Multicolored sticky notes covered the walls at the office of WE ACT for Environmental Justice Saturday afternoon, as locals, environmental activists, and city politicians posted their solutions to the problem of extending the city's efforts to prepare for climate change to uptown neighborhoods.
At the meeting, which drew over 75 people, Upper Manhattan environmental advocates said that too little emphasis has been placed on preparing for climate change in impoverished areas that did not suffer flooding during Superstorm Sandy.
They listed heat waves, rising floodplains, and infrastructural challenges as difficulties their neighborhoods will likely face in the coming decades.
WE ACT for Environmental Justice is an environmental advocacy group in West Harlem.
Since the extensive damage to New York caused by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the city government has made an effort to invest in long-term disaster preparedness.
So far, programs like the Metropolitan Transit Authority's Fix&Fortify effort and the Department of City Planning's Resilient Neighborhoods initiative have focused on waterfront areas that have already experienced flooding, like Lower Manhattan and the Rockaways.
But according to City Council member Mark Levine, who represents West Harlem and Washington Heights, few of the city's post-Sandy sustainability efforts have focused on the neighborhoods of Upper Manhattan, where damage from Sandy was less extreme.
“After Hurricane Sandy, the threat's seen as more real and relevant to our lives,” Levine said. “But here uptown, I'm not as sure if it's sunk in much as it should, partly because we're on high ground and we didn't flood during Sandy.”
"But here uptown, I'm not as sure if it's sunk in much as it should." — City Council member Mark Levine
Upper Manhattan has so far escaped extensive storm damage. During Superstorm Sandy, electricity remained undisturbed in Morningside Heights, and physical damage was mostly limited to fallen trees and broken windows.
Still, according to data provided by the mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, rising sea levels may extend the Hudson River's floodplains to include 12th Avenue between 125th Street and and 137th Street within the next 100 years.
According to Michael D. McDonald, president of Global Resilience Initiatives, Inc., Saturday's forum marked the first step of WE ACT's plan for improving climate resiliency in Upper Manhattan.
The plan breaks Upper Manhattan into “resilience capacity zones” based on neighborhoods. It aims to help communities localize the issue of climate change and leverage their existing assets to address it.
WE ACT is specifically attempting to reach out to impoverished communities.
“We know that whenever there's a climate crisis, it's poor people who get hit the worst,” Deirdre Aherne, a WE ACT member, said.
Adam Sobel, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia, who has studied climate change and extreme weather events since Superstorm Sandy, said in an interview with Spectator that the city government should take an active role in addressing the challenges that climate change will bring to impoverished areas.
“Those in better circumstances have resources to cope better, so it's a question of pushing the authority to try to ameliorate the conditions,” he said.
During the forum, WE ACT members repeatedly stressed that the city government will need to play a role in disaster preparation, addressing the three government officials who attended —Levine, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Nilda Mesa, director of the city's Office of Sustainability.
“This initiative isn't just about sending our ideas to government, but really making government respond. We're going to hold you all accountable,” Cecil D. Corbin-Mark, WE ACT's director of policy initiatives, said.
The forum ended with a discussion of several possible solutions for building local climate change preparedness, from rooftop gardens to solar heating systems.
Josette Bailey, WE ACT member, was particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of introducing a food co-op system that would address food shortages during any future storms. She called for the community to work with the government to bring the program to Upper Manhattan.
“There's so much government funding available for creating all kinds of systems that could help alleviate hypothetical potential crises,” Bailey said. “We need to do the work of researching all those grants.”
Sophie Pugh-Sellers contributed reporting.
Photo credits: Danielle Fox, File