There were shocked murmurs at this year’s Municipal Art Society Summit when the crowd was shown a visualization of the Rockaways after the ecological displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.
“I don’t want to be insensitive,” said Susannah C. Drake, founder of the design firm DLANDstudio + Landscape Architecture. “But we anticipate that it is going to be a very different landscape.”
Drake was explaining Bight City, a vision for the Rockaways, which were hammered by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The plan, formulated for a design competition earlier this year, would turn the better part of five community districts into an estuary, relocating residents in order to protect them from climate change.
Bight City anticipates the complete flooding of the Rockaways and proposes turning the peninsula into parks and open water while moving residents to denser housing on the northern shore of Jamaica Bay. The result: Where 1 million people currently occupy 65.89 square miles of land, twenty years from now a slightly larger population would occupy just 38.64 square miles. The bay would serve as New York’s “new sunken central park.”
The agreed upon mechanism for displacing people in a humane way: buying them out of their property. What would this look like? Well, Sandy brought a taste of it to New York.
“This cry started to rise from the edges of the forgotten borough,” said Elizabeth Rush, the moderator and author of Rising: The Unsettling of the American Shore. “There were people that were banding together, and asking pre-storm prices for their flood-prone homes.”
There’s precedent for Rockaway’s resettlement. In January of last year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development granted $48 million toward resettling the people of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana. Matthew D. Sanders, an administrator at Louisiana’s Office of Community Development (the principal organization administering the grant), attended Monday’s summit.
“We made development decisions that were adverse to the information that we had about current and future risk… and now we are paying the price,” said Sanders, referring to his state’s repeated severe flooding events.
Cities along the entire United States coastline have also made those adverse decisions, sacrificing storm buffers for development. Witness areas severely flooded in Houston and also New York.
Government officials in New York City have been moving on these issues. With “500-year-storms” now predicted to bring flooding of about 7.4 feet to New York every 25 years, Staten Island is implementing New York City’s first “managed retreat.” As of this time last year, the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery had acquired 299 homes at pre-storm values and demolished 196 of them in the Staten Island coastal communities of Ocean Breeze, Graham Beach, and Oakwood Beach. The result, Curbed wrote, was a “dramatic return” to nature. Last month, the City Council established an East Shore Special Coastal Risk District comprised of the buyout communities. The rezoning limits new development to single-family houses and requires the City Planning Commission to authorize all new development.
“We have Ocean Breeze and other the shoreline communities in Staten Island, where we know we shouldn’t be putting anything back there,” said Frank Moszczynski, a panelist and Ocean Breeze resident who was displaced by Sandy.
A former carpenter and a Project Manager for NYC Build It Back, Moszczynski has taken to advocacy since his displacement, founding Citizens of Ocean Breeze Civic Association.
However, it isn’t just a question of getting people to move; the challenge is also finding them places to live. “The question is: Are the neighboring communities willing to accept denser zoning?” said Moszczynski, summing up the prescription of the panel.
For the panelists and Bight City, the vision of the future of New York, and cities more generally, is one of denser development areas surrounded by protective green spaces that double as recreational areas.
In addition to the measures it’s taking in Staten Island, the city is moving to protect the east side of Manhattan with a park that incorporates retaining walls. The “Big U”, funded with a $335 million grant from HUD, is scheduled to begin construction in 2019.