The built infrastructure needed to support dense coastal development threatens the natural processes that, when intact, protect coastal communities. Naturally functioning beaches, dunes, barrier islands and wetlands rely on the flow of sediment, water quality that promotes ecosystem health and the necessary space to move and change over time. Poorly thought out development of our shores does not account for the realities of such an interconnected and dynamic natural coastal system. This destructive cycle will only increase as climate change and sea level rise continue.
Hurricane Sandy has made it clear that addressing coastal resiliency and protecting coastal communities is fundamental to public safety, health and economic well-being. The commission’s recommendations recognize that a capital investment in natural coastal systems is cost-effective, provides permanent protection, offers significant co-benefits and is an essential part of a solution which will ultimately be the right mix of natural and built approaches.
Sandy may be a harbinger of a new and challenging weather pattern; drought and deluge. Such extremes will have impacts far beyond the coast. Droughts hit communities across the country last year, so millions of people saw first-hand the damage they do to drinking water, agricultural production, top-soil resources, water-based transport, and water dependent industrial and recreational economies. Many of those same communities know the devastation that deluges bring as well, including damage to public and private infrastructure, threats to public safety and the release of toxic chemicals, petroleum, debris, sediment, nutrients and sewage. Together, the cycle of drought and deluge poses significant challenges for every part of our landscape and infrastructure.
As with our coastal areas, investing in natural capital can help here, too. Conserving our natural defenses include protecting and restoring critical features such as wetlands and flood plains. Natural engineering systems include green infrastructure such as green roofs, street trees and parks. Both of these nature-based options are designed to keep more rainwater where it falls and away from infrastructure. These systems also provide multiple co-benefits such as cooling urban areas, habitat preservation and open space protection. Engineered systems include dams, levees and floodwalls that should be hardened and re-sized to serve as critical protections during large floods. The natural and engineered systems approaches in tandem will help to re-establish the natural water-cycle on urban and rural landscapes to protect people and infrastructure.
The final component of the commission’s land-use recommendations concern protecting and upgrading our vulnerable and outdated wastewater treatment infrastructure—the pipelines, treatment plants and pumping stations that together make up a fundamental pillar of the state’s public and environmental health. This infrastructure transports wastewater from homes, buildings and factories to treatment plants, which treat sewage and discharge effluent to New York waters, directly impacting upon water quality and the health of our communities. As we focus on ensuring that these facilities will survive severe weather, we also have the opportunity to upgrade the systems to meet water quality standards that protect public health.
New York is not the only place facing these challenges. But New York—on the strength of Governor Cuomo’s commitment and the recommendations of the NYS 2100 Commission—can be a leader. The expertise the state is developing matches or exceeds that found anywhere in the world, including the Netherlands, rightly praised for its foresight in planning for environmental change. That expertise will help New York adapt to the changing climate and will also bring new business opportunities as other cities and states look to New York for guidance. A partnership—among governments, financial and academic institutions, businesses and the environmental community—that finds innovative ways to invest in and benefit from our natural capital can offer a brighter future for a post-Sandy world.