With Sandy, a Call for Transforming Coastal Cities

Spectators walk past a severely damaged oceanfront house in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of the Rockaways, Monday, Nov. 19,
Spectators walk past a severely damaged oceanfront house in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of the Rockaways, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012, in New York. The house was one of many oceanfront homes inspected by the New York City Department of Buildings who found it structurally unsafe to enter or live in. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Lives turned upside down. Neighborhoods destroyed. Days without power. Crippled transportation. Is this the new normal for coastal cities?

Super storm Sandy is the latest demonstration of what may be two of the most significant long-term trends that will shape the 21st century: radically different weather patterns and the ever-increasing concentration of the world's population in urban areas. More than half of the people in the world now live in cities and that number is projected to reach 75 percent by mid-century. Many of those cities are built on or near major bodies of water. Their layout, infrastructure, and economies as well as the expectations of the residents who live in them are all based on assumptions built on historic patterns.

Cities first were developed on the coast because it afforded easy access to transportation, commerce, and food sources. Now we are more smitten than ever with the coast for the spectacular views and prestige that proximity allows. There is no better way to boost the price of a piece of real estate than to be able to say, "water view."

But what if the "100-year storm" becomes the "10-year storm"?

That may seem alarmist until you begin to string together the many events that are often viewed as isolated incidents instead of possible systemic changes: Katrina, Irene, Sandy and many more in between. It is impossible to tie any single storm to climate change though each of these are consistent with many projections of new weather patterns by those who study the topic: more frequent, more intense storms taking new paths as a result of shifts in air and water temperatures and currents. Some climate models project that New Orleans and Miami will be completely underwater within 75 to 300 years thanks to rising sea levels. Severe weather events are now occurring at about four times the historic average: welcome to "big weather."

If the "big weather" phenomenon is real, some of the most valuable real estate in the United States -- lower Manhattan, for example -- may become unsuitable for its current level of residential or commercial activity. Real estate values may, however, be the least of our concerns. In the aftermath of Sandy, it was easy to see the significant challenges in public health, the economy, education, and every other facet of people's lives.

In the developed world, financial constraints and competing priorities make it difficult to invest and reorient ourselves toward big weather resilience. In the developing world, where much of the urban growth over the coming decades will occur, both the human and physical systems are even less well prepared and more lacking in resources.

Response and recovery from a mega-event like Sandy means far more than clearing debris and providing food and shelter to the affected individuals. Leading experts are calling for a fundamental rethinking of how we plan, build, and inhabit our coastal cities for an environment where mega-disruptions occur far more frequently.

"Resilience" is on the lips of policymakers, architects and planners, executives, and elected officials. Ideas range from designing infrastructure better suited to a big weather environment to shifting governance to reflect the real risks of coastal living and the limits of both private insurance and government resources to mitigate those risks.

The Forum at the Harvard School of Public and The Huffington Post are convening some of the experts with expertise in these issues on Monday, December 10 for a panel discussion of the issues coastal cities face in an age of big weather and how they can be addressed. Richard Serino, FEMA Deputy Administrator, Paul Biddinger, Director, Emergency Preparedness and Response Exercise Program, Harvard School of Public Health, Jerold Kayden, Professor of Urban Planning and Design, Harvard Graduate School of Design, and Daniel Schrag, Director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment, will participate. Tom Zeller, Jr., Senior Writer at The Huffington Post, will moderate. The panel will be broadcast live on the Web at www.ForumHSPH.org from 10-11:00 a.m (ET)., and you can email questions to them ahead of time to theforum@hsph.harvard.edu.

The questions they must answer are not only what "things" are needed, but how we can catalyze the necessary political courage and social and regulatory changes. For coastal cities to be resilient in the face of Sandy and her big weather siblings there must be significant adaptation and perhaps fundamental transformation of attitudes and behaviors as well as bridges, tunnels, and buildings.

Eric J. McNulty is Senior Associate at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard. He is also completing a Master's degree in leadership in the context of mega-system challenges such as climate change and urbanization.