In 2012, Anthony Flint, director of public affairs at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, wondered if Superstorm Sandy would cause planners and builders to think seriously about how to build cities that will survive global climate change. Two years later, he can begin to answer that question.
Flint is the main speaker at an event sponsored by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the nonprofit group New Jersey Future. The free program, titled “What’s Next After Rebuilding? Making Resilience Happen” will take place Thursday, October 30, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. at the Rutgers Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at 33 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick. Also speaking will be Amy Chester, managing director for Rebuild Design; Henry A. Coleman, a professor of public policy at Rutgers; and Shalni Vajjhala, founder and CEO of re:focus partners. Registration is required. For more information, visit www.njfuture.org.
Flint is the author of several books, including “Modern Man: The Life of LeCorbusier,” a biography of the influential Swiss modernist architect. He has also written several books on urban planning, including “Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City,” and “This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America.” He is also a journalist for the Boston Globe and an advisor on smart growth to the Massachusetts state government.
In a column published December 27, 2012, for www.Citylab.com, Flint wondered if Sandy’s legacy would be foremost in the minds of the leaders of cities throughout the country as they thought about climate change:
“Coastal cities have built up infrastructure over the years that cumulatively has been an engineering marvel: ports and waterways, water and sewer and electrical systems, roads and bridges and tunnels and subways. But it’s all going to look modest compared to the projects necessary to deal with the impacts of climate change.
“Massive flood barriers straight out of a science fiction movie may rise between the north fork of Long Island and near New London, Connecticut. The Golden Gate strait may similarly become a floodgate, turning San Francisco Bay into a giant freshwater pond, to keep rising sea levels from inundating populated areas. Even with such measures, power plants near the water will have to be dismantled and relocated. Building mechanicals must come out of the basement. Flood and drainage systems must be overhauled for miles and miles of subway tunnels.”
Flint went on to cite Regional Plan Association President Robert Yaro’s comparison of the U.S. to Amsterdam more than a century ago in terms of planning to deal with the challenges of water. If, America, like Amsterdam, planned well, a successful retrofit could buy coastal cities a couple hundred years. Yaro predicted it would take a major disaster to make U.S. cities get serious.
“His remarks were in 2010,” Flint wrote. “Two years later, just before Halloween, that catastrophic event came — Hurricane Sandy.
“For the nation and for metropolitan regions on the coast, Sandy was without question one of the top news events of 2012. It may have even influenced the presidential election, prompting Mayor Michael Bloomberg to endorse President Obama, and moving the Patagonia-clad New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to cozy up to the president as well.”
Flint wondered if the shock of seeing the damaged homes, flooded New York subway system, and all the other damage would change politics, design, and culture. The column continued:
“But Sandy was really a wake-up call, similar to Katrina, to snap us to attention about the need to plan for the next 50 years. Sandy was, in the opinion of most scientists, a precursor of what is to come with more frequency in the decades ahead, even if the nation and the world takes steps to mitigate global warming: violent storms, powerful storm surges, and sea level rise from the melting of ice.
“In the immediate aftermath, Sandy did prompt some discussion of adaptation and infrastructure. The engineering and logistics are staggering; cities and states want to launch the projects that are unequivocally the best and most effective, learning from those in Europe and elsewhere who have gone before us. That’s going to take a lot of energy, even before getting to the hardest question of all - how to pay for it.”
Flint wrote that an off-budget approach such as an infrastructure bank would be necessary because the “fiscal cliff” budget troubles facing the government at the time he wrote the column prevented any serious policy discussions related to climate change.
“America can look to many places around the globe to tackle adaptation and resilience, but one very similar country that has gotten serious is Australia,” Flint wrote. “Indeed, Yaro made his comments at a gathering of planners and scholars putting together the book Resilient Coastal City Regions, which includes a look at four case studies of adaptation strategies down under. Among the conclusions of the research project, co-authored by Armando Carbonell of the Lincoln Institute and Ed Blakely, former post-Katrina recovery czar for New Orleans: sometimes the only thing to do is engage in something you might be hearing a lot more of in the years ahead — strategic retreat.
“These are major questions for our cities, which by tradition of trade and transport, have been founded near water. Adaptation may well become the central occupation of the urban planning profession and planning schools; it certainly must get on the radar screen of the environmental movement. It’s silly to waste time and energy trying to protect a snail darter, when in 50 years there won’t be any ecosystem for them to live in anyway.”
Flint wrote that as 2012 drew to a close, it was unclear if Sandy would be the big event to jump-start a major shift in politics, design and culture. He noted another major disaster of 2012, the Sandy Hook massacre, had the potential to prompt a historic shift in the nation’s thinking about gun control.
“Plenty of hard-eyed commentators have already said even the horrific death of little children won’t change anything,” Flint wrote. “And so maybe it will take another mega-storm bringing even greater devastation to be the catalyst. Or another after that. While we wait, the rest of the world will continue with preparations.”