An article from The New York Times this past September explored New York City’s vulnerability from flooding, casting an eerie hindsight over this week’s storm. Dr. Klaus H. Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and an adviser to the city on climate change (also author of this predictive study), told the Times that subway tunnels would have flooded during Hurricane Irene had the storm surge been one foot higher. “We’ve been extremely lucky,” he told the paper. “I’m disappointed that the political process hasn’t recognized that we’re playing Russian roulette.” Today, repairs and service restoration are only just beginning in New York’s flooded subway system.The opportunity is to rethink infrastructure in terms of resilience, and not just rebuild it as it was (as this post in Scientific American points out). As University of Toronto professor Christopher Kennedy points out in his important book on The Evolution of Great World Cities, the definition of infrastructure goes far beyond roads, airports, tunnels, rail systems, subways and bridges and includes the rules, code and norms which govern how cities are built. His research points out that London’s rise to global commercial dominance in the 17th century was fueled by its response to the catastrophic fires of 1666. These led to sweeping changes in the city’s building codes and widening of its streets, which in turn led to increased densities, the adoption of new building technologies, and ultimately remade the city in ways that put it on a new growth trajectory.The roadblock to building resilient cities, quite simply, has less to do with science and more to do with institutions and politics, as Steve Nash pointed out a couple of years ago in The New Republic.
For one thing, the politics of sea-level rise are still hazy—no one seems to agree on whether it’s a local, state, or federal responsibility. And Congress is not doing much to resolve these issues. The climate bill that passed the House last year merely calls for more research, even though more blue-ribbon panels seem superfluous at this point. “Do you need cost-benefit analysis to know that you’re going to protect Manhattan?” asks [Jim Titus of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency]. “That you’re not going to allow the Jefferson Memorial to go underwater? That Miami is going to continue to exist?” Those aren’t trick questions. But, for now, they’re going unanswered.
In other words, it isn’t just about rebuilding the same thing over and over again. Cities, and countries, need to develop plans by which the new construction is better suited to possible future disasters. The response to massive fires is cited above (and it reminds me of the changes in building after the Chicago Fire in 1871) but this has also occurred in response to earthquakes by setting codes so that buildings are better suited to face future threats. And being able to develop forward-thinking plans requires more flexible institutions that can respond to whatever changes come along. What worked in the past won’t necessarily work in the future so only changing after a major event or disaster is not a good thing. At the same time, such major events also may allow for a more sweeping reaction and change to take place in cities.