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In the 10 weeks since Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the East Coast and claimed 131 lives, there has been much discussion about the failures in infrastructure that left New York City at a virtual standstill for days. In an article published in this week’s New Yorker, sociologist Eric Klinenberg discusses some of these concerns in a piece called “How Can Cities Be Climate-Proofed?”. Emphasizing that “[t]he fundamental threat to the human species is, of course, our collective inability to reduce our carbon emissions and slow the pace of climate change,” Klinenberg broaches Sandy from the perspective of how we might rethink a wide range of key design, infrastructure, regulatory and social components so as to adapt to rising sea levels and increase resiliency against these now inevitable extreme weather events.

eric klinenberg, hurricane sandy, new york city, infrastructure, climate proof, rockaways (cc) Randy Le Moine Photography

Citing examples of “climate-proofing” in other countries and the thoughts of experts on the subject, Klinenberg considers not only the often expansive and expensive measures that need to be taken to improve critical infrastructure, but also simpler measures to bolster resiliency at community levels. The larger engineering projects to protect against flooding that Klinenberg refers to are themselves quite interesting — and potentially vital.

NYC Mayor Bloomberg, when noting the relationship between climate change and Hurricane Sandy, acknowledged that storm surge barriers and levee protection systems would be necessary in the future to protect New York City, and it turns out “engineers at the Dutch firm Arcadis have designed a $6.5-billion barrier that would go just north of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge [while] others have proposed a five-mile gate that would stretch from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, to Rockaway, New York.”

Such projects have supporters, but one of Klinenberg’s interview subjects, Columbia University geophysicist Klaus Jacob, notes that such protection systems “will require at least twenty years to build… [and if] that happens, we’d get protection for perhaps a few decades. Walls will keep out storm surges, but not the rising ocean, and they could cause a sense of false security that prevents us from finding real solutions.”

Beyond holding back rising waters, there is an extensive array of infrastructure improvements, underscored by Klinenberg, that could be made to improve resiliency in the face of future disasters — many of which have already been implemented in flood-prone areas of other nations. And many such improvements yield benefits outside of times of crisis. Smart grids, like those in the Netherlands and others implemented in Houston after Hurricane Ike, have the potential to not only restore power more expediently after wide-spread devastation, but could also help in regular outages. Regulation of the cell phone industry, meanwhile, could provide additional capacity in times of crisis, and provide baseline requirements for keeping service running. Not to mention the benefits that could be yielded from elevating public transit lines and burying power cables.

But one of the overarching, and perhaps most valuable, messages in Klinenberg’s article is the fundamental importance of community resiliency. Citing drastically lower mortality rates during the Chicago heatwave of 1995 in tight-knit communities, Klinenberg goes on to visit The Rockaway Beach Surf Club, which in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy became a distribution point for relief and rebuilding resources and a vital meeting point for the community. As Michael McDonald, head of Global Health Initiatives, explains in Klinenberg’s article, “What’s actually happening on the ground is not under an incident command system. It’s the fragile, agile networks that make a difference in situations like these. It’s the horizontal relationships like the ones we’re building that create security on the ground, not the hierarchical institutions. We’re here to unify the effort.”

To read Eric Klinenberg’s article, “Adaptation: How can cities be “climate-proofed”?” see the January 7 issue of the New Yorker

+ The New Yorker