Hoboken Could Be a Model for Dealing With Urban Flooding

Hoboken could provide a perfect laboratory for aggressive efforts. Are state and federal governments ready to participate in the experiment?


Hoboken is a charming, compact little city on the banks of the Hudson River, with a walkable downtown and excellent public transit connections to New York City, as well as other communities in New Jersey. Its streets are lined with trees and brownstones, and it has transformed over the last 20 years from a fading industrial backwater to a flourishing residential community, gaining nearly 30 percent in population between 2000 and 2010.

Gentrification and the rising cost of living were, in fact, one of the more troublesome issues facing this city of 50,000 -- until Superstorm Sandy hit. Then the rising waters suddenly became everyone’s primary concern. Flooding filled the city “like a bathtub,” mayor Dawn Zimmer said in the midst of the crisis. Tens of thousands were left stranded without power in the storm’s aftermath, and the streets were filled with contaminated water. It took weeks, in some cases even months, for transit connections to be restored.

Hoboken’s geographic position made it unusually vulnerable to Sandy’s effects. The land occupied by the city was once an island in the tidal waters where the Hudson opens up to what is now New York Harbor. Much of its two-square-mile area lies at or below sea level. Water came at the city from several directions, and there was nowhere for it to go once it had poured in.

Now Mayor Zimmer is arguing that Hoboken’s combination of vulnerability to flooding and traditional urban architecture warrant special consideration as New Jersey moves to rebuild its coastal communities and look to the future. In today’s New York Times, Kate Zernike wrote about the mayor’s proposals:

[Zimmer] is pushing federal and state officials to make [Hoboken] a test case for a new model of hurricane resilience, one that could be translated to other cities in the Northeast that rising seas have increasingly turned into flood plains.

Most bluntly, Mayor Dawn Zimmer said, that means accepting and planning for the likelihood that most residents will not evacuate, even under an official order. And it requires adjusting federal flood-insurance guidelines to recognize that it is not possible to elevate an entire city. About two-thirds of Hoboken lies in the flood zone on new federal maps, but apart from the rare single-family homes, most buildings are apartment complexes or attached houses that cannot easily be mounted on pilings.

“The rules don’t work,” Mayor Zimmer said. “They’re looking at a fairly suburban approach. We need to carve out an urban approach. Because today it’s Hoboken, tomorrow, Boston.”

Zimmer’s recommendations for flood mitigation in her city include a variety of strategies: flood walls and gates surrounding the city; green roofs and porous pavement; relocating residents to higher floors of existing buildings and re-purposing lower floors as parking garages, or letting them remain empty; and giving the city the capability to disconnect from the electrical grid and move to its own independently powered system in case of emergency.

There are obstacles to each of these tactics. For instance, in a city with a sharply defined border, where real estate is at a premium, where are the apartments for vertical relocations going to come from? Will the power companies ever give up their single-handed grip on their customers? Who will pay for hard infrastructure such as floodgates?

But Zimmer is right when she says that coping with urban flooding is going to be an imperative in years to come. A quick look at the disturbing maps showing projected sea level rise in Boston over the next few decades gives some idea of the challenge ahead.

Small, geographically well-defined, and prosperous, Hoboken could provide a perfect laboratory where solutions suitable to similar communities on the Eastern Seaboard could be tested and modeled. Zimmer is obviously ready to get to work. The question is, will the state and federal government be ready to participate in the experiment?

Top image: New Jersey National Guard Soldiers assist displaced residents at the town of Hoboken, New Jersey. Four days after Sandy smashed into the Northeast, rescuers were still discovering the extent of the death and devastation, and anger mounted over gasoline shortages, power outages and waits for relief supplies. (Joseph Davis/U.S. Army photo/Reuters)

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.