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The City and the Storm

November 2, 2012

Thousands still reel from the impacts of Hurricane Sandy earlier this week. Yet it’s been heartening to see various mainstream voices join the chorus for serious engagement with our environmental crises. On one day alone, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times and Bloomberg Businessweek issued strong calls for climate change engagement, and Mr. Bloomberg himself issued a late endorsement of President Obama, citing, in particular, need for immediate action after witnessing the impacts of Sandy.

A sea change in the making? Perhaps. It also indicates, in a way, the slowness, the obstinacy, of responses. In an alternate world we might be outraged that it took a hurricane for Mayor Bloomberg and others to take climate seriously. We might still be outraged now that neither U.S. major party candidate has spoken about this all election year. On this point, I don’t want to imply that they are equivalent. Romney’s appalling jokes about climate change and his promises to de-fund public disaster prevention and relief agencies should disqualify him outright from the presidency.

The disaster has also fueled calls to rebuild, and encouragingly, to rebuild more sustainably, in ways more resilient to increasingly severe weather events. This is important. Geographers like Neil Smith and many others, particularly post-Katrina, have noted that “there is no such thing as a natural disaster.” Weather events might be “natural.” Disasters are situated within social, political, economic contexts. Their impacts are conditioned by resilience, preparedness, foresight. As cities like New York focus increasing attention on sustainability – on parks, bike lanes, LEED-certified buildings, renewable energy – we should also to take a longer, broader look at the constructed geographies of urban areas, the intertwined landscapes of bio-physical and socio-economic factors.

Last year, inspired by, in particular, the work of landscape architects Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha in their studies of the Mississippi River and Mumbai, I produced a series of sectional maps of New York City, focusing on differences in terrain and elevation, and on the geographies of nature and risk. They are snapshots, and a reminder that urban areas – both “natural” parts and otherwise – are heavily constructed and re-constructed, reflecting hundreds of years of manipulation and transformation, and are immensely variegated, often not coincidentally. Excavating and building, land scrapping and land reclaiming, de-naturing/re-naturing, all produce the cities we now know and their systemic vulnerabilities. A view of such “geographic histories” is essential to the planning of future resiliencies.

Map of New York City showing changes in terrain elevation through the city using sectional “cuts.” Map by author

NYC map showing variable amount of vegetated “green space,” superimposed on terrain. Map by author

NYC map showing relative storm risk, superimposed on terrain. Image by author, based on a map by the Wall Street Journal using data from the NYCOEM

NYC map of green space overlaid on storm risk. Image by author


To end: a shout out to two local grassroots organizations who are doing outstanding work post-hurricane: the Red Hook Initiative, a community center in Brooklyn, and CAAAV, a community organizing group in Manhattan’s Chinatown, who have taken the lead in hurricane relief efforts for their communities. They have quickly and effectively mobilized staff, friends, and volunteers to provide information, food and other necessities, and serve as coordination and information centers. Do please help them in their extraordinary efforts!

Red Hook Initiative in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Photo by RHI


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