Creating a Climate-Resilient Jamaica Bay

It can start with a rain barrel.  The renewal of the idea of water as a resource –an obvious concept to a farmer, but one that has escaped the consciousness of many city dwellers whose water starts at the faucet and ends at the drain.  By once again embracing water as a resource, New York City has begun to create a new urban ecology that restores ecosystem services and incorporates nature back into the city.  Green infrastructure and living shorelines are amongst the buzzwords transforming the way we think about our cities’ insides and edges.  The New York City Green Infrastructure Plan and Vision 2020: New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan are two recent efforts that challenge the status quo in the coming decades.  Both plans are put into context with the recent update to PlaNYC.

Just like no single energy source known today will stop greenhouse gas emissions and prevent climate change, there is no silver bullet for adapting to it.  A portfolio approach tailored to each city and neighborhood is necessary to prepare for more intense weather events in the future as well as the extreme events that we face today.

In this post I will briefly highlight the plans and efforts already underway to enhance the environmental quality and resilience of Jamaica Bay and the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary.  While these projects were designed with multiple environmental goals, their role for improving climate change resilience should also be realized.  Incorporating these resiliency benefits into sustainability research and planning is an opportunity to add momentum and funding to the many projects that still need resources.

The New York City Green Infrastructure (GI) Plan proposes stormwater reduction measures that capture rain water where it falls and prevents it from entering the combined sewer system.  The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) began to implement some of these measures as part of the Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan (JBWPP), and DEP seeks to avoid costly tanks, tunnels, and expansions through additional implementation of GI around Jamaica Bay and its tributaries, as well as citywide.  GI will reduce combined sewer overflow and add trees and vegetation, which have the added benefit of cooling neighborhoods, reducing energy consumption in buildings, cleaning the air, and providing aesthetic and recreational value.

The GI Plan includes $2.4 billion for green infrastructure and $2.9 billion for cost-effective “grey” infrastructure, compared to $6.8 billion in traditional sewer infrastructure currently required.  These billions complement investments to reduce nitrogen discharge from wastewater treatment plants, remediate landfills along the water’s edge, restore wetlands and marsh islands, and encourage new growth of oysters, ribbed mussels, and eelgrass, to name a few (see JBWPP for more).

Vision 2020: New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan consolidates information about projects and goals set forth in the GI Plan and JBWPP as well as public access, recreational, industrial, residential, and other local and citywide priorities.  The Plan includes a chapter on climate resilience with distinct goals to study strategies that increase the city’s resilience. These include:

  • Identify resources to promote scientific research and micro- and macro-scale modeling of flood and storm surge risks and potential interventions to inform decisions about coastal management.
  • Promote pilot projects to test potential strategies and evaluate their effectiveness in providing coastal protection as well as their beneficial and detrimental effects on aquatic life.
  • Create an inventory of adaptation strategies with potential applicability for New York City and evaluate strategies based on a full range of costs and benefits. Options to be considered include the potential strategies identified in this plan as well as additional innovative strategies to be identified through engagement with practitioners.

The Plan lists a portfolio of sea-level rise strategies that the city might consider.  While flood barriers have been studied, there are enormous funding hurdles to overcome, as well as the politically loaded question of choosing which areas to protect (and potentially increasing risk in neighboring communities).  Smaller, “softer” approaches may be favorable, integrated with protective measures for buildings and infrastructure.  The last item on the list of strategies is “restored or constructed wetlands, beaches, barrier islands, and reefs [which] can function as dynamic storm barriers that both protect and serve ecological functions.”  It is unclear to what extent the restoration of marsh islands, oyster reefs, and other Jamaica Bay ecosystems may enhance resilience (or vulnerability) of the communities surrounding it.  The near-term benefits for water quality and wildlife, however, are more apparent.

While New York City does not have a stand-alone climate change resilience strategy, it is gradually being streamlined into our planning efforts.  Planners, architects, ecologists, and the academic community are amongst the groups coming together to create a vision for the future that begins to blur the line between land and water.  New York City must understand ways we can let water in and once again use it as a resource.  We must study the efficacy of innovative and artistic visions such as the designs proposed for MoMA’s Rising Currents exhibit.  We must balance development and the environment and achieve the highest sustainability benefits for our money.  There are already examples of “climate ready” planning in New York City, and we can develop other best practices through dedicated study and exchanging ideas.  It can start with a rain barrel, but cumulatively our efforts become part of the new urban environment.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the official views of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection or the City of New York.

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