We live in a culture that embeds information, and where the most important things tend to go unsaid. All of us put information into machines that will retrieve data on practically anything imaginable from an alarm clock to an AI for more complex decision-making. A recent Rolling Stone article by Jeff Goodell (Flooded City) does not make this point but exhibits its results with great clarity. Goodell talks about flooding in New York and high or low ground with storm surge or microburst variables. The unsaid stuff defines a vast combination of intellectual and architectural ramparts outlined as plans in a series of locations throughout New York City.
A talking head presentation at New America’s Civic Hall (9.15.16) proved to be very un-civic but managed to remain polite. All New Yorkers will look at a sea rise map, make a quick am “I in or out” assessment and log that in for a personal assessment of risk. Many of the people attending were outside the walls, wet on the map, had an obvious self-interest with the prospect of land poverty, but could not express them over all the talk of the new walls, ramparts, bounded rationality and cognitive dissonance in the presentation.
I have a suggestion on how to escape the Chicken Little problems the “flooded city” approach creates. The last half of the American century has offered two promises (maybe three). The first is the promise to eliminate disadvantage as discovered by the individual, the family, community, and nation. The American vocabulary, its literature, art, law, and architecture present an exquisite language born of the poetry and forums of each for change and communication. The framers of the Constitution strengthen us. We have been given the tools, created the space, and found ways to speak truth to power. We are skilled in the dialogue. We remain encouraged by each battle for social justice and civil society. We on this continent are routinely encouraged to confront the world’s history in ways that will keep that promise alive.
The second promise while not as refined, adds powerful new energy to the promise of eliminating disadvantage. It is the promise of sustainability. From the Club of Rome to its reflective twenty-five-year reunion at the Smithsonian, a more accurate word, Resilience, now communicates the correct challenge as well as imply a variety of post-trauma conditions. We now deploy resilience officers throughout the world, but their task is not to look at high water and low land. The resilience mission is different – find ways to draw a line in the sand. It matters far less about where there will be high water until we know how to draw that line in the sand. There is no crystal ball. Point to facts and describe where a part of the sky has fallen. Right now that is more useful than if it will fall. American’s do not avoid tragedy we wait for it.
Historically, when it comes to a resilience challenge, there is the “duck and cover” hedge and the old MAD way. The worldview of mutually assured destruction is also composed of private investors who are very active in their demand for public dollars to drive down risk. We need a much broader outline of ways to invest publically in resilience that may come down to clearly explaining the difference between the circle and the grid in urban design as we see it in the national highway system and the urban crisis.
The content embedded in the promises leading to fairness and sustainability can help us to recognize the architecture presented to date is in fact composed of walls and ramparts that encircle something. There is an inside and an outside. Without injecting these two promises into the process, the design of the walls and ramparts may do more damage than any violent storm. Future articles and public discussion should take a lesson from Elizabeth Kolbert. Her extraordinary review of the science of global change over the last half-billion years defines our entry into the Anthropocene epoch, the knowledge of which might save us all.
It is time to get practical about the local impact of global problems. I would apply the Isle de-Jean Charles Climate Change Refugees to a New York City example: The action taken in Louisiana occurred when they were down to the last two-percent of their land. Can New York or any other city afford to set that standard or hedge that bet, that way? Un-rough the math here, $100 million in relocation funds for 20 households applied to the 35,000 families in let’s say, Canarsie, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. The bill would come to $175 billion. Resettlement at 20HH/year would take a millennium. At 500 HH/year, the cost would be $2.5 billion/year, and it would take 70 years. Buy the property, strip it of its toxins, wait for the ocean to come and you have an artificial reef over the foundations, counter the acidity and make seafood. An investment of this kind protects the future. It would prevent the “land poverty” plan currently in play that will reflect the tragedy of the ramparts, not the water. For a place like Canarsie, or the Rockaways (the natural rampart), the test should be whether a quid pro quo is in place, or just another caveat emptor slap in the face, aimed at people of color.
Truth to power, you cannot get that pitiful amount today for a place like Canarsie. The policy for change remains in the MAD world of catastrophic resolution. The Chicken Little approach does not have a chance unless you do one simple thing. Put that line in the sand and be a little scary. Draw the wall, present its ramparts across the landscape of NYC or any other place on the planet, and have the courage to ask and answer two questions. Who’s In? Who’s out? Straight up, without weapons, humans are not built to kill, no claws or fangs, but when one group of humans is forced to say to another group facing a life-threatening condition “you are not selected” now or even in the evolutionary sense, I do not know which group is worse off.
A third promise awaits development given an implementation plan. The positive side of the formation of ramparts and walls is the opportunity to recognize a dense, contained urban life offering new forms of growth. The challenge is to put a stop to the grid humans have drawn on the earth. The grid is a symbol of the infinite. The sphere or circle is limited. The fuel of unlimited growth within this circle (ramparts and all) is to develop methods for all that enters the encircled urban world will leave in a non-toxic form. Today over 80% of what flows out is toxic.
Today the planners, engineers, architects, and climate scientists assess the impact of the sea rise, storm surges and micro bursts pounding down the Hudson River Valley on the city’s property. The Flooded City article points out the big picture these professionals paint for owners and policy makers. For example, a rise in sea level far less than a meter places 71,500 buildings and $100 billion of property in NYC’s high-risk flood zones. Sea rise is not a complex assessment. Remote earth sensing devices can measure elevation to less than a meter. Some devices calculate small fluctuations in gravitational forces, and for any area in question, can do so in real time. The ramparts and walls encircling vulnerable properties using these tools also exhibit a variety of wrongheaded priorities of great value for reforms and the discussion of fairness.
The below ground world of tunnels and conduit (vehicles, gas, power, clean, gray and black water) of New York City is not climate proof. Given the positives of the walls and ramparts, the capacity to fragment infrastructure systems to function independently is implied, but the policy is dishonest unless the question “who is in and out” is answered.
Global processes are geologically instantaneous events in the context of the last half-billion years. They occur daily but remain well outside of human experience. We are unlikely to “duck and cover” or step back from the waves of an unobservable rise of the ocean at the base of a massive river basin. Creating the incentives to do so is the challenge of our time.
Nevertheless, insisting the acquisition and removal of toxins from NYC’s waterfront and flood prone zones may be the best plan of action for no other reason that it will take a century to accomplish. The planning work as it stands today favors protecting property in the short term. It emanates from the boardrooms and public conferences in the old way. It is about producing jobs through relatively high yield, short-term investments under the heading of resiliency. The discussion of the toxins therein encircled by these old ways should take on a wider context and a sharper focus by its critics as each place could be chemically, biologically, and most importantly, financially toxic.