Annie Best

Barney Bishop, Flickr

Barney Bishop, Flickr

Since Hurricane Sandy hit the shores of New York and New Jersey in 2012, there has been a concerted effort to protect the region – the most populous in the United States – from future disaster through improved resilience. Efforts have ranged from a planning and design competitive grant program funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Hurricane Sandy Task Force to the NYC Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Fix and Fortify program, which restores and strengthens transit infrastructure across New York City.

At the same time, concern about rising income inequality in New York City has grown. According to the U.S. Census, the top 5 percent of households in Manhattan earn 88 times more than the bottom 20 percent, with more people across the region living below the poverty line in 2013 than in prior years. While more extreme than most cities in the U.S., this general pattern mirrors demographic trends in urban areas across the country and around the world.

Last week, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio released a far-reaching agenda and plan that aims to tackle both of these issues at once by taking a holistic approach to urban resilience. OneNYC invests in physical resilience and CO2 emissions reductions as a tool for job creation, community development, and economic opportunity. This innovative take on 21st century city building could be used as a model for other urban areas facing similar challenges.

The Building Blocks

The plan uses four pillars – growth, equity, sustainability, and resilience – as its foundation. Within the plan, each of these focus areas relies on one another for success, recognizing that unchecked growth can potentially breed inequality, and that the need to bolster the city’s defenses against the climate challenge could be an unprecedented opportunity for innovation and job creation.

The New Ideas

While the specifics of any new initiatives have yet to be unveiled, OneNYC introduces a number of policy ideas to move New York City forward and advance our collective thinking about how to best prepare U.S. cities for the future, including the following three proposals:

  • Strategic transportation infrastructure investment: This uses the latest innovations in transportation engineering to enhance and expand the existing system to strengthen its resilience and create new connections between residents and jobs, schools, and recreation. This could take the form of enhanced transit service to disadvantaged neighborhoods, or service improvements to emerging regional employment centers.
  • Triple bottom line capital investment evaluation: Every city has a system for evaluating where, how, and when it spends its money on physical infrastructure. An implementable “triple bottom line” evaluation process that looks at the immediate environmental or accessibility effects and beyond to the social, economic, and resilience impacts could be a game changer for how effectively money is spent in U.S. cities.
  • Social cohesion as a strategy for resilience: In addition to large-scale infrastructure investments and goals for sustainability outcomes such as emissions reductions, the plan puts forth the neighborhood as the backbone of a finely-grained resilience strategy for the city. There would be an emphasis on defining and deepening the role of community institutions like businesses, community-based organizations, and houses of worship in resilience planning and plan implementation.

Stay tuned for more detail as the Mayor announces his capital budget proposal, which will drive many of these projects, in the coming weeks. Many of these ideas have been discussed as academic theory in the past. New York City’s size and resources will allow the OneNYC ideas to be tested and implemented in a “living lab” and potentially brought down to scale for other cities across the U.S. grappling with the same economic and environmental challenges.