New York is considered a pioneer in climate protection, at least in America. Last but not least, socio-political problems complicate related projects.
The woman, dressed all in red, is standing in the water of the East River. About a dozen men and women are standing around them, the water is waist-deep to their chests, most of them fully clothed. It’s one of those bright, beautiful September days in New York, a warmth that’s no longer damp and oppressive. The water here in Astoria, Queens is still warm enough for the performance of the woman in the river: Sarah Cameron Sunde. She wants to draw attention to the sea level rise caused by climate change, she has been in water on all continents, each for a complete cycle of high and low tides. She has been doing it for nine years and today, for the final performance, people from Brazil, Bangladesh, Kenya, New Zealand and the Netherlands will join together simultaneously. Sunde stays in the water for 12 hours and 39 minutes. “I’m trying to create an image of sinking city dwellers,” says the artist, who lives in New York. It’s only fitting that her journey ends here, because the city wants to be at the forefront of the fight against global warming and, due to its location and size, she needs to be.
Across the East River in Manhattan, the matter is less subtly approached these days. On the Lower East Side, many people are just plain mad: Late last year, city government began tearing down the 82-year-old East River Park, including the 1941 amphitheater. Workers with backhoes and circular saws have arrived. and, despite numerous lawsuits, they did what former mayor Bill de Blasio sanctioned: 991 trees fell victim to the city’s flood control plan. Today, the expanse of waterfront is a dusty construction site for a new park as part of the $1.45 billion East Side Coastal Resilience Project. If all goes to plan, which rarely happens with New York construction projects, there will be a new park with 1,000 young trees in 2026. Below it, a massive flood wall is supposed to protect the city from rising water levels and storm surges. The nearby catchment area is home to 100,000 people who the city says should be protected from a recurrence of a catastrophe like Hurricane Sandy in 2012. But many local residents are heartbroken by the loss of the park and have organized a protest called East River Park Action, which is still demonstrating.
The opponents of flood fortifications call themselves the true protectors of the climate, because they fight for the old trees.
Malcolm Araos, Sociologist at New York University, scientifically accompanies the conflict. He notes that it tends to be people in condos near parks who want to conserve trees and don’t want to sacrifice them for flood protection. Residents of the surrounding ‘Projects’, social housing, use the facilities in the same way, but have a more positive attitude towards redevelopment. There is also concern that the value of condos could go down if the park is gone or needs to be redeveloped for a long time. However, this is also ideologically embellished, according to Araos: “The opponents of flood fortifications call themselves the real climate protectors, because they are fighting for the old trees.” been able to break down these fronts.
Clashes very similar to those around East River Park are now also starting in western New York, where a large park was created after September 11, 2001 in Battery Park City. With its Japanese-style gardens and shady lawns, Wagner Park, overlooking the Statue of Liberty, is a magnet for tourists and locals alike. But a flood-proof conversion is also planned on the Hudson River in the long term: Eventually there should be a raised park, but for this the previous one must be destroyed.
CNY alone it has more than 800 kilometers of river and sea levees, including all the small islands, for example in Jamaica Bay. But floods are just one area of climate protection that the city has to address. After all, it’s not just about protecting the residents, it’s also about reducing the contribution of a city with more than eight million inhabitants to global warming. In 2019, the state legislature passed the Climate Act, which provides for comprehensive emissions control measures. For example, public buildings must be renovated in a climate-friendly way and companies must be rewarded for using so-called “clean” energies – nuclear power is still often included in the United States. The city council approved its climate protection program and stipulates that the public housing authority, NYCHA, must reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its building stock by 40 percent by 2030. Two years ago, the administration it also sued BP, Exxon and other companies for their complicity in global warming. Other municipalities and states have done the same, hoping to have a similar effect to the large state lawsuits against tobacco companies in the 1990s.
New York City wants to reduce its CO2 emissions by 80 percent by 2050. However, many of the climate decisions initially require individual city governments to develop appropriate plans. Like many mayors before him, the current mayor, Eric Adams, describes climate protection as a key city policy challenge. However, some critics lack a complete overall concept – they see more of a hodgepodge of different projects.
One of these, fought as much as the fortifications against the floods, is the so-called congestion pricing: the mayor and the majority of the council want to introduce a toll system in Manhattan that already exists on the surrounding highways. Citizens should be encouraged to switch from cars to subways and buses more often. However, the public transport system is already overloaded and partly dilapidated.
In addition to controversial projects, there are also projects that many New Yorkers can relate to. For example, the city-backed private Billion Oyster Project gets a lot of media attention: It has set a goal of planting a billion oysters in the waters around New York; currently one is already at 75 million. The oyster beds here slowed the current before the port was increasingly dredged for shipping and industry. Landscape architect Kate Orff came up with the idea of rebuilding the underwater reefs. Meanwhile, volunteers raise oysters in large tanks before they form new oyster beds where the two rivers meet the sea – and these could actually slow a tide if it hits the metropolis.
Where dreaded storms and rising sea levels have had the most drastic impact, prevention work has never stopped since Hurricane Sandy Boardwalk, the beachside, flood-resistant walkway around. It is home to some of the poorest zip code areas in the city – recovery from numerous hurricanes has taken years for many families here. The corner suffers from vacancies, but the city council recently approved a major new project: 2050 social housing units will be built, and a second complex is already under construction. Many people are skeptical that resettling tens of thousands more is wise given the threats of climate change.
Such construction projects now it must at least always include climate protection, points out Steven A. Cohen, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Cohen explores how cities can become sustainable communities and has compared New York to numerous other metropolitan areas. To successfully adapt to climate change, a city needs to organize itself well: adaptation and damage limitation. New York, which not only woke up politically after Hurricane Sandy but was also well equipped financially, is arguably at the top of American cities, but it’s once again behind Europe by a decade, says Cohen.
Text: Frauke Steffens
Photo: Mike Yi