Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What Not to Rebuild

I'm glad to see that some people have broached the topic of sustainability in the areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy, and in particular the idea that some uses just aren't a good idea on barrier islands.

I have to say, though, that boardwalks and beaches seem like the easiest things. If the sand gets washed away you can bring more in on barges, and boardwalks are pretty easy to rebuild. Even train trestles - simple ones, across a shallow bay or along a sand bar, away from other structures - are cheap compared to a lot of things. Cheap bungalows, especially the summer-only kind that have no heat or insulation, aren't too bad. Here's a short list of things that were really a bad idea to build in the first place, and shouldn't be rebuilt.

  • Racist gated communities. I have sympathy for the people in Breezy Point and Seagate who lost homes and belongings in the floods and fires, and I know it's no fun to be displaced. But we have to acknowledge these places for what they were: segregated enclaves designed to enable white people to live relatively cheaply within the city limits without having black or brown people living next door.

    Beyond the sheer repulsiveness of the idea, it corrodes the fabric of the city. I'm not sure these places should be rebuilt at all, but if they're rebuilt with public funds, it should be on the condition that the gates come down and the streets and beaches are open to everyone.
  • Housing projects. As the Pratt Center has pointed out, the public housing built on Coney Island and the Rockaways, as well as in Red Hook, is not just vulnerable to storms, it is remote from the city's job center, and a prime cause of the problem of poor people with long commutes. The projects on the Lower East Side are less remote, but still not well-served by transit.

    I don't know the current state of the buildings, but we definitely shouldn't put more money into any projects in Zone A. Beyond that, while the Pruitt-Igoe (or Cabrini-Green) treatment is problematic for inner city projects, it makes a lot more sense to dynamite projects on remote barrier islands. Replacing these projects with Section 8 vouchers would probably make the city more sustainable.
  • Toxic industrial sites. As the waters of the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek rose, many feared that water seeping through the Superfund sites along its banks would contaminate the rest of the area. There's value to waterfront industry, but we have to be careful about this kind of danger (also highlighted by the Pratt Center).
  • Car-dependent sprawl. In my last post, I made a connection between car-dependent sprawl and the climate change that enabled this storm. We shouldn't use rebuilding funds to perpetuate these polluting practices.

    According to L Magazine the "walks" on Breezy Point are car-free and safe, but most people get to and from the enclave by car. There's a similar pattern the length of Rockaway and in Gerritsen Beach and Marine Park. Much of the Jersey Shore and the South Shores of Staten Island and Long Island are car-dependent sprawl, especially as you get further away from the train stations.

    Some of these areas should be designated as waterfront preserves, with the only construction allowed being cheap summer bungalows and wooden boardwalks. The rest should be zoned for greater density and mixed use.


Zmapper said...

I have to wonder what would be cheaper in the long run; pay to relocate people living on the natural barrier islands, or construct artificial barrier islands to protect the natural barrier islands. Either way, the New York region will be forced to spend tens of billions just to protect the status quo.

Steve Stofka said...

What about water-dependent industrial uses (i.e. ports, etc.)? They present a catch-22: highly polluting, but impossible to locate inland or out of the way of a storm surge. Howland Hook, for instance, is a good instance of this issue.