The Future Waterfront: MWA Conference 2010

“2010 will bring New York City’s first Comprehensive Waterfront Plan in a generation. Will this plan be adequate? How will we implement it? A world-class waterfront is an expensive but worth-while investment. How can we secure the necessary capital dollars to build it and maintain it? How can New York and New Jersey get its share of funding for the restoration and improvement of our neglected estuary?” –Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance

This past Tuesday, the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance convened a diverse array of organizations and individuals to attempt to answer some of these questions and to dance around the elusive idea of a collective vision for the New York-New Jersey Harbor, home to the largest port on the Eastern Seaboard. The Department of City Planning will soon release Vision 2020, the City’s first comprehensive waterfront plan since 1992, yet the real future of New York’s waters appears considerably less in focus. Obscured by diverse cultural narratives and interests, shifting global trade mechanisms, transitioning regional economies, floundering ecological systems, pending sea level rise, limited funding, and rampant uncertainty, the path towards collaborative consensus among the diversity of stakeholders invested in the harbor — what many were amiably calling New York City’s “sixth borough” — is difficult to discern.

The choices of breakout sessions in the morning included workshops on ecology and economy and plans to get New York’s two million children on and in the water. I attended a panel titled “Future of the Port,” and learned that some parts of this puzzle resemble a giant game of Risk, with enormous plastic pieces. Robert Yaro of the Regional Plan Association presented the changing global dynamics of container shipping. Boats the size of the Empire State Building, called the Super Post-Panamax fleet, sit somewhere in the waters that sandwich Central America and wait to squeeze through that formally US-owned slit that is currently expanding, at great expense, to embrace them. In New York and New Jersey, many in the maritime industries hope to make similar accommodations in the harbor by dredging the existing beds (15 to 20 feet deep in most places) to a depth of 50 feet and adding at least 10 more feet of clearance to the Bayonne Bridge. Joseph Curto of the New York Shipping Association explained how the new depths will make New York sexier than competing ports in Norfolk, Newport News, Baltimore, and others that already have the appropriate depths, cheaper labor costs, and resolved locations for dredge material deposition. At least that is the hope. By seducing new ships to New York, we could see “an increase of 200,000 blue collar jobs,” an important and threatened form of well-paid employment that doesn’t require a graduate degree. However, there is a risk. After the dredging, upgrades and expansions, trade dynamics might still send all the ships to Los Angeles’ Long Beach port, or to the incredibly more sophisticated ports in Rotterdam and Hong Kong, as pointed out by Manju Chandrasekhar of Halcrow. There are also the dramatic ecological effects that such processes have on the harbor estuary — which was also once “world class,” as consultant Andrew Willner pointed out. I became anxious just thinking about it. One thing seems clear: after the first of these extremely large boats passes through the canal, predicted for 2015, the cargo business in New York Harbor will change. How it will change depends on who rolls the right dice and wins the battle.

For the first of the afternoon sessions, I attended “The Rising Tide from the Bottom Up: Climate Change Resiliency at the Community Level,” which reminded New Yorkers that residents in every borough are among the most vulnerable to adverse and unpredictable climate events predicted for the near future. The panel’s focus was how to prepare, equitably and appropriately, for such events. Following a choppy live feed from environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, panelists from the government, including Amber Greene from the Office of Emergency Management and Aaron Koch of the Mayor’s Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability, presented the familiar and requisite evocative and poorly animated maps conveying the parts of the city that would experience a storm surge given a variety of storm strengths and potential sea level heights, with data grids and charts to validate the visuals. The images, however, as many activists and officials fail to recognize, lack a personal immediacy for many audiences. A mother living on a block a mile inland in Brooklyn, for example, might not see the value in taking educational courses that teach flood preparation, regardless of whether her apartment falls inside a line that is yellow, orange or red. Elizabeth Yeampierre, from the Sunset Park community-based organization UPROSE, stressed that integrated and customized plans that cater to specific communities are essential for ground level buy-in and viable emergency response mechanisms. Whereas in Florida boarding up and sandbagging a home is as natural as covering a pool, in New York we have to take specific steps toward disseminating critical knowledge to empower individuals and families with the capacity to address crises as they arise.

The final afternoon panel I attended was titled “Show Us the Money: New Advocacy and Funding Mechanisms for Federal Dollars.” Whether a massive and centralized construction project like face-lifting a bridge or a decentralized educational program concerning the boarding of windows, most of the projects that touch the harbor come with substantial price tags if they are to achieve the scale of influence and effect required for success. Not surprisingly, project financing was the however-many-billion-pound gorilla in every room at the conference that day. The panel, representing a mix of government civil servants and environmental or conservation-driven NGO representatives, did not have any easy answers. The primary points they stressed were: 1) the importance of a collective and organized voice through collaboration, and 2) a clear agenda of well researched solutions. Curt Johnson of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment cited the organization’s achievements in the Long Island Sound while Chad Lord of the National Parks Conservation Association pointed to the success of the Great Lakes Coalition in capturing $475 million for the restoration of the Great Lakes’ waterways. Leveraging the statutory capacity of the Clean Water Act to funnel all the funding from the EPA enabled the coalition to realize a variety of projects through many different government agencies. The golden ticket again was the coalition’s success in establishing strong alliances by finding common interest among disparate organizations and advancing with a unified voice. When I left, I had yet to hear effective strategies on how to galvanize such strength.

What I did hear was that the institutions and individuals represented are the beginnings of the group that must come together with a collective vision. Overall, I imagine most of the attendees would agree with me that the event was a success, with progress made towards coming up with some shared, actionable answers to the questions the conference posed. However, as community organizing consultant Lee Stuart pointed out, those attending the conference are already a part of the “fifteen percent” that she considers “easy-ins.” That fifteen percent will participate in the movement regardless. That of course leaves the challenge of locating and incorporating the opinions, knowledge, and ideas of the remain 85%. Fifteen percent does not a social movement make. To achieve the inclusive strength required to realize a truly collective voice that might be sufficient to enact appropriate and sustainable responses to the issues facing the NY/NJ harbor, we need a participation model that moves beyond the conference, with its almost requisite structure of snapshot panels and pay-to-play participation. What that model might be, hopefully time will tell.

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Image: Super Post-Panamax via E.R. Schiffahrt.

Will Martin is a designer, media artist and a continuing resident artist in the UnionDocs Collaborative program for the research and production of non-fiction art. He lives in Brooklyn.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.



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