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Hot City: Unplanned by Design

New York City is steadily sinking into the sea. . .Is there not a plan for that? 

Samuel Stein11 August 2020

Hot City: Unplanned by Design

Hot City is a series of short reflections on the state of social movements in NYC, from the long hot summer of 2020 to the coming storm season and beyond. You can read the introduction here

New York City is in trouble.

Not only were we recently the global epicenter of a pandemic, which dealt its deadliest toll to those most subjugated by racial capitalism. Not only are we policed by a heavily armed and mightily budgeted force of 36,000 officers, whose brutal expressions have been on clear display over the past months of uprisings. Not only do we now face an official unemployment rate of around 20 percent (and in reality much higher). Not only have rents become completely decoupled from wages, turning housing unaffordability into a normalized fact of urban life. Not only are we being subjected to austerity budgets that underfund the most needed public services while failing to draw down carceral capacities or corporate boondoggles, let alone raise revenue by taxing the rich. Looming behind all this – and smacking us in the face on increasingly common “weird weather” days – is climate change, an existential threat to this city’s continued human habitability.

New York City, comprised of two peninsulas, two big islands and about 30 smaller islands, is surrounded on most sides by oceans, rivers, bays, basins, creeks and canals. We are therefore deeply imperiled by rising sea levels, as well as the interruptions to food chains, energy systems, and distressed infrastructure that result from climate change. While some elements of New York City life are models of urban sustainability – its high mass transit ridership rates, its dense housing stock, and its legacy of community gardens, for example –their environmental benefits are undermined by other aspects of New York City life. The city’s wealthier residents in particular remain highly dependent upon carbon-intensive built environments, transportation methods, and consumptive habits, all of which contributes mightily to climate change, and therefore to an impending set of environmental, economic, and social crises.

This begs the question: does New York City have a climate plan?

A well-informed observer of New York City planning politics could reasonably answer with an emphatic “yes!” In fact, they could do so many times over. The city has not just one climate plan, but stacks of them – formal planning documents, policy initiatives, pieces of legislation, and long-term metrics to measure emissions cuts and resiliency, emerging from city, state, and federal agencies and legislative bodies.

In no particular order of significance, here is a sampling of the climate plans on offer:

  • A) The de Blasio administration’s One NYC 2050 plan, which follows up on the Bloomberg administration’s PlaNYC 2030, includes a volume on creating “A Livable Climate” that lays out goals to cut carbon emissions, increase renewable energy use, expand flood insurance coverage, divert public funds from extractive industries, and more.
  • B) The city’s Comprehensive Waterfront Plan, which is set to be updated by the end of 2020, creates guidelines for resiliency, recreation, housing, and economic activity along the city’s expansive waterfront areas.

  • C) Zoning for Coastal Flood Resiliency, a plan in progress pushed by the Department of City Planning, will revise the zoning code in flood-prone areas of the city.

  • D) Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency, a project of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, includes specific resiliency plans for the Lower East Side, the Battery, the Financial and Seaport Districts, and spaces around the Brooklyn Bridge, as well as “Interim Flood Protection Measures” for the entire area.

  • E) The EDC-lead Red Hook Coastal Resilience plan takes a similar approach to that for Lower Manhattan.

  • F) The Department of City Planning’s Resilient Neighborhoods initiative includes plans for Edgewater Park, Harding Park, West Chelsea, the Lower East Side, Hamilton and Old Howard Beaches, Canarsie, Broad Channel, Rockaway Park and Beach, Gerritsen Beach, Sheepshead Bay, and the East Shore of Staten Island.

  • G) Resilient Edgemere, a project of the city’s Housing Preservation and Development agency, facilitates something approaching managed retreat from a section of the Rockaway peninsula.

  • H) The federally coordinated New York and New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries Focus Area Feasibility Study (cutely acronymed HATS) is considered one of the region’s most important climate resiliency studies, but its funding is now imperiled.

  • I) The New York City Climate Mobilization act, passed by the New York City Council and signed by the Mayor, mandates that the city’s building emissions – the largest single source of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions – drop 40 percent cut by 2030, then drop 80 percent from that baseline by 2050.

So yes, there are many climate plans for New York City, and this is just a small sampling of them. But this multiplicity of plans and pathways – sometimes complimentary and sometimes contradictory, managed chaotically at multiple governmental scales without regard for the scale of ecological systems – also justifies the opposite answer. In other words, if there are so many separate plans, and so many city, state, and federal agencies pursuing them simultaneously without adequate coordination, is there really a plan at all?

New York’s current approach to climate planning amounts to a contradictory, multi-tendency, everything-and-nothing-at-all approach which ultimately fails to inspire confidence in either its processes or its outcomes. It encompasses both extraordinary measures and extraordinary moves in the wrong direction.

Consider, for example, the buy-out and back-to-nature program demanded by former residents of a portion of Staten Island’s eastern coast who experienced some of the worst flooding during Hurricane Sandy. This New York State program pays interested private property owners to leave the below-sea-level area under the promise that the land will not be subject to new rounds of construction but will instead revert to a natural flood boundary. At the same time, however, hard-hid public properties – most crucially New York City Housing Authority public housing developments, which are disproportionately sited on flood-prone waterfronts because those areas were relatively cheap and easy to acquire when they were developed – continue to languish in disrepair. Mold, leaks, electrical failures and other serious problems have been exasperated by climate change and weather emergencies, making some publicly-owned apartments borderline uninhabitable. For years, however, the main solution offered by policymakers was to privatize these projects’ management and sell off their open spaces to developers. New York’s approach to climate resilience, then, looked quite different for private property owners than for public housing residents.

Consider also the case of building codes and development patterns. In 2019, following campaigns from local environmental justice organizations, the City Council passed one of the most intensive building emissions reduction programs in the country. This, however, is coupled with a continued commitment to intensifying development in the city’s flood plains, sometimes as a revenue generating mechanism for other ostensibly climate-friendly programs. For example, the de Blasio administration continues to push for a Brooklyn Queens Connector streetcar, which would run from Astoria to Red Hook, partly duplicating existing subway and bus routes but also connecting a couple of transit-starved neighborhoods. (Notably, the plan initially stretched further south into Sunset Park, but anti-gentrification protests there scared away the project’s proponents.) This streetcar would be funded in large part by revenue from new developments along its waterfront route. In this conceptualization of urban sustainability, expanding mass transit is depending on encouraging large amounts of new high-end real estate in environmentally and economically vulnerable locations.

The city’s physical barrier planning has been similarly fractured and contradictory. Many of these proposals were initially imagined through the HUD and Rockefeller-funded “Rebuild By Design” competition, which used participatory planning methods to elicit popular support for site-specific planning, design and engineering initiatives meant to manage future floods and storm surges. The city, however, has not always abided by the resulting plans, as in the case of East River Park on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. While the Rebuild By Design plan had called for berms and barriers to be added to the area around the park, the City chose instead to push forward an unpopular plan to temporarily close the park, tear it up, and rebuild it at a higher elevation. Participants in the original planning process were furious and wondered why they had wasted so much time designing a plan if the city was simply going to ignore it.

With all these contradictory tendencies operating simultaneously – top down and bottom up, restrictive and expansionist, interventionist and laissez faire what’s the plan? How can we make sense of the totality? It’s hard to say.

Part of the problem is structural, and at levels beyond local planning. The United States is a famously fragmented federated system. Admirers of this system will argue that it produces “laboratories of democracy,” with local governments granted the flexibility to try out different approaches to pressing problems. More often, however, the result is that different scales of government create less-than-compatible plans on a host of issues, with stark scalar inequalities between who is responsible for social issues and who holds the purse-strings. Specifically, we have seen under neoliberalism – the evolving mode of governance that has remained hegemonic since the mid-1970s – a pattern of devolution without home rule: the federal government (and sometimes state governments) step away from urban policy funding and implementation responsibilities, while retaining the power to restrict how local governments can approach the issues. This makes creating – and, especially, enacting – a local climate action plan much more difficult.

On top of that, we have deeply diverted state capacities. There are hundreds of relevant agencies between the city, state, and federal government – as well as regional quasi-governmental authorities like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the public-private Economic Development Corporations – each of which is tasked with elements of climate planning, but none is empowered to create or implement a climate plan per se. Many of the most important agencies are under-resourced and are the first to be cut when either economic fortunes fail or ideologically pro-extractive politicians rise to power, even as major climate-worsening arms of the state (such as the military and police) are emboldened.

Not everyone is unhappy with this outcome. In the absence of comprehensive planning the most powerful fractions of private capital set the agenda, and in New York City, that is the real estate industry. This fraction of capital – combined with its co-dependent partners in finance and, increasingly, technology – becomes the most powerful lobby, the factor pre-determining all other economic activity, the means through which other socially-important public functions are funded, the driver of political campaigns, the predominant buyer of media advertisements, and the loudest voice in the room – even when its members know to wait, allow a reform to take place, and then influence the way it is implemented and (un)enforced.

Despite their bristling at state interventions like rent controls or publicly spirited eminent domain takings, however, real estate capitalists ultimately demand state planning. Real estate is valueless without public intervention: developers are not interested in land as much as location, and locations only gain exchange value because of public investments in infrastructure, economic agglomerations, and community-driven collective initiatives to produce and improve urban space. Developers rely on the state not only to invest in roads, bridges, water and electrical systems, but also to use its police powers to protect their investments – either through zoning codes that keep out certain uses and regulate competition, or through the literal police powers of a heavily armed and politically potent police force with something approaching a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Without state planning, there is no private property market; the industry is aware, however, that with strong state planning, there might not be one either. 

What real estate really demands, then, is consistent but underwhelming planning that ensures capital has means to grow without worrying much about either popular uprisings or effective regulations – a flurry of planning activity that does the necessary work of social investment in space without being so successful as to displace the industry’s central role in the ordering of urban life. 

Sound familiar?

Perhaps the scattershot, contradictory, ineffective way in which climate planning has proceeded is a predictable outcome for a city that, in promotional materials, has described itself as “the real estate capital of the world.” Of course, New York City real estate players are worried about climate change, given that their entire portfolios would be rendered worthless if the city sinks into the sea. They are not, however, interested in the kind of truly transformative change that might liberate people as it preserves the potential for human life in this city. They want action to be taken, they just want to make sure that their massive investments – and their attendant political power – come out strong on the other side of whatever ameliorative changes are implemented. 

The desperate need for a real climate plan and the insufficient state of contemporary planning begs the questions: How can we do better? What will it take not only to imagine a people’s climate plan, but to enact it?

Grassroots planning – collective visioning on the part of oppressed people toward a liberated future – is absolutely essential. No plan worth following will be received from on high. But grassroots planning must be joined by – and, in fact, devised through – strategies and struggles to build power. Without such actions, and without strong movements, grassroots plans might still be important as visions or organizing tools but will not create the conditions to override those currently conspiring toward climate chaos. 

Ultimately, we need not just a plan, but the power to put it in motion – to force the state to take it seriously and to implement it against the demands of actors currently more powerful than us. Such power can only be built through collective struggle, which must include environmental justice movements as well as those that are not framed explicitly around climate action. This includes labor, housing, and anti-police organizing, which can harness the latent power of tremendous numbers of workers and tenants toward overcoming capitalists’ deeply ingrained power over our planning priorities. 

In this sense, some of the most important things we can do to make real a people’s climate plan for New York City may not at first look like climate planning, or even climate activism. They may mean organizing unions and developing militant rank-and-file caucuses in strategic industries, some of which (like education) may not be particularly carbon intensive but hold the capacity to force structural changes beyond individual workplaces. They may mean organizing tenant unions in coalition with homeless people and working-class mortgage debtors to challenge the commodity status of housing and the power of finance and real estate capital in city planning. They may mean popular uprisings and street actions against state-sponsored and state-sanctioned violence toward Black, Latino, Asian, and indigenous peoples, which are essential toward not only protecting lives but also redirecting state capacities away from policing and incarceration. They may mean budget battles against austerity regimes, which take on both the state’s direct attacks on key climate agenda items (like mass transit and funding or building retrofits, both of which may soon be on the chopping block in New York) as well as the ideological claims of conservative anti-regulationists and private sector boosters. They may mean running insurgent candidates and winning contested elections where the climate as such may not be the leading issue on the candidate’s campaign materials and talking points, but who will be less dependent than current representatives on maintaining close ties to real estate, finance and fossil fuel industry players.

All of this is not to minimize the importance of climate-specific activism, but rather to highlight that the success of these kinds of movements can lay the groundwork for our ability to make deep environmental changes because it would change the terms on which we fight. The converse is also true: without these kinds of mobilizations, there is no pathway toward enacting a people’s climate plan.

The reason we don’t have a meaningful and actionable climate plan in New York City is not for lack of resources, lack of ideas, or lack of technological capacities. The reason we don’t have a meaningful and actionable climate plan in New York City is that those in power – both inside and outside the formal institutions of the state – are aligned against it. The means of achieving a people’s climate plan, then, depend upon radically reshaping the terrain of struggle. 

There will be no real climate planning under austerity. There will be no real climate planning under mass incarceration. There will be no real climate planning under real estate rule. The only way forward, in this hot summer and beyond, is to take deadly aim on these systems in order to make space for us to live, breath, and plan for a viable future.