Over 300,000 New Yorkers live in the low-lying areas known collectively as Zone A, and it would be unthinkable to relocate most of them; but for the large, new buildings where these people live and work, we should create critical mechanical systems and fuel oil above a newly established floodplain.


Too much joy derives from our unfolding, new five-borough waterfront park system for us to suddenly cut and run, but we should design public spaces along the waterfront to flood and retain water. Finally, as my forthcoming book, A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban American, explains, cities are our best chance for an economically, environmentally, and socially stronger nation and planet.

But the answer to the first question, regarding the downside of density, is still yes: Yes, too much of our urban environment is in harm’s way. The solution, however, isn’t to throw the urban baby out with the bath water of rising seas. As Governor Cuomo suggested during his recent press conferences, we must instead redesign our infrastructure to defend against the tide of climate change.

A newly energized President Obama, in collaboration with Governors Cuomo, Christie, and Mayor Bloomberg, should convene a senior level Harbor Protection Commission to produce recommendations for new infrastructure that protects our low-lying areas. This commission should include all three levels of government, plus business leaders; community representatives; civic voices; and experts in engineering, design, development, and marine science. Experts from Columbia, Princeton, and Stony Brook universities who have been studying the problem for years, and the insights offered by participants in MoMA’s Rising Currents exhibit, should certainly be brought to bear in this picture.

Initially, the commission should ensure that the generous aid from federal reconstruction funds goes to good use, by replacing as much obsolete infrastructure as we can with new, more resilient technologies. But the larger task for the commission is to identify the best medium and long-term solutions for protecting our harbor and coastlines.

No idea should be taken off the table, given the millions of lives and billions of dollars at stake. Environmental sacred cows, such as the regulations that prohibit us from reshaping our shoreline or building in the water to protect ourselves, must be slain. Dense, properly designed new development, which could help us pay for the costs of flood protection and create a new front line of waterfront defense, must be considered.

In fact, as the post-Sandy period now unfolds, the advantages of high-density, transit-rich coastal environments are becoming increasingly apparent: Consider the robustness and inherent resilience, in Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, of the local buildings, centralized underground power system, and mass transit system.

Though impacted somewhat by the storm, these structures were by and large able to recover at a rapid pace. By contrast, low-density areas with houses built near the coast—or worse, along barrier beaches—proved painfully vulnerable, particularly those coupled with above-grade power lines. Whether in New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, or along the Gulf Coast, this kind of housing suffers terribly during storm surges. This scenario is a mistake our region should not repeat, for the sake of all who live in such communities. Barrier beaches should be restored to perform their natural function—protect the coast—which is something they cannot do where housing tears up the dune layer and makes itself a target. In lieu of developments in these areas, we should build replacement housing to greater densities farther inland, thus preventing repeat tragedies.

Ironically, as Hurricane Sandy made landfall, a group of us from Columbia University were in Rotterdam to examine innovative forms of waterfront development. No one knows water like the Dutch, considering their history of fending off threats from flooding. Their time-tested solutions include the enormous Maelstrom Barrier—massive sea gates at the mouth of the Rhine built in the late 1990s. The Barrier is a solution that, given the expanse of our own harbor, may or may not work here. But the Dutch are also experts at using dredge material to build “soft edges,” or artificial barrier islands that absorb the energy of storm surges and create natural habitat.

Two years ago, our Columbia students proposed a similar strategy to protect Lower Manhattan by recycling the dredge material that is a continuous byproduct of maintaining deep shipping channels in the harbor. They proposed using this dredge to not only create barrier islands, but also a magnificent new flood-resistant neighborhood called “LoLo” that would fund the construction. Unlike many such proposals for artificial barrier islands, the LoLo concept would create a new front line for Lower Manhattan that would pay for itself, a factor that is essential if we are serious about climate change protection in an economically challenged era.

The facts of global warming have become indisputable. The mayor has called for evacuations twice in a little over a year, an action for which I can find no weather-related precedent in the three centuries New York has been a city. A nearly 14-foot storm surge breached our shores due to a record-breaking low-pressure system. And now, with the oceans warming, we must wonder how long before Category 1 storms become Category 2, and how long before Zone C transforms into Zone A? While we must adopt every reasonable measure to reduce our carbon footprint, it is time to also consider extraordinary measures to protect our city and ourselves. We must take the recommendations of the proposed Harbor Protection Commission and construct the defenses we require. This has been a terrible tragedy for the city, the region, and the country. Let’s not allow its lessons to go to waste.