Sinking Cities Saved by Resilient Regions
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I rescued over 140 people during my four summers as a lifeguard in San Clemente, California, from frightened children being carried out to sea in riptides to marines pounded with ten-foot waves.
We now have kids growing up in cities that increasingly flood, whose drinking water is salinated, and who are getting hit with hundred-year storms every year. We don’t need to tell them that the problems don’t exist, that climate change is to be denied, that we’ll form a study committee. We need to rescue them.
By 2100, depending on global use of coal, oil, and gas, many cities could face seas that are eight feet higher – three from melting ice in Greenland, three from melting glaciers in the Antarctic, one from the expansion of a warming ocean, and one from subsidence. In some cities, subsidence will not be a foot, it will be ten feet. In 2200, sea level rise for most American coastal cities will not be three feet, or eight feet, but could easily reach twenty feet.
Storm surges must also be considered. Katrina’s surge peaked at 25 feet. Sea rise plus surge in this century could be 8 +25 = 33 feet.
So far, the typical response has been to live with flooding. When storms devastate, we use federal disaster funds and flood insurance to rebuild in harm’s way.
Those with heavy real estate investments argue for sea walls, or levees, or building barrier islands and wetlands. These stop-gap measures can protect real estate in the short term, but they do not stop flooding, they do not return salinated water to healthy drinking water, and they do not protect our children in the decades ahead. Dealing with sea rise requires us to think beyond city boundaries to regional solutions.
Regional plans, zoning, transportation, infrastructure, and funding should all encourage sustainable development at least 30 feet above sea level and discourage development and rebuilding near sea level.
Miami is at risk with over $40 billion of property and much of its 450,000 population at sea level; flooding and sea level rise is a serious challenge for Miami with its drinking water aquifer becoming salinated. During King Tides, the city can look as if hit by a hurricane as cars and pedestrians try to navigate flooded streets.
Mayor Tomás Regalado is promoting a $200 million sea-level-rise mitigation and resiliency plan, doubling down on the $400 million storm-water-pumping system being built. That may buy property owners a few added years before being forced to sell.
The price of salinated water from rising seas is far higher. Over the next ten years, Bluefield Research forecasts that water utility spending for Miami-Dade County will exceed $30 billion, over twenty times higher per capita that some inland U.S. counties. Sea walls and schemes to raise buildings do not stop flooding and water becoming unhealthy due to salinization and storm water mixing with drinking water.
A long-term solution must look beyond Miami to the Florida region. The state population is forty times greater than Miami. Future economic growth and jobs are on higher ground, such as the Orlando area that ranks among the fastest growing areas in the nation. It is not an accident that the state capital, Tallahassee, is located on high-ground, well insulated from rising seas.
Each hurricane that hits is an opportunity not to rebuild in harm’s way, but to help those that desire move to safer areas of economic growth, to help with temporary housing, to help economically, to avail life-long learning and job placement.
In 2012, Superstorm Sandy ripped through New York killing some 200 people and causing $69 billion in damage. The eight million people living in the city were paralyzed by a 14-foot storm surge that flooded subways, tunnels, and 88,000 buildings. Although stock exchanges were able to reopen in two days, many were homeless for weeks, others were descending 30 flights of stairs to fetch water that would not pump without power.
Now seawalls are being debated and some funded. Yet proposed sea walls ten-miles in length, such as the Big U, cannot protect most of the city’s 520 mile-coastline. A sea wall can protect precious real estate and financial firms for decades, but at a cost of pushing more water into lower-income neighborhoods.
Sandy inspired resilience. The state has created a Reforming the Energy Vision (REV), reducing carbon emissions, encouraging energy-efficient buildings and microgrids for emergency locations throughout the state. The entire electrical system is moving away from single points of failure to reliable networks of distributed generation and microgrids.
Major employers are becoming resilient. Verizon reported a quarterly loss of $4.2 billion after Superstorm Sandy. Its communication hub in New York City was severely damaged. IT systems needed to be restored from backup sites in other areas. Some customers could not talk, text, or use internet for weeks. Post storm, Verizon accelerated the shift from old copper wires to fiber optics, bringing faster and more reliable internet. Verizon has expanded its business continuity services to customers providing cloud services and disaster recovery.
The short-term impacts on Verizon and millions of customers were severe. Long-term, Verizon will move more of its communication hubs, data centers, and employees to higher ground. Verizon employs tens of thousands in New York City, but also employs thousands in safer nearby New Jersey locations such as Basking Ridge and Morristown, and has most of its 155,000 employees located throughout the nation.
Done well, resilience inspires planning, funding, and implementation at many levels including energy infrastructure, mobility, buildings, IT, jobs, equity, community, city, and a region spanning New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The region’s Fourth Regional Plan is a valuable beginning, but it should prioritize development over 30 feet above sea level.
San Francisco and Silicon Valley
The world’s technology leaders are vulnerable to storm surges and sea rise, with over 5,000 tech firms such as Google, Facebook, and Intel located near sea level from San Francisco to San Jose.
Employment and housing need to move to higher ground without involving more sprawl, without more driving in gridlock from suburban homes to industrial park jobs. One example is a major tech firm with technology that we all use. Alphabet is comprised of Google, YouTube, Waymo, and dozens of other enterprises. Its Mountain View headquarters is near shoreline. Most employees drive or bus long distance due to little housing near the headquarters, which contributes to urban sprawl, traffic, and emissions.
Alphabet has finally secured approval to build a massive mixed-use development at Diridon Station, a major hub of transit including the nation’s first high-speed rail. The San Jose station is at 92-foot elevation. Twenty thousand Alphabet employees will have the opportunity to work and live and enjoy outstanding transportation at the new location, 15 miles from the current Mountain View HQ.
Beyond a few tech companies, like Alphabet, the solution is the area government’s integrated plan. It identifies priority development areas (PDA) and priority conservation areas (PCA). Unfortunately, many of the current PDAs are in future harm’s way, such as San Francisco’s massive high-rises south of Market Street being built at three feet above sea level. The regional plan should be modified, with PDAs at greater than 30 feet above sea level.
Sea rise and extreme climate are challenging urban planners to be regional planners; they confront civic leaders with the need to take a long view of time and see beyond city boundaries. We also see how global employers can lead in shifting jobs and relocating facilities.
The stakes are high. Roughly half of all Americans live near a shoreline that is disappearing. Streets are flooding, drinking water is becoming unsafe, homes and buildings near sea level are vulnerable.
We can learn from America’s great regions with cities at water’s edge, from Boston to Charleston, from St. Petersburg to Houston, and from San Diego to Seattle. These sinking cities are at the heart of resilient regions. Yes, most of their denizens prefer gradual change. The ties of multi-generation families are strong, and it takes years for most employers and their teams to move. With good transportation within a region, some can move ahead of others while preserving the strong connections of family, friends, and work teams.
Regional plans, zoning, and transportation should prioritize sustainable development at least 30 feet above sea level. Long-term economic development, mobility, and sustainability can move forward when we plan beyond an urban core of less than a million to a region of more than ten million and from dozens of square miles at water’s edge to thousands of square miles on higher ground.
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