A new mayor, a new approach to climate?

NY Daily News Opinion: It’s a new day — or so they say when there is a new mayoral administration ready to take hold of what the last has not accomplished. Since the New Deal, America has seen an increase of agencies, siloed from one another, on the local, state and federal level, each responsible for their own narrow charge, with their own budget. This model has served us well for decades. However, the climate crisis requires a new way of governing.

This fall, Hurricane Ida inundated our region, sending record-breaking rainfall into our streets and resulting in 43 deaths in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut — the same number as those who died in New York City from Hurricane Sandy. Yet there is still no single agency responsible for addressing the effect that flooding has on our communities. NYC’s Department of Environmental Protection is only responsible for rain after it hits our sewers. The Department of Transportation is responsible for moving cars, bikes and pedestrians, not building streets that absorb rain and keep water out of the basements of small businesses. The list goes on.

Every year, more than 600 people in the United States are killed by extreme heat, which is the number one climate killer. In 2021, New York City had 17 days in which the city hit 90 degrees or higher. There is no single agency responsible for addressing the effect that increased heat has on the most vulnerable. The Parks Department provides shade through street trees and maintains extended hours in city pools. The Human Resources Administration distributes air conditioners to New Yorkers who have medical conditions that are made worse by heat, and a myriad of agencies, including those responsible for seniors, public housing and libraries, operate cooling centers giving the most vulnerable a safe place of refuge.

Right now, the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency must negotiate with city agencies to change the status quo, as they have neither the budget nor authority to implement policy. This has caused rifts between policymakers and agency implementers, such as we experienced with the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project. Instead of having agencies pitch in what they can, creating a hot potato of climate infrastructure that no agency wants to fund or maintain, Mayor Adams can develop a more sensible path to climate resilience.

Our city could be divided into regions, or groupings of neighborhoods with similar climate vulnerabilities. Agency experts from the Department of Transportation would be paired with experts from the departments of Environmental Protection, Parks, Economic Development, Small Business Services and others to be tasked with collaboratively developing climate solutions that are responsive to community needs, not single agency agendas.

Guided by the NYC Panel on Climate Change’s predictions and managed by a new Mayor’s Office of Climate (which is now two separate offices of Sustainability and Resilience), these neighborhood teams would work with small businesses and community organizations to understand their region’s specific vulnerabilities and existing needs, working side by side with community members and tackling these issues head-on. The result would be neighborhood-level 

plans, with a citywide view, that will collaboratively determine how the neighborhoods will need to respond to climate change as they also tackle today’s biggest problems of housing affordability, homelessness and transportation.

This model was tested nine years ago in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The federal government launched Rebuild by Design, an interdisciplinary design challenge that connected global expertise with local communities and local governments to design and build large-scale climate infrastructure. The effort, which brought together more than 200 experts — architects, engineers, hydrologists, academics and community specialists — worked with 535 community organizations and 181 government agencies resulting in seven projects that were awarded $930 million of the federal Sandy recovery funds. This effort gave way to some of the largest climate projects in our nation, totaling over $3.6 billion, and the approach has been replicated in other U.S. regions and internationally.

Was it always smooth sailing? No it wasn’t. All the projects have changed from their initial visions, some quite significantly. However, even as they are designed today, they represent a suite of projects that would have never been built if the government was left to plan as it traditionally does, using new approaches such as developing acres of resilient parks in Hoboken, and breakwaters enhanced with “reef ridges” to attract oysters and reduce the impact of flooding in Staten Island.

For nearly 10 years, the city has primarily approached climate resilience as building back from Hurricane Sandy instead of comprehensively understanding how climate change will affect each neighborhood. It’s time to stop making the same mistake. Mayor Adams must commit to working with the community to develop solutions to problems that continue to plague our city and do what New York does best: set an example for the rest of the world.

Chester is managing director of Rebuild by Design. Read here>>