For many years folks in green building and sustainable development circles have questioned the logic of developing in coastal areas and flood plains. As the New York City region now knows firsthand, coastal areas are susceptible to harm and when development is pursued a loss of habitat (like wetlands) inevitably follows, directly or indirectly. LEED, for instance, provides credit to projects that avoid areas like wetlands, water bodies and habitat of endangered species. Notably, this is not a prerequisite to achieve LEED, but a voluntary credit (though making this a pre-req has been proposed in LEED v4, slated for 2013 rollout.)
Typically this issue is raised only when new developments are under consideration. Very few people in the mainstream conversation have advocated for retrenchment from established communities, no matter how vulnerable. Exceptions that come to mind include regions like the Mississippi River flood plain, where recurring floods have required an almost annual outlay of significant funds to reconstruct devastated communities, and post Katrina New Orleans- when many questioned whether there should be a city in that location at all (though presumably those people have never been to Mardi Gras.) After Katrina and the BP spill in the gulf there were spikes in conversation about the impacts of human development and how we had managed to remove 34 square miles of wetland habitat from Southern Louisiana EACH YEAR for five decades- habitat that might have softened the blow of Katrina and helped clean crude oil and other toxins out of the ecosystem. A similar discussion point has been heard after Sandy, with people pointing out that wetlands and oyster habitat used to be extensive in New York Harbor (and around Staten Island and the Rockaways) with lots of speculation about how the presence of these ecosystems might have mitigated the impact of the storm.
Credit: ARO, dLand Studio
Among the most reproduced images post-Sandy was this rendering, by the design firms Architectural Research Office and dLand Studio, of New York Harbor redesigned to withstand dramatic sea level rise, for the Rising Currents exhibit at MoMA- a prescient examination of the impacts of sea level rise on the NYC waterfront in 2010.
But for the most part, no one questions the right of cities and towns to exist much as they are- mostly folks wonder what can be done to make our communities more resilient in the face of dramatic events, whether it be storm surges or heat waves.
But we may be witnessing a turn in this conversation.
Last week it was reported that City Councilman Brad Lander of Brooklyn asked Lightstone Development to withdraw their application to build a 700-unit housing complex alongside the Gowanus canal. For those not familiar, the Gowanus canal penetrates almost two miles into Brooklyn from New York Harbor and it suffered severe flooding during Sandy. Exacerbating the situation, the canal is a Superfund site–laden with myriad toxins and other nasties left over from its industrial past. The Gowanus is also an active outfall for our combined sewer system (in New York City, and most northeast cities of the same age, the sewer and stormwater systems are combined and when it rains the system can be quickly overwhelmed, resulting in raw sewage being diverted to surrounding waterways.) All of which makes the Gowanus quite a noxious body of water (sarcastically nicknamed Lavender Lake by the locals) but, property values being what they are in New York, there is significant pressure to develop around it. And Lightstone has responded that they intend to move forward with the project.
New York City is a place that revolves around, and is largely defined by, real estate. Property ownership is sacrosanct, in some circles probably considered more fundamental than access to oxygen. The Lightstone proposal is essentially “as of right”- meaning they are not requesting any variances to zoning or codes like more bulk or more square footage than allowed by the baseline codes, and therefore will not have to go through extensive environmental reviews. Whether you agree or disagree with a new housing complex being located alongside the Gowanus, it is a significant change in the conversation for a public figure to openly request that the developer withdraw their proposal. Will Lander be suggesting a wholesale review of the zoning around the Gowanus? Or will the city be reviewing proposals near water bodies with a renewed scrutiny? The former seems complicated and the latter seems a little vague, and probably unfair. That said, Lander raises good questions about the ability of the project to withstand storm events. There are not easy answers to these questions, and I’m certainly not suggesting solutions here. But the conversation has started. We should all take note.