The Concrete Jungle Has 578 Miles of Shoreline at Risk
In New York City, it’s often easy to think that ocean conservation is an issue for someplace else — tropical islands, coral reefs, the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic.
But New York City is an archipelago, a reality that can be obscured by the concrete jungle. The five boroughs — four of them on islands — have 578 miles of shoreline. The Hudson River can get salty up to Poughkeepsie. And the East River is not really a river; it’s a tidal strait that links New York Bay and the Long Island Sound and makes Long Island an island. So the city has much to gain from a better approach to managing the ocean, including storm protection, access to healthy seafood, coastal recreation and a thriving “blue economy” based on the sustainable use of the ocean’s resources.
The point is, ocean conservation is an urban issue, and fortunately, there has been a growing movement in the city to protect its waters.
The Billion Oyster Project, for which I am a board member, is working to restore a billion oysters in New York Harbor by 2035 through reef construction to create habitat and improve water quality. The groups Riverkeeper and Surfrider Foundation NYC monitor the health of local waters and work for their protection. The Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay provides scientific advice to the city on wetland restoration and making neighborhoods resilient to floods and storms. The state has been installing “living breakwaters” conceived by Scape Landscape Architecture as part of a design competition to protect the shoreline from storm surges and create habitat for marine life. The group Gotham Whale conducts scientific monitoring and offers whale-watching tours. The Wildlife Conservation Society (a former consulting client of mine) is working through its Seascape program to restore populations of threatened aquatic species and protect near-shore and offshore habitats. And Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Resiliency and the One NYC initiative are working to prepare the city for the changing climate.
These efforts and others are inspiring, but they are not nearly enough given the magnitude of threats from climate change, pollution and habitat loss.
Many coastal cities simply are unprepared for rising seas. For New York City, which has already seen sea levels rise 18 inches since 1850, as measured by a tide gauge at the Battery, upper-end forecasts suggest the ocean could rise another six to nine feet by 2100. While Mr. de Blasio has recently proposed a plan to fortify Lower Manhattan, we must confront the fact that because of climate change, increasingly, homes and businesses in the city will need to be relocated out of harm’s way. We need a policy for this kind of managed retreat.
Hurricane Sandy made it clear that it’s foolish not to spend money now to ensure that the city’s infrastructure and neighborhoods are resilient to storms and flooding that undoubtedly will occur again as climate change intensifies. As with so many other environmental issues, poor communities and communities of color will likely bear the brunt of these impacts unless we guard against them.
One way to do that is to turn to nature. The replanting, restoration and conservation of disappearing coastal wetlands, sand dunes and oyster reefs is crucial. Eighty-five percent of the coastal wetlands have been lost to development in the New York-New Jersey harbor estuary, and sand dunes on Long Island’s South Shore are eroding at one to two feet a year. The oyster reefs — historically an important barrier to storm surges — were wiped out a century ago from overharvesting.
Intact coastal ecosystems can provide better and less expensive flood and storm protection than sea walls; what little wetlands remain in New York and New Jersey prevented $625 million in damages during Hurricane Sandy, according to one study. That’s why the United States Army Corps of Engineers should prioritize ecosystem restoration over building more sea walls. And Congress should fully fund the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program, which provides matching funds to state and local governments to purchase threatened coastal lands or conservation easements. These would have climate benefits, too, because the soil of wetlands holds about five times as much carbon per acre as the soil of rain forests.
Coastal cities need support from the state and federal governments. For example, preventing raw sewage from entering New York City’s waterways when it rains would require a multibillion-dollar investment in the wastewater and sewage treatment system. Also, the city is relying on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to update flood risk maps, and on Congress to overhaul the National Flood Insurance Program to better manage risk and discourage building and rebuilding along coastlines. And with 40 percent of the United States population living in coastal counties, the ocean should not be forgotten in the Green New Deal.
New York City arose and prospered around a remarkable natural harbor, a reason the state ranks third among coastal states in employment in the blue economy, supporting nearly 350,000 jobs in shipping, fishing and tourism, and fourth in its contribution to state gross domestic product, worth about $26 billion annually.
The vast majority of these jobs and dollars are from tourism and recreation, which rely on healthy ecosystems and clean water. So do the seven species of whales that visit New York Harbor and all 338 marine species that live in the city’s seascape, including sharks, sea turtles, seals and sea horses. The surfing culture that is thriving in the Rockaways and other recreational opportunities city residents pursue — swimming, kayaking, boating and fishing — depend on healthy, living ecosystems. And even more than affording us these key jobs and treasured leisure activities, being near the ocean helps to keep us sane.
Ocean conservation is critical to the future of New York City. Coastal cities can and should be leaders in climate and ocean policy. As we enter the summer season and ocean waters beckon, all New Yorkers would do well to remember that — as we make sure the lawmakers who represent us don’t forget it either.