Beyond new flood defences we need new ways of living with nature
One of the unexpected outcomes of the damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy has been a remarkably sanguine response from our public officials, a frank understanding that the city must urgently fortify itself against rising seas and energetic storms. Surprising, too, is the broad consensus that this was a largely anthropogenic disaster and that we risk repetition if we don’t deal with questions of defence and of habit: it’s little disputed that we can no longer live as we have.
Technically, flood protection isn’t exactly rocket science. The most difficult issues are distributive, matters of equity, of how we apportion risk and repair. As after Katrina, the discourse includes triage, whether to protect or evacuate those in harm’s way, raising fundamental questions of the nature of habitability, and the right to it.
But we are also in the midst of a broad epistemological shift − a re-understanding of our relationship to ‘natural’ forces − recognising that events like Sandy are a symptom of a climate change with a trajectory that could take centuries to reverse and that it’s therefore myopic to engage event-based, local protective measures without a vigorous attack on the roots of the problem.
Unless we radically reduce the number of Buicks on the road, stop the inexorable rise of coal power, halt the global assault on our forests, and get the temperature down, we’re fucked.
Given the failure of the international community to act decisively, we are obliged to make more concerted efforts at home, even if this risks discharging an ethical duty without much impact on the global environment. Architecture must lead as building is the source of about 75 per cent of greenhouse emissions, calling for radical changes in how we heat, cool, and light our structures, construct them, move between them, and in what we consume within them.
Our progress is real but painfully slow. But if we don’t make these changes and simply focus on the flood, we wind up as so many Canutes, bashing away at the relentlessly rising seas.
The current conversation is split between partisans of two approaches to flood mitigation: soft and hard. This division is both sentimentalised and politicised in ways that are instructive but risk being unproductive. Most bien pensant environmentalists take the position that more ‘natural’ forms of intervention are preferable to the machismo of massive constructions, of dams and dykes and giant barriers.
Surely we do need more soft systems, even their eventual takeover. Pavements must become porous, bioswales should snake through town, roofs should become green, oyster beds and wetlands should be restored and extended, flood zones abandoned.
But, there are obvious limits on the ability of natural systems to offer protection. A standard rule of thumb for the capacity of coastal wetlands to mitigate storm surges is that a mile of wetland is required to attenuate a foot of ocean rise. A wetland extending 20 miles into the Atlantic and filling Long Island Sound is not entirely practical.
New York requires a canny combination of tactics of resistance and of acceptance. On the hard side, we need defences along our coastlines and the growth of more amphibian forms of architecture, including the elevation of buildings and vital installations above flood level. We must also retrofit buildings for survivability via distributed forms of infrastructure that will allow far greater resilience and much higher levels of local autonomy in both emergencies and in normal civil life.
And we will surely need some big, Dutch-style, moves. I’m still agnostic about the particulars of the massive flood barriers currently being proposed. Will a huge floodwall across the bight from New Jersey to Long Island actually protect the city from surges? What will be the consequences on either side of the thing from the displaced water?
No barrier can protect us from permanently rising seas. But we must act decisively and, although it will cost a fortune, questions of expense recede before what will surely be at least $100 billion worth of damage from Sandy, a staggering amount that makes the critique of such huge interventions − from the angle of proportionality − moot.
The need to think radically is clear. The climate scientist Klaus Jacob − observing the large territory on the high ground of Queens occupied by cemeteries − has suggested the logic of switching the dead and the living. It’s a reasonable thought.