Five Resilience Recommendations for New York’s Next Mayor

Excerpted from Judith Rodin's speech to Association for a Better New York on November 19, 2014. Download full transcript.

Mayor Bloomberg’s leadership has prepared us well for this moment – from rebuilding the city after 9/11 to his visionary PlaNYC to address climate change. But building resilience isn’t a sprint, nor even a marathon. It’s a relay race. And Bill de Blasio is taking up the baton.

He won’t be doing it alone. There are institutions and organizations already engaged that stand ready to run alongside him. But perhaps, the most promising partnership is with the private sector.

Because whether you are considering flood gates for your buildings...determining where to best locate your generators…ensuring your hardware and data centers can stay online during a threat…conducting emergency preparedness planning – that’s building resilience.

Now, you might just call it good business. But there is a good deal the new Administration can learn from your experience, successes, and the things that haven’t gone as well. And it’s a two-way partnership. I know business and building owners are looking for direction from the city, as well.

Resilience-thinking ensures that those choices don’t pit the private sector against public good. Resilience requires us to find the commonalities – how do we work together to protect each other?

Let’s start with a definition of resilience. Building resilience is helping people, communities and institutions prepare for, withstand and emerge stronger from acute shocks and chronic stresses.

SEE ALSO: What is Resilience?

There’s no question that the new Administration will take office at a time when disruptions and disasters are only growing in frequency, intensity and unpredictability.Thousands more New Yorkers will be living in flood zones adjusted in the face of our changing climate. Hotter days – and more of them – are expected each summer. Once in a lifetime storms seem to threaten the coastline every year.

Come wind, sleet, or enemies, foreign or domestic, we need to be prepared for uncertainty. Because while these shocks are not always preventable or in our control –the degree of destruction and devastation is.

And there’s a clear impetus from a budgetary standpoint. With a $2 billion budget gap facing our next mayor, we have to find ways to spend our dollars more cost-effectively, rather than rebuilding after each shock. And we have no time to waste.

So, here are five resilience priorities that the new Mayor should put into action in his first 100 Days.

Create the position of Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Resilience.

A Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Resilience would play two important roles. First, he or she would coordinate the internal functions and agencies of government required to build and strengthen the physical resilience of the City, from NYCHA and land use, to energy and transportation, to sustainability and parks. And second, the Deputy Mayor would ensure that all our economic development decisions are building a more resilient economy that, like our infrastructure, can weather any shock.

The closing of Wall Street in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy was the first two day shutdown since the Great Blizzard of 1888. In a city where one-third of the economy is based on finance and real-estate, these kinds of disruptions can be catastrophic. We need economic systems that are redundant and flexible – both within and across sectors.

That means ensuring we are attracting new investment to diversify our economy…and creating new jobs for the future…Building the backbone for the type of economy that in turn will enable people to bounce back more quickly after a disaster.

The private sector can take on some of the risk to minimize economic disruption. For example, the insurance industry could create municipal sovereign insurance instruments that will go a long way to prefund disaster recovery and protect the city from large losses. And the Mayor can focus on public sector mitigation activities that can reduce homeowners’ rates and make communities more resilient, particularly advocating with FEMA to allow credits and rate decreases for resilience measures other than elevating property, which is not always possible in New York City. Only a Deputy Mayor can have the view of the entire field that this will require – and have the ear of the Mayor to get it done.

 

Develop gold-standard Bus Rapid Transit in every New York borough.

In the immediate aftermath of Sandy when the subway tunnels were flooded, Brooklynites boarded busses at Atlantic terminal and crossed the East River bridges using exclusive lanes. They probably didn’t know it at the time, but they were using a dressed down version of a Bus Rapid Transit – or BRT system.

BRT differs from regular bus service because it runs on dedicated lanes, has priority signaling, and off-board ticket purchasing – just to name a few of the distinct features that contribute to its high performance. And it’s a model for what can be implemented across the city - permanently.

BRT has two main benefits as an addition, and in some cases an alternative, to the city’s subway system. First, BRT expands the city’s transportation options at a much lower cost than, say, the Second Avenue subway, which has taken billions of dollars. And it won’t take 80 years to build! Second, BRT isn’t just valuable for its flexibility in moving people around in emergencies – it is also about diversifying access, ensuring that people with fewer transit options can get to their jobs and their schools, no matter where they live in the city, on storm day and every day.

This was one of the recommendations we made in the NYS 2100 Commission report. The next mayor, through his support and his MTA appointees, should push for gold-standard BRT in all five boroughs. This type of implementation is already underway by Mayor Emanuel in Chicago.

 

Double down on investments so that NYC remains a world leader on cutting edge resilience ideas and new technology.

We’ve had a head start on the rest of the world – even before Sandy, a coalition of partners, including the Rockefeller Foundation, were working on the design-thinking and science behind resilient cities.

We have some incredible resources for this learning right in our own backyard. For environmental and storm-related threats, these include the ecosystems and ecology of Jamaica Bay, combined with the top-notch research institutions, and a rich network of architecture and engineering experts throughout the region. This will yield innovative technologies and products for which there’s a global market. And for man-made threats and shocks, these include businesses who have been investing in new approaches to building resilience in some shape and form since 9/11 shook us to the bone.

We also have another exciting opportunity – the rocketing growth of New York City’s technology corridor, which has already become New York’s number two economic sector. The first graduate class at Cornell’s Tech campus is another signal for a bright future.

Continuing investment in, and coordination, of all this activity will be critical.

 

Get the money out of DC and into the hands of citizens and resilience projects faster.

I remember going to Breezy Point, Red Hook and the Rockaways after the storm, and seeing people literally digging through rubble searching for their most precious possessions. We won’t always be able to prevent bad things from happening – but resilience ensures that people will be back on their feet more quickly.

We see the need for such a reframed approach, with billions of dollars still stuck in the maze of agencies and outdated policies. To take just one example, think of the homeowners in Breezy Point, for example, who faced tremendous obstacles to securing building permits because their houses weren’t on city maps. Turns out those maps were from 1948.

It’s not just about people – although they remain the top priority. There are now a number of studies and design challenges underway that will need sustained funding and additional commitments to turn the findings and ideas into reality. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is assessing flood risks in vulnerable coastal populations between Virginia and Rhode Island. Once the feasibility study is completed, the next Mayor must put the pressure on to ensure that more resilient infrastructure for New York City is quickly built.

And a number of compelling design opportunities are being generated by the Rebuild By Design competition, led by HUD and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, under the visionary leadership of Shaun Donovan.The competition has brought together high caliber teams from across planning, design, engineering and science to find better ways of implementing resilient design. 

SEE ALSO: Rebuild by Design

This will require organization. It will require coordination between federal, state and local governments. Fortunately, Mayor-elect de Blasio is a great organizer. We know this. Now it’s time for him to put those talents to work as a the chief executive of the City, building a coalition of business, labor, community groups and others to keep the pressure on Washington D.C. and their agencies.

 

Mayor-elect de Blasio should make investments in resilient infrastructure more attractive to private finance by creating an infrastructure bank.

While there could be sufficient financing available to meet the City’s infrastructure needs, those investments aren’t being made today. The Mayor can make these projects more attractive to private investment through strategic prioritization and integrated design of projects.  For example, in the United States, several western states have organized a regional infrastructure exchange which seeks private investment in shared resilient public works projects, such as water systems, transportation and electric grids.

To help package these kinds of investments, Mayor de Blasio should create a dedicated infrastructure bank to help coordinate resilient infrastructure development and investment across the city, introducing a centralized approach to infrastructure related decision making rather than a project-by-project, agency specific process. This is an idea that my co-chair on the NYS2100 Commission, Felix Rohatyn, truly the Godfather of municipal finance, has been advocating for years, long before Sandy. 

And it’s something Mayor Rahm Emanuel has done in Chicago - with help from The Rockefeller Foundation - and the first projects are getting underway this fall. I can sense a city rivalry moving away from pizza to focus on infrastructure – we’ve just reclaimed the tallest building title…Why not a better infrastructure bank to continue to finance architectural wonders that also protect our city?

Let me conclude by reiterating that, for Mayor de Blasio, the spirit of public-private partnership will be vital. The incoming mayor might feel some push back from those close to him. I know I have.

But there is a common saying that disasters are the great equalizers. And while it’s true that disasters like Superstorm Sandy or heatwaves or financial collapse impact people regardless of race, class or creed – they don’t impact everyone equally.

This is something Mayor de Blasio, with his agenda focused on a fairer, more equitable city, can certainly get behind. Because whether you believe there are two New Yorks or five – resilience is a bridge that can unite them all. And, when it comes to facing the messy, complicated, dynamics of the 21st century, we really are all in it together.

Photo: Michael Tapp

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