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After Sandy: Can New York Be Made Safe From The Sea? Should We Care?

Walter Russell Mead, The Observatory

It’s inevitable; after every natural disaster a conversation starts about how to prevent a recurrence. New Yorkers are launching that conversation now, and while it’s likely to be an intense and lively debate, effective flood protection for low lying neighborhoods in the New York metropolitan area is a long way off.

The final tally is not in yet, but Superstorm Sandy may have left as much as $18 billion of damage in its wake in New York State alone. Reuters reports that plans are afoot to price out and potentially build a series of dams, levees and barriers which will protect the area in case another big storm rolls through:

New York state and city officials have started talking about the need for a comprehensive flood defense system, but many obstacles remain. According to [Dutch flood prevention expert Jeroen] Aerts’ top estimate, it could cost as much as $29 billion to build and implement. The question of who will pay for it remains unresolved.

Most comprehensive proposals for storm surge defenses involve a system of two to four barriers, each spanning from a third of a mile (.5 km) to six miles (9.6 km) and towering about 30 feet (9 metres) above sea level. This is to be supplemented by levees, dikes, bulkheads and beach strengthening.

One of the most prominent plans calls for a 0.84-mile East River storm surge barrier from Whitestone in Queens to Throgs Neck Bridge in the Bronx, and a much longer 5.92-mile Outer Harbor barrier linking Sandy Hook in New Jersey to the Rockaway Peninsula in Long Island.

It’s inevitable; after every natural disaster a conversation starts about how to prevent a recurrence. New Yorkers are launching that conversation now, and while it’s likely to be an intense and lively debate, effective flood protection for low lying neighborhoods in the New York metropolitan area is a long way off.

To begin with, the tristate area has one of the largest, hungriest and canniest infrastructure lobbies in the world. The prospect of a multi-billion, decades long storm protection project will trigger a massive feeding frenzy. There will most certainly be sweetheart deals with crooked politicians. Unions will see this as a generational meal ticket, and will bilk the system for all its worth. Historically in New York it’s the taxpayer whose interests are sacrificed when infrastructure projects are planned. There’s a municipal courthouse that cost more than London’s Houses of Parliament in the 19th century, and Tammany Hall were amateurs compared to some of the construction and real estate moguls in New York today. The Dutch flood control expert mentioned in the Reuters story estimates the cost of a flood control system at $29 billion; he literally has no idea how the American political system can add huge new costs onto a massive project like this one.

Flood control may be a good idea, but out of control New York construction companies, unions and politicians will shaft the country’s taxpayers unless carefully and strictly reined in. Tony Soprano and his colleagues are certainly going to want a taste of a project like this one, and gold plated requirements, padded bids and collusion between contractors and politicians can turn a reasonable infrastructure project into the mother of all white elephants.

That might just be the price of doing business in the dysfunctional blue governance zone of America’s largest metropolitan area, but it’s likely that the final cost of this project will require substantial federal help. That will bring conservative, New York-loathing GOP deficit hawks into the discussion. Given the prospect of large federal deficits stretching out toward midcentury, heartland Republicans are unlikely to write a blank check to subsidize New York unions and contractors. At the very least, there will be deals to cut and any plans for New York flood protection will get caught up in the general struggle between regions, urban and suburban representatives and parties that produces so much gridlock in Washington.

But blue corruption and red stinginess may not be the biggest problems New York flood protection faces. Green bloodymindedness may well block anything big in the harbor. Veto by lawfare is a powerful tool, especially when it comes to projects as big and environmentally consequential as something like a flood barrier would be. Think of the kind of environmental impact that a serious flood control project is likely to have on the Hudson estuary. Every green group and every neighborhood association is going to file a thousand suits. (In today’s New York Times, Joe Nocera points out how green groups with red lines are already trying to control the discussion.) With three states, the federal government and a major river involved, trench lawfare is going to ensure that it will be many years before anything serious can happen. There are environmental groups that would rather see the five boroughs turned into a salt marsh than see flood barriers built, and our legal system gives them an almost infinite number of opportunities to make construction more expensive and time consuming.

The blues and the reds and the greens between them will make sure that nothing happens very quickly in New York harbor. Fortunately, that may not matter too much. Even if you’re convinced that Sandy was 100% the product of an accelerating process of global warming, storms like this are still not going to become an annual occurrence. Global warming might very well make 100-year storms like Sandy more likely, but notthat likely. If we are lucky, nature will hold off now for a few decades while New York stews in the juices of its dysfunctional political and legal processes.

Protecting New York may in any case be something of a lost cause. Despite the perpetually renewed hype (every few years there’s a revival of the ‘young professional hipsters will renew our cities and save urbanism’ meme), the 21st century looks more and more like an era in which economic activity and population will tend to disperse rather than concentrate. Urbanists stress the advantage of clustering people and economic activity, but there’s something to be said for the benefits to be secured from having more diffuse cities.

Places like New York are incredibly stimulating and offer many quality of life advantages to those of us who happen to like them.  There’s not a lot of grand opera in the burbs. But the urban configuration of New York today is essentially a product of 18th and 19th century technologies and the economies they produced and the constraints they placed on growth and activity.

In the 18th century being close to ports and good rivers was crucial; in the 19th century the industrial revolution and the rise of the railroad created the hub and spokes model of city center and residential suburb that most of us instinctively think of today as the urban ideal. In the 20th century the rise of decentralized automobile based transit plus cheap electrical power promoted the rise of increasingly autonomous suburbs and cities like Los Angeles with relatively underdeveloped centers surrounded by massive sprawl.

It’s fashionable among urbanists to prefer dense hub and spokes urban areas (European-feeling, cultured, mass transit based) to suburban sprawl (American, vulgar, car based), but it’s important to note that the suburb also represented a synthesis between the city and the countryside. Ordinary people could combine the economic and cultural opportunities of city living with the amenities of country living. You didn’t have to live in a cramped apartment, you could own your own home, you had more choices about what kind of neighborhood you lived in.

It is very early days, but it looks as if 21st century cities can be integrated with the countryside even more radically than 20th century cities. The automobile freed us up from dependence on rigid, centralizing forms of transport like rail; the internet increasingly frees us from the transportation grid altogether. By the middle of this century, it’s likely that many people, perhaps most, will be connected to their workplaces by the information grid rather than physically going to central locations to work every day. People who ‘work’ in New York might well live in New Zealand or Montana.

21st century IT gives people living in dispersed, low-density and low cost areas the opportunity to achieve the kind of exchanges of information and collaboration that once demanded the face-to-face contacts of a traditional city. Thronging together in big centralized urban complexes like New York is a legacy feature—a feature that many prize, but a legacy feature nonetheless.

If the New York of today didn’t exist, we probably wouldn’t build anything like it. If North America were to be newly discovered and settled today, the site of New York would be a natural focus for population and activity, but neither Manhattan nor the metro area would be as significant as they are now.

Why? What made New York what it is today is its deep-water port at the mouth of the Hudson River, a critical waterway which was easily navigable up to Albany where the greatest gap in the Appalachian mountains between Georgia and Maine is found. With the construction of the Erie Canal, the Hudson quickly became the easiest route within US territory from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic, making New York the most important city in the country. That advantage continued; the main rail lines west followed the river and canal routes, and the need to finance those rail lines contributed to the rise of New York as a financial center.

If we were starting from scratch now, that geography would still count for something, but not nearly as much. Airports and highways would change the logic of settlement and urbanization. Our hypothetical ‘new New York’ would be much less dense and much less dominant as a center of American business and finance.

The hollowing out of New York and of other Age of Rail cities is already far advanced. Most of the great American corporations moved their headquarters out of Manhattan long ago. Only in finance and media does New York still have the kind of corporate dominance that it once had in one economic sector after another; it’s likely that in coming decades both the media and finance will head for cheaper pastures.

A very good reason to encourage the emergence of a 21st century distributed economy, one that is less concentrated and therefore less vulnerable to natural or terrorist disruption, is the need for massive expensive infrastructure programs like the proposed New York flood barriers to keep the old cities together. Virtual cities are much harder to destroy than the old fashioned kind, and if the population is less densely concentrated in a few legacy locations (which, almost inevitably, are located on the coasts or on rivers), natural disasters like Sandy will have less horrific consequences. Fewer people will be hit at any one time by a single storm or other disaster, and fewer enterprises will be disrupted if their workers are interacting in cyberspace from many widely dispersed physical locations.

The shift away from ancestral city types to new forms is likely to continue no matter what. People look for cheaper and more convenient ways to organize their lives and their business activities, and the same forces that led our ancestors to cluster thickly on the banks of the Hudson and East Rivers are likely to disperse our descendants more widely. The strongest of the old cities won’t disappear and they will find ways to thrive in new times; Rome survived the civilization that gave it birth, Venice outlived its empire and its role in world trade, and New York looks pretty resilient as well.

But there’s a paradox we should be aware of: efforts to save New York from future floods may accelerate the dispersion of economic activity out of the urban core. No matter how much federal aid comes in, a vast project like a flood barrier can’t be done without raising taxes and other costs on individuals and businesses that choose to make New York their home. As we’ve noted on VM before, these are already at toxic levels for the kinds of businesses that create middle class jobs. New York is already under pressure from rising costs due to its density and to the deeply dysfunctional way it manages its infrastructure; adding another layer of cost will only accelerate the transformative decentralization of what remains the greatest American city.

The American Interest, 3 November 2012