Reuters

One more sign it's time to rethink our planning for natural disasters.

New York, and every other city, was built with certain climactic baselines in mind. This much rain, this much snow, this much heat, this many floods. They form a core set of assumptions about the kind of infrastructure the city needs. Institutions grow up around that set of givens; they are a fixed point in the otherwise tumultuous process of urban governance. Maps are created showing the 100-year flood zones; they show the places that have a one-percent change of being flooded in any given year. 

floodplains.jpg
A map like this might once have been reassuring to those beyond the yellow. Their flood risk seemed minimal. And then came climate change to disrupt the baseline. 
 
Today, the Wall Street Journal reports that fully two-thirds of the houses damaged by Sandy were outside the 100-year flood zone. As their headline put it, "Sandy Alters 'Reality." 
 
Which is a fascinating way to look at it: reality, for some intents and purposes, is a bureaucratic fiction based on the way things were, institutional necessity, and accepted statistical practices. That reality influences housing prices, guides maintenance spending, and sets the boundaries for emergency planning. One reason climate change is going to be so hard and expensive to deal with is that it destroys that infrastructure, the soft, spreadsheety kind, not just the brick-and-steel stuff that gets built with that information undergirding it.
 
New York has to rethink, Mayor Bloomberg has realized. "The yardstick has changed, and so must we," he said in a speech quoted by the Journal. The rest of the country's cities and mayors won't be far behind.
 
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo of the Eiffel Tower with the words "Made for Sharing" projected on it
    Life

    How France Tries to Keep English Out of Public Life

    France has a long history of using official institutions to protect the French language from outside influence. Still, English keeps working its way in.

  2. Warren Logan
    Transportation

    A City Planner Makes a Case for Rethinking Public Consultation

    Warren Logan, a Bay Area transportation planner, has new ideas about how to truly engage diverse communities in city planning. Hint: It starts with listening.

  3. Workers in a recycling facility sort material on a conveyer belt.
    Environment

    How American Recycling Is Changing After China’s National Sword

    Times have been hard for U.S. recycling since China tightened its contamination standards, and local programs are trying to adjust.

  4. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

  5. a photo of the L.A. Metro Expo Line extension
    Life

    Why Can’t I Take Public Transit to the Beach?

    In the U.S., getting to the beach usually means driving. But some sandy shores can still be reached by train, subway, and bus.

×