The city is rolling out a new batch of climate resiliency plans to shore up its coastlines affecting more than 8 million residents living along 520 miles of coastline and hundreds of neighborhoods built on creeks, wetlands and islands.
For the last three years, a team of six planners at the Department of City Planning has worked full time to create the New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan. And after a yearlong pandemic delay, the 290-page document was released during the final days of former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration in December to combat the urgent challenges of climate change and sea level rise.
While the city government is not required to follow the plan’s strategic guidelines, it still provided a clear outline for how the next 10 years could unfold.
The plan highlights numerous climate resiliency projects that would make significant progress in the next 10 years, including the recent revival of the United States Army Corps of Engineers NY & NJ Harbor & Tributaries Focus Area Feasibility Study. This study, which had been indefinitely postponed by former President Donald J. Trump’s administration, is the first step in constructing a massive series of storm surge barriers in the mouths of various waterways around the city.
The DCP’s waterfront plan reveals that the study was restarted in October 2021, and that the city is in favor of creating in-water storm surge barriers in Newtown Creek, the Gowanus Canal and Jamaica Bay. The USACE study also includes a proposal to build a five-mile barrier between the Rockaways and New Jersey. The project could end up one of the largest infrastructure projects in New York’s history and cost anywhere from $14 billion to $118 billion. USACE said it expects to select a tentative plan this spring.
With sea levels rising and more than 400,000 New Yorkers currently living in at-risk floodplains, the report also lays out numerous ways the city can help residents prepare for flooding or relocate to safer neighborhoods. At the same time, it seeks to address the inequity of waterfront access, exploring ways to open up the coastline to 800,000 residents who have been cut off from their nearby waterfronts.
“The plan has no legal authority in and of itself, but our intent is for it to present a compelling vision, and the strategies to help achieve that vision,” said Michael Marrella, the DCP’s director of waterfront and open space planning, who led the plan’s development. “We released it just as the Adams administration was about to start, and we see it as a great blueprint for the Adams administration to pick up.”
New York City’s first comprehensive waterfront plan was published in 1992, and in the three decades since, its coastline has undergone a remarkable transformation. Dozens of neighborhoods have transitioned away from their polluted industrial past, scores of new waterfront parks and green spaces have opened and hundreds of thousands of residents have been able to access nearby shorelines for the first time in generations.
The city’s waters are now the cleanest they have been in over a century, the report said, and this has spurred the return of beavers, bobcats, bald eagles and numerous aquatic species.
The latest waterfront plan builds upon the successes of the last 30 years and lays out a vision for a more equitable future, albeit one shaped by the daunting reality of climate change. The city is already seeing more severe storms and heavier rainfall, which have increased the intensity of tidal flooding, coastal erosion, and storm surges. These problems will increase dramatically over the next three decades, as sea levels rise.
“The first Comprehensive Waterfront Plan of 1992 really brought about the regeneration of the formerly industrial waterfront to residential and commercial use,” Marrella said. “[The 2011 plan] Vision 2020 layered on new ideas about public access and ecology and resiliency. The decade ahead is about the merger of all those things together. It’s not just about climate change, it’s about climate change and equity, public space and equity, climate change and public space. All of these things are overlapping.”
A Future Shaped By Climate Change
During a recent ferry ride to the Red Hook waterfront in Brooklyn, Marrella discussed what the next decade would look like for New York City’s coast. As the plan notes, some of the biggest projects now being built address the impacts of sea level rise. Many of these initiatives were funded in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy a decade ago — but have only recently broken ground.
“As we saw after Hurricane Sandy, these projects are not ever fast, and, I would argue, nor should they be. These are complex problems we have to address,” Marrella said. “By the 2050s and shortly thereafter, we are going to be seeing a level of sea level rise that we have to act within the next couple of decades to prepare for. It means that over the 2020s and into the 2030s, we have to really step up and act, in large part because of the timescale of these projects.”
By 2050, the NYC Panel on Climate Change said it anticipates that the city will see between 0.67 feet and 2.5 feet of sea level rise, resulting in more severe flooding and storm surges. To fight this inevitability, the city broke ground on two projects in 2020 — the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project that led to the demolition of East River Park and the Rockaways-Atlantic Shorefront Project on the Queens oceanfront. Last year, workers began installing huge mattresses of stone to build the Living Breakwaters off the coast of Staten Island. A five-mile-long sea wall is expected to begin construction in this borough later in 2022.
While the engineering scope of these projects is enormous, the waterfront plan also tries to address the human aspects of climate change and equity. More than 400,000 New Yorkers currently live in floodplains which have a 1% chance of being inundated in any given year. By 2050, these floodplains will encompass 25% of the city’s landmass, putting more than 800,000 residents at risk. Many of these areas are lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color, according to the department of city planning.
Its report also lays out a framework — but doesn’t provide cost estimates — for a variety of unique programs to help residents repair and elevate homes or move away from endangered waterfront neighborhoods. These approaches include smaller scale flood protection systems, rental and relocation assistance, community land trusts, zoning changes and buyouts.
Though the plan does not explicitly embrace an official managed retreat process, it acknowledges that “over time, climate change and sea level rise will make some areas unsuitable for residential use, and will result in the loss of some existing housing.”
“It’s not just about the physical risk, but the consequence of that risk as it relates to the socioeconomic status of the residents,” said Marrella, reflecting on how the city’s preparations for climate change will unfold. “That’s how we have to be thinking about the tough decisions that have to be made about our coastal resiliency projects.”
Cleaning Up A Toxic Legacy
As the city works to address the climate emergency, it will also continue to clean up its toxic legacy of industrial pollution and raw sewage, which have poisoned New York’s waters for more than a century. While decades of investment have improved the five boroughs’ water quality, the report said that much more progress is needed to ensure its waterways are safe for fishing and swimming, as mandated by the U.S. Clean Water Act.
“Despite the improvements in water quality, much of NYC’s near-shore waterfront is unsuitable for swimming,” the report notes, “including all of the East River and Harlem River, and most of the Hudson River.”
One of the biggest challenges to waterway health is the problem of combined sewer overflows. Heavy rains oftentimes overwhelm the city’s antiquated sewer system, releasing millions of gallons of rainwater mixed with raw sewage along its rivers, beaches and waterfront parks. More than 20 billion gallons of feces-polluted water is flushed onto the city’s waterfront every year. And this problem will be exacerbated by climate change, as rainstorms become more severe.
The waterfront plan notes that the city has invested over $40 billion into upgrading its sewer system since the 1970s, but the problem of sewage overflows has not been solved. During the last decade, the city developed 11 Long Term Control Plans (LTCPs) to help reduce the amount of overflows, which will make significant progress over the next decade. But waterfront advocates have stated that they are insufficient, especially the largest citywide LTCP, which would only reduce sewage overflows by 225 million gallons a year, out of 11 billion gallons.
The Comprehensive Waterfront Plan supports continued investment in the LTCPs, to which it has already committed $6 billion for future projects. It also calls for alternative approaches, including further investment in the Department of Environmental Protection’s massive $1.6 billion green infrastructure program, which aims to reduce sewage overflows by 1.5 billion gallons by 2030 via a system of bioswales and rainwater catch basins. It also calls for an expansion of the city’s innovative Bluebelt program, which helps divert stormwater into existing rivers and creeks, and the daylighting of Tibbets Brook in the Bronx.
Though not specifically mentioned in the plan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is conducting Superfund cleanups on two of the city’s most contaminated waterways, the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek, which are expected to make significant progress over the next decade. The EPA is also investigating whether the Meeker Avenue Plume and Coney Island Creek are eligible for the Superfund designation, which would initiate cleanups of these two waterfront sites. Remediating these polluted sites would radically improve the health of the waterfront.
Across the city’s 286 miles of natural shoreline, pollution, overdevelopment and erosion have greatly reduced the city’s wetland habitats, according to the Wetlands Management Framework for New York City, which was released in 2021 by the New York Parks Department and the Natural Areas Conservancy. The city has lost 85% of its salt marshes and 99% of its freshwater wetlands over the last 400 years. Its remaining salt marshes could be wiped out by sea level rise and flooding, erasing important coastal buffers and endangering the habitats of many aquatic species. The waterfront plan calls for an increased investment into the ongoing efforts to protect and restore the city’s wetlands, and the implementation of the priority projects laid out in the Wetlands Management Framework.
Opening Waterfront Access
Even as the city focuses on building a succession of seawalls and barriers along its coastline, it is still actively working to open up more equitable waterfront access. New York City has 160 miles of shoreline parkland, and more than 2 million residents live within a half-mile’s walk of a waterfront park or public space. However, the plan highlights the surprising fact that 800,000 residents living within a half-mile’s walk of the shoreline still have no waterfront access. This inequity often occurs in less wealthy communities and communities of color, according to the plan.
“There are a couple different causes of why the waterfront is cut off,” Marrella said. “There are large sections of the waterfront that are industrial or where there is port security, where the public can’t access the waterfront even though they are close to it. There is also a long legacy of infrastructure projects that cut us off from the waterfront, the rail and highways primarily.”
The plan includes several ways to address this inequity, besides opening up new parks. These include creating safer pathways to the waterfront, completing several long-planned greenways, requiring public access at new industrial and commercial sites on the waterfront and transforming city owned properties and street-ends into access points.
The plan also calls for the city to support and fine-tune the NYC Ferry system, which has helped connect underserved communities to the waterfront. The ferry recently added a second stop in the Bronx at Throgs Neck, and a year-round connection directly linking Governor’s Island to Red Hook and Sunset Park. A stop in Coney Island Creek is coming soon.
In the next decade, tens of thousands of new residents will move to new residential towers on the waterfront, many of which are being built as part of rezoning projects passed during the de Blasio administration. These developments will reshape the coasts of the Flushing Creek, Gowanus Canal, Harlem River as well as the mouth of the Newtown Creek. The waterfront plan does not specifically address how these flood-zone neighborhoods will fare in the face of sea level rise, but it does highlight the importance of zoning changes that ensure resilient design and public access.
The scale of transformation coming to New York City’s shoreline is immense and difficult to capture in one report, but the Comprehensive Waterfront Plan manages to address the most urgent issues facing the coast today. It makes clear that, over the next decade, the government will need to invest billions of dollars into the waterfront, to ensure that New York remains a viable city.
“In 10 years, we are going to have a waterfront that is demonstrably more resilient, more equitable, and healthier,” Marrella said. “We have to continue to put our shoulder into these problems, because they are massive. At the scale of the city, and the scale of the city’s waterfront, the pace of change is daunting… But we are the city of New York. We have done great things before, and I am fully convinced we can continue to do them.”