Urban planners see Sandy's aftermath as a chance to reopen old discussions
Hurricane Sandy roared ashore in New York just two weeks ago, destroying the homes of the wealthy and the poor alike. Elliott Sclar, from Columbia University's Earth Institute, says that will open the door to discussions of future land-use made critical by climate change.
The superstorm called Sandy was a wake-up call in the United States, laying bare our vulnerabilities in the face of dangerous new realities of climate disruption.
Rising sea levels and severe storm surges target coastal communities, and many towns and cities are inadequately protected. But what can be done about it? It's the kind of problem that engages thinkers like Elliott Sclar, the director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University's Earth Institute.
"As an economist and as an urban planner who deals with sustainable cities, the notion that this was going to happen was not something that came out of the blue to me," Sclar said of Sandy's destruction.
Sclar says even if we were able to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases over night — no small order — we're still looking at major changes in weather patterns from the emissions already in the air. And that means we, as a society, have to determine what we will do to adapt our environment to the new reality, he said.
"Some of the answers that you’re hearing are probably technical ones — protection against storm surges for coastal communities is one of the things that you hear, hardening infrastructures against flooding conditions," he said. "The issue that we face is how are we going to begin to accomplish the kinds of changes that we need."
And while Sclar says efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions typically don't go over well politically, he's confident, in the wake of Sandy especially, that efforts to adapt will be more politically palatable.
"People rich and poor all were affected by this storm," he said. "In the past, a lot of events that created a lot of dislocation were felt disproportionately by poorer peoples. For example, Katrina was largely a story of the 9th ward and the way poor people fared."
But this time, with a storm hitting lower Manhattan, the displaced included some of perhaps the wealthiest people in the world.
"This is very much like what happened in the 19th century when we were dealing with things like cholera epidemics before we understood what germs were," Sclar said.
At the time, everyone realized the only way to protect anyone was to protect everyone.
And that could lead to change.
Sclar said marshes and rain gardens on roofs in the city, as well as permeable concrete, are all ways we could adapt our cities to make run-off less hazardous.
"Those are things we teach, those are things we preach, green roofs, painting roofs white to better reflect heat, forms of more permeable concrete in parking lots," he said. "All of those things are things that we talk about but we’re going to have to go a lot further."
Social policy, land-use policy, infrastructure policy, will all have to change, likely with government incentives, in order to adapt our environment to the changing climate.
We have to begin to incentivize people to live in walk-able and bike-able communities," Sclar said. "Right now all the incentives that we have are to build more highways and to move more people out — and that isn’t just an American problem."
He said he's run into the same problem in Nairobi in Africa as well, for example.
But when it comes to cleaning up the damage from the storm, nothing is more fraught then the question of whether rebuilding even makes sense. Residents says of course, while critics often think that every house that's rebuilt is just another house waiting to get flooded again.
"You have to really look critically at the infrastructure in those places and begin to think about: what can be rebuilt where," Sclar said. "It’s not a question that you just say in a general sense: well, we’re going to have to get rid of things. Well, we’re going to have to learn how to adapt things more."
Waterfront living has been popular for decades, often commanding the highest prices and the most desirable homes and businesses. Sclar says those folks should be asked to bear the burden, through higher insurance premiums, of that choices.
But in places like Staten Island, there are as many people who are poor as the wealthy.
"Those people do not need to be lectured to and told that they’ve made bad choices," he said. "They made the best choice given the options that were open to them."
While there's no silver lining for the people who lost their homes in the storm, Sclar does see the aftermath of Sandy as an opportunity to reopen the discussion of urban planning.
"What we see is a chance to make people understand why we are so concerned about climate change, why we have been sounding the alarms that we’ve been sounding, why we’ve been trying to get the attention of politicians," he said.
Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More "Living on Earth."