Notes from a Post-Diluvian City

by Misha Lepetic

All the strange things
they come and go, as early warnings
Stranded starfish have no place to hide
~Peter Gabriel, “Here Comes The Flood

Chinas-Little-Dutch-Boy1-400x265It is entirely unsurprising that much of the post-Sandy talk around New York City has coagulated around the ideology of the technological fix. The optimism that is encoded in this perfectly human response inspires us to emerge better, stronger and wiser from disaster. However, there is a further subspecies of this response, which I will call the monolithic technological fix. Thus, in the wake of catastrophe, we seem to focus our attention on answering the question, “What is the one thing that we could do to ensure that this will never, ever happen again?” In this case of New York City and Sandy, the answer to this question has manifested itself, in full deus ex machina glory, in the form of a sea wall. This brings up two distinct but entangled issues: whether it is a good idea, simply on the face of it, and what this implies for the urban fabric.

Concerning the first point, there are, of course, many opinions as to where said seawall(s) would go. The daftest involve skirting all of Lower Manhattan with a retractable 16’ seawall, which, aside from expressing a certain opinion of the outer boroughs, only works provided all subsequent storm surges agree to play nicely and remain under 16’. Columbia University’s Vishan Chakrabarti speaks for the most commonly considered solution, which would be a series of barriers meant to bottleneck any incoming surge around the general vicinity of New York Harbor: “I think we seriously have to think about doing this in three places probably – at the Verrazano, at Perth Amboy and at Hells Gate – to really protect the city.”

Perhaps most dramatic is the 2009 proposal made by an engineering firm called the New York-New Jersey Outer Harbor Gateway, which would essentially create a causeway stretching from Sandy Hook in New Jersey to the Far Rockaways. As hydrologist Malcolm Bowman notes,

“The thing about the Outer Crossing is that it could have a multipurpose function. It could act as a four-lane highway plus a rail connection between northern New Jersey and Long Island. It could be a very interesting New York City bypass as well as a rapid rail connection with Kennedy airport. You could even make it toll road to pay for it.”

A scenic way to JFK, of course, until it gets washed away by the Son of Sandy.

The problems with building these sorts of giant walls are myriad, and I will only mention the most obvious: The length of time it would take to design and construct a seawall of any appreciable effectiveness is, given today’s bureaucracy and expense, wholly incommensurate with the increasing frequency of these kinds of storms.

NY-NJ_Outer_Harbor_GatewayConsider the Thames Barrier, to which the New York Harbor project has most commonly been compared this last fortnight. This massive project, designed to keep the Thames from flooding central London, was begun in 1974 and opened 10 years later; a similar period was needed for Holland’s estuarine Oosterscheldekering, which is the only movable flood barrier larger than the Thames Barrier. The interesting bit is that both projects were initiated as a result of the same flooding event, the North Sea Flood of 1953, that delivered a storm surge not dissimilar to Sandy to England, Belgium, the Netherlands, and even Scotland. However, Oosterscheldekering was just one part of the complete Dutch defensive system, also known as Delta Works; the entire Delta Works was only completed in 1998. The Dutch are doubtless very happy that they have made it across the finish line in under half a century, but I ask readers to consider, in this day and age, with its significantly more straitened finances, monkey-barrels full of stakeholders, and generally incoherent state of urban governance, what shape a similar adventure would take in New York City. As a leading indicator, I need only refer to the ongoing work at Ground Zero. Including the design process, it essentially took the British 30 years to build the Barrier, and that was back when no one gave a shit about nebulous affairs like “fish and wildlife migration pattern disruption.” The most minimally feasible seawall plan for New York Harbor is at least an order of magnitude larger.

This is, of course, not to say that some sort of seawall protection won’t be built; $17bn, which is the current estimate but feels awfully conservative, has probably been squandered elsewhere for less. But let us consider the second point, which has to do with the social, political and economic consequences that such infrastructure will have on New York’s urban fabric.


Robert Frost gently reminds us that “Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out”. In this case, these seawalls only protect those who find themselves lucky enough to be lodged behind them. The rhetoric of “protecting New York City” is vague and self-serving, and ought to compel the question, “Whose New York City”? None of the three plans mentioned above would change anything for the residents of the Rockaways or other barrier islands. Moreover, if for example the water is indeed stopped by a seawall at the Narrows, it will have to find something to do with itself. It is likely that it will double back and form an even greater surge, promptly pounding the coastline nearest it, ie, the entire south side of Staten Island.

This then naturally raises the question of who is incentivized or even allowed to live where, and why. A seawall makes this explicit, and virtually permanent. This is the built environment at its most pointedly political. In fact, the essence of urban infrastructure is oftentimes its representation, or occlusion, of the political. Some may protest, saying that technology is fundamentally agnostic, that it can be used for good or ill but cannot be intrinsically political, but in fact there is nothing new about this. Langdon Winner, in his essay “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”, tells the following story:

Anyone who has traveled the highways of America and has gotten used to the normal height of overpasses may well find something a little odd about some of the bridges over the park ways on Long Island, New York. Many of the overpasses are extraordinarily low, having as little as nine feet of clearance at the curb. Even those who happened to notice this structural peculiarity would not be inclined to attach any special meaning to it. In our accustomed way of looking at things such as roads and bridges, we see the details of form as innocuous and seldom give them a second thought.

It turns out, however, that some two hundred or so lowhanging overpasses on Long Island are there for a reason. They were deliberately designed and built that way by someone who wanted to achieve a particular social effect. Robert Moses, the master builder of roads, parks, bridges, and other public works of the 1920s to the 1970s in New York, built his overpasses ac cording to specifications that would discourage the presence of buses on his parkways. According to evidence provided by Moses’ biographer, Robert A. Caro, the reasons reflect Moses social class bias and racial prejudice. Automobile-owning whites of “upper” and “comfortable middle” classes, as he called them, would be free to use the parkways for recreation and commuting. Poor people and blacks, who normally used public transit, were kept off the roads because the twelve-foot tall buses could not handle the overpasses. One consequence was to limit access of racial minorities and low-income groups to Jones Beach, Moses’ widely acclaimed public park. Moses made doubly sure of this result by vetoing a proposed extension of the Long Island Railroad to Jones Beach.*


The monolithic nature of the seawall will occupy a similar position. It will instantly communicate who is on the right and wrong side of the tracks. Beyond signaling people where they may and may not live, it may further signal that we (as a society, as a government) refuse to be responsible for those who choose to dwell outside of its protective embrace.


Speaking of protection, abetting this sorting-out exercise are insurance companies and their winnowing influence. It would not be difficult to make entire swathes of coastline uninhabitable simply by declaring them uninsurable, at least to those who could not pay. As Greg Lindsay presciently noted following the near-miss of 2011’s Hurricane Irene:

…just how long until large chunks of America’s coastline become virtually uninsurable, starting with Lower Manhattan? Some would say this is a good thing, a perfect example of markets appropriately pricing risk and (dis-)incentivizing people accordingly.

That someone would be economist Matthew Kahn, who told Lindsay, “The insurance companies could be our leading indicator of this change. We have to allow them to 'price gouge,' but are they gouging, or are they pricing new risk?” Kahn is back this time around, too, doing what classical economists do oh-so-well, which in this case is a “tough-love thought experiment” that asks how differently New Jersey might approach rebuilding if it knew it could not count on FEMA money. Obviously, since people can count on government handouts, they will continue to build in places that they otherwise would not dream of doing, were they required to avail themselves of their own funds. Since Kahn is an economist at UCLA, it would only be fair to see him apply the same logic to his hometown, vis-à-vis the prospects of any future seismic activity.

In any event, insurance companies are no chumps, and we are already beginning to see the long, long process of homeowners and insurers nickel-and-diming each other over claims. For example, how many people are aware of the “concurrent causation clause that has crept into policies in recent years[?] Here, insurance companies refuse to cover anything if one thing that causes damage (like wind) is insured but another (like a flood) is not and both seem to have happened at the same time.” As claims pile up, insurance companies – themselves no climate deniers – will bolster their business models and bottom lines for the really big payouts that they doubtless see coming on the horizon, as tornados and whatever else obviates the infrastructure built to fight yesterday’s battles. What better way to determine a policyholder’s premium than by their location in relation to the local seawall? Welcome to the climate change version of redlining.

Makoko2However, the current state of affairs decidedly complicates matters. New York isn’t Lagos, and the water’s edge isn’t Makoko; waterfront property is not a place where poor people are forced to go because they cannot afford to live far enough inland, where there are real infrastructure and services. Nor do people build flimsy shacks on the beach, then wait for their federal handout when a storm sweeps them out to sea. Waterfront property, in the United States, is where you go once you’ve made it. This is a trend that has perhaps only caught real momentum in the post-War era, but it has showed no signs of slacking, not least because if there are enough “made” people, they will exert their influence:

For much of the twentieth century, insurance companies refused to write flood or hurricane policies for stilted houses perched precariously on Cape Hatteras or wherever, which angered wealthy political donors, who equate their life successes with owning beachfront property.

Enter the federal government into the realm of disaster indemnification, when Congress passed the National Flood Insurance Program in 1968, to mandate that vulnerable home owners in potential flood zones purchase adequate insurance that private companies were refusing to cover. Think of it as Obamacare for beachfront homes.

Although the legislation was designed to cover the undue risks of shore properties, it also gave the political parties a mechanism that would allow (for all those waterfront contributors) a building boom on hurricane-exposed barrier islands.

Talk about moral hazard! Here is a potent illustration that another aspect of seawall rhetoric – its ability to protect everything that ought to be protected – is already thwarted by many competing agendas. Climate change will be a slow and messy business. We cannot just throw up a wall and get back to getting on with the rest of our lives. And while many commentators and policymakers might want to see beachfront building drastically if not permanently curtailed, there are many constituencies that will not go quietly into that good night. While Sandy may have suddenly and permanently re-written the geography of the New York City waterfront as well as the New Jersey and Long Island barrier islands, the financial, social and political consequences will continue to mold the region for decades to come.

* I also refer readers to Adam Greenfield’s excellent extended meditation on the subject of political objects in the urban environment.