Opinion: To Protect NYC From Future Storms, Invest in Waterfront Parks

“During Sandy we saw evidence of how parks can be built to weather the worst impacts of storms. Areas that suffered less damage overall had infrastructure in place that served to alleviate some of the harsher impacts: facilities such as beaches, wetlands and parks which, if built right, can serve as a cushion for harsh weather conditions that might hit coastal and neighboring communities.”

NYC Council/Jeff Reed

Park space in upper Manhattan.

This month marks the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy and the devastation that it wrought in New York City. The storm claimed 43 lives and destroyed billions of dollars worth of property and infrastructure. A decade later, we must ask the discomforting but crucial question: How are we preparing to mitigate the impact of a future superstorm—especially since we know it’s only becoming a more likely prospect due to climate change?

The federal government recently revived a US Army Corps of Engineers plan to build a series of protective storm surge barriers around lower Manhattan, southeast and northern Queens, Staten Island, and parts of Brooklyn that were hit hard in 2012. This investment comes as a relief, but with construction starting in 2030—18 years following Hurricane Sandy—the effort is also a symbol of the slow progress toward bold solutions.

Meanwhile, we have to recognize there is no single solution to resilience, but an array of strategies we must aggressively pursue as a city and region. Top among them must be investing in waterfront parks as protective infrastructure in the face of sea level rise and severe storms.

When Hurricane Sandy battered the region, the storm swamped 5,700 acres of the city’s parkland and spawned $800 million in damages. Hurricane Ida had similar impacts. We need to bake more resilient features into park designs, upgrades, and retrofits.

Parks make up 14 percent of the city’s total land and almost 30 percent of its coastline. These spaces are essential resources for successful climate adaptation. Mayor Eric Adams has voiced strong support for strengthening the city’s resilience infrastructure, and has been a vocal supporter of significantly increasing the annual expense budget for critical park maintenance and operations to 1 percent of the budget. That funding is the first prerequisite to meaningful change across our waterfront, because our commitment to parks must be at the center of our commitment to effective resilience planning.

The waterfront facilities maintained by the Parks Department are 76 years old, on average, which is a long stretch for infrastructure that takes constant abuse from water and weather.

During Sandy we saw evidence of how parks can be built to weather the worst impacts of storms. Areas that suffered less damage overall had infrastructure in place that served to alleviate some of the harsher impacts: facilities such as beaches, wetlands and parks which, if built right, can serve as a cushion for harsh weather conditions that might hit coastal and neighboring communities.

Brooklyn Bridge Park, for example, is located on elevated land, and contains plants at its edges that allow the green space to endure the harsh weather conditions much better than other coastal parks. Brooklyn Bridge Park earned the accredited WEDG®, Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines, verification for its ability to thread the needle between resilience, ecology, and access. Within the Bronx River Parks system, Concrete Plant Park was able to capture flood water during Sandy thanks to its redesigned topography, thereby protecting neighboring communities from flooding, and Soundview Park had previously restored its salt marsh wetland, which helped reduce the waves’ power and reduce upland damage.

In the years following Hurricane Sandy, policymakers have worked to implement a meaningful resilience plan—but struggled to follow through on many of the core investments and planning decisions that would really set communities up for successful adaptation. 

The Comptroller’s recent report is telling, and should serve as yet another urgent call to action for the city to accelerate resilience projects. Ten years after Sandy, New York’s housing stock is at greater risk of flooding; that includes a high proportion of NYCHA residences. A majority of the city’s essential infrastructure still lies in the floodplain—airports, bridges, tunnels, highways. And 67 percent of public open space and outdoor recreation areas, including neighborhood parks, remain vulnerable to flooding.

Nearly a year ago the Rise to Resilience coalition issued a set of recommendations for Mayor Adams to hit the ground running on climate adaptation during his first 100 days. These proposals included committing to more public access to the waterfront, especially where social and physical barriers exist, and embracing the maritime and port sectors as major economic drivers and key to regional decarbonization.

To these recommendations we can add the Comptroller’s recommendations: develop a citywide resilience plan, standardize guidelines for resilient design and development, and secure diverse, reliable funding sources for the city’s long-term push to be a global resilience leader.

Roughly half of the land managed by the NYC Parks Department is directly on the water. The proximity to the shoreline makes these beautiful open spaces especially vulnerable to flooding, storm surges, and other consequences of extreme weather. At the same time, the recreational and educational opportunities—from boating to fishing to learning about marine life—are what makes our waterfront parks truly magical.

We have the solutions. Now we need leadership from Mayor Adams and the City Council to see them through. Let’s not wait until the next crisis to act with urgency.

Palomino is Director of Advocacy and Programs at New Yorkers for Parks; Taba is Senior Manager for Climate Policy at the Waterfront Alliance.

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