Urban Design Adapts to Climate Change

Urban Design Adapts to Climate Change

by Nicole Meyers

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The ever-popular “rising sea levels, disappearing ice caps, and drowning polar bear” discourse has been the poster board narrative for environmental impacts of global warming. The Arctic’s geographic isolation and distance led to the misconception that sea-rise is only pertinent in places like the North and South Pole, or in small islands like the Maldives. In reality, sea rise occurs on every coast. This detachment from what is happening in other parts of the world feeds into the denial that New York will face a similar future– a future under water. In New York Magazine’s September issue, Andrew Rice wakes his readers up to the fact that the future is a lot closer than we think.  His article “This IS New York: In the Not-So-Distant Future,” warns society that climate change is the single greatest threat to our city,  and New Yorkers must acknowledge the impending ecological crisis before it’s too late. Coastlines worldwide are vulnerable. Given that Manhattan is an island, and New York City has 520 miles of coastland, it might not be long before our buildings are under water too.

A report by New York City Panel on Climate Change argues that sea level rise poses an even greater challenge for coastal New York. The report projects sea levels around New York City will rise 11 to 21 inches by the middle of the century, 18 to 39 inches by the 2080s, and up to 6 feet by 2100. Average sea levels have risen about 1.2 inches per decade in the city since 1900, or about 1.1 feet overall, according to the report. This is almost twice the average global rate of 0.5 to 0.7 inches per decade. This Risk Zone Map Here is a surging sea map that allows you to visualize what N ew York City will look like in the future and the long-term local consequences of different carbon pollution scenarios.

The effects of New York City’s sea level rise are already being felt. New York City has lost a tremendous amount of wetland area. The disastrous impacts of Hurricane Sandy were a painful wake-up call for how critical wetlands landscape are for retaining storm water and flood control. Sea level rise alone will lead to an increased frequency and intensity of coastal flooding as the century progresses. Beyond environmental impacts, sea level rise will bring social consequences as well. About 400,000 New Yorkers live within the current 100-year floodplain, which is more than any other U.S. city, including New Orleans.

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Advancing Waters, which creates landscape metrics by leveraging data from the 2010 Census, the National Elevation Dataset, and the NYC Selected Facilities and Program Sites data sets to visualize the potential scenarios of sea level rise. Their goal is to illustrates exactly what that means for the city’s residents and its infrastructure. Their maps show that at an elevation of five feet, sea-level rise could impact about 34 schools, 80 transportation sites, and 30 waste-management facilities.

Sea level trends will continue to rise if we continue in our current paradigm, where more people lead to more resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. An increasing population will only reinforce this positive feedback loop underpinning anthropogenic climate change. New York’s population has grown by nearly 375,000 people within the past five years—an increase of 4.5%. As New York continues to grow through natural increase and migration, it is vital that environmental priorities are a forefront consideration if we want to build resilient city.

While future projections leave us feeling hopeless, New York is constantly piloting and inventing new solutions to different problems to save our city.  Bill de Blasio’s One City Built to Last Plan is an aggressive policy approach that implements a spectrum of efficiency initiatives aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from New York City’s over one million buildings. The goal is to reduce city wide emissions by 80% in 2050. Growing a city within sustainable parameters isn’t easy and has proved to be a daunting task for urban architects. According to Robyn Shapiro, director of the Lowline Project, problems of urban growth are not challenging, they invite innovation. Designing cities to respond to future environmental problems is an opportunity for alternative future landscapes, novel possibilities, and innovation through creative design. Urban resilience is the goal, and building a resilient city is the key to building a sustainable city.

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