‘Whether we like it or not, we need to adapt our city to manage the mounting risks that sea-level rise and climate change pose to New York’s waterfront communities.’

Jim Hendersen

The Hutchinson River as it flows into Eastchester Bay in the Bronx.

The design of our coastal cities has increasingly become straight, concrete, and hard. Instead of learning from nature, we have created physical barriers: concrete bulkheads, pavements, railings, and fences, that keep us from being able to touch the water. We have also created social barriers: parks paid for by luxury housing; crumbling infrastructure lacking resources and public investment; systemic inequities that keep some people out, and some people in.  

A study by The Pew Charitable Trusts found that 14 percent of U.S. coastlines are what researchers describe as “armored,” or fortified by rock or hardened structures. Other studies show that if we keep going at this rate, as much as one third of our natural coasts could be hardened by 2100. Yet we know that natural shorelines suffer less damage and recover more quickly from devastating coastal storms. The breathing curvatures that provide nooks and crannies for wildlife also absorb our rising tides.  

These physical and social constructs are worsening New York City’s greatest threat: climate change. The last several weeks have been marked by intense hurricanes, flooding and loss of life across the Country. In June, the president rolled back parts of the National Environmental Policy Act which, while imperfect, helps to reduce environmental impacts to coastal development. 

Whether we like it or not, we need to adapt our city to manage the mounting risks that sea-level rise and climate change pose to our communities. To do this, we need to understand how each millimeter of New York City 520 miles of coastline is an amalgamation of our physical and social landscapes, rooted in stories of our past, our present, and hints at what we will become in the future. 

Let’s go back. We live in a place carved out by glacial activity long ago with soil that is rich with potential. This was a landscape thick with detritus. Marshes and great forests teeming with life. These shorelines were the nurseries of the sea. In pre-colonial times you could hunt and fish while seemingly never exhausting the supply. 

“The ancient ones” or the Lenape, the original peoples of this land, would have come here to laugh, to share their harvest and what they had fished and collected out of the brackish waters nearby. The elders would gather here in ceremony to, in part, tell stories that they never wanted their descendants and the soil and plants around them to ever forget. 

At present, our coastal lands are under threat. The physical barriers we have built to fortify our waterfronts against rising tides and worsening storms are decaying and insufficient. At the same time, investment in creative, nature-based resiliency solutions—beautiful sponge parks, living shorelines, rainwater harvesting systems and playgrounds with green roofs—are often limited for the rich.

Funding for great waterfront parks is largely generated by private development, which happens in wealthier, often whiter waterfront communities. Our systems are built to favor private interests, which is why New York City’s Parks constituted less than 0.6 percent of the city’s budget last year. And in waterfront neighborhoods with the highest need, only nine percent of the waterfront is publicly accessible, compared to 37 percent region-wide. 

As a city, we are long overdue to untangle and imagine solutions for these social and physical barriers to equitable access.  Above all, dismantling these barriers will require changing our flawed systems for public participation in waterfront land-use decisions. In New York City, we missed an opportunity last year to fundamentally change the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) in the City Charter Revision, which could have centered communities in planning decisions about resiliency and access. 

Over the last year, I have co-chaired a task force on equitable waterfront access, led by the Waterfront Alliance, calling on city agencies to be held to a higher standard for engaging working class, immigrant, and lower-income communities of color in decision-making. Our task force is calling for accountability and transparency for how diverse public input is used in project outcomes. We are calling for more opportunities for young people, including a New York State Senate to pass a bill that would require climate resiliency education in public school curriculum. We are calling for nature-based solutions to be prioritized for all communities. 

And lastly, we are calling for changes within ourselves. As environmental organizations advocating for “equity” on the waterfront, we need to commit to dismantling structural racism internally and as it affects the communities we serve. 

This is just the start. We have a long way to go. But as long as we can imagine what a more equitable waterfront looks like, we can start chipping away at the systemic barriers to true public access.

Ibrahim Abdul-Matin is an urban strategist whose work focuses on deepening democracy and improving public engagement around infrastructure policy, land use processes, strategies for climate adaptation and resilience. He co-chaired the Waterfront Alliance Public Access for All Task Force. He lives in New York City.