The Coastal Resilience of NYC (I)

By: Kyle Haynes

On October 29th, 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit New York City tragically killing 44 New Yorkers and causing over $19 billion in damages and economic losses. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed, more than 88,000 building were flooded, 23,000 businesses were impacted, and infrastructure throughout the city was substantially disrupted. It was described by Mayor Bloomberg as “the worst natural disaster ever to hit New York City.”

In response to this devastating storm, the city government of New York City has invested heavily in increasing the resiliency of their city. The water around New York is the lifeblood of the community, but it also represents its greatest threat. New York City had the foresight and leadership to emerge from Hurricane Sandy a stronger and more resilient city. The city is making investments to not just prepare for the next storm. Following the storm, Mayor Bloomberg had this to say about the future of the New York City:

“In our vision of a stronger, more resilient city, many vulnerable neighborhoods will sit behind an array of coastal defenses. Waves rushing toward the coastline will, in some places, be weakened by offshore breakwaters or wetlands, while waves that do reach the shore will find more nourished beaches and dunes that will shield inland communities. In other areas, permanent and temporary floodwalls will hold back rising waters, and storm surge will meet raised and reinforced bulkheads, tide gates, and other coastal protections.”

Described above is a vision that would make New York City a much stronger community and one that protects its coastline and inhabitants with multiple lines of defense from future storms. However, as crucial as coastal protection is, New York is also investing in increasing the resilience of the neighborhoods, infrastructure, transportation network, economy, food security, among many other systems. The coastal protection and the resiliency of New York City is where I chose to focus the following research. By understanding the risk and coastal vulnerability to rising sea levels and climate change impacts, it became apparent that coastal resiliency isn’t just about protecting the coastline.

Coastal protection and resiliency are interconnected to all of the social, economic, and ecological systems of the city. Therefore, this report summarizes the particular importance of building coastal resilience in New York City but will also clarify the term “resilience,” identify how city governments assess their vulnerabilities, describe what planning efforts and strategies New York have developed, and highlight the significance of leadership throughout the recovery and resilience planning efforts. The end goal is to build my subject matter expertise in coastal resiliency by studying the efforts of New York City to increase their resiliency.

Defining Coastal Resilience

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), coastal resilience means “building the ability of a community to “bounce back” after hazardous events such as hurricanes, coastal storms, and flooding – rather than simply reacting to impacts.” Furthermore, the NOAA definition of coastal resilience explains that “a community that is more informed and prepared will have a greater opportunity to rebound quickly from weather and climate-related events, including adapting to sea level rise.”

The ability to recover more quickly can reduce adverse health, environmental, and economic impacts. This definition views resilience as a system instead of compartmentalizing the coastline from the rest of the city and its inhabitants. Therefore, “the ability of a community to successfully recover is linked to the strengths and capacities of individuals, families, businesses, schools, hospitals, and other parts of the community” (NOAA, What is Resilience?).

Lastly, “resilience is our ability to prevent a short-term hazard event from turning into a long-term community-wide disaster. While most communities effectively prepare themselves to respond to emergency situations, many are not adequately prepared to recover in the aftermath” (NOAA, What is Resilience?). This summarizes why it so important to assess a city’s vulnerabilities in order to adequately prepare, plan, mitigate, and recover from a natural disaster.

Assessing the Risk and Vulnerability of NYC

New York is not alone in its need to build coastal resilience. “The impacts of climate change are being seen and felt by coastal communities across the world as increased intensity and frequency of storms and hurricanes, coupled with sea level rise, are changing the land and seascape dramatically, forcing cities, organizations, and nations to reconsider how and where to invest its coastal resources.”

Devastating storms and floods affect hundreds of millions of people, including infrastructure, tourism, and the potential of significant losses to local and national economies and livelihoods. As a result, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has emerged as a leader in the development of coastal resilience planning efforts. Since 2007, TNC has led the development of Coastal Resilience, “an approach and online decision support tool to help address the devastating effects of climate change and natural disasters.” The online mapping tool provides support for planners, government officials, and communities to develop risk reduction, restoration, and resilience strategies. TNC recommends the following four critical steps for coastal resilience planning efforts:

  • Assess risk and vulnerability to coastal flood hazards including current and future storms and sea level rise
  • Identify solutions for reducing flood-related risk across social, economic and ecological systems
  • Take action at priority conservation and restoration sites to help communities identify and implement nature-based risk reduction solutions
  • Measure effectiveness to ensure that efforts to reduce flood risk while increasing community and ecosystem resilience are successful

Coastal resilience planning is data driven and is intended to utilize the best information available to assess vulnerabilities to use systems-thinking and a holistic approach to planning. Furthermore, “the best solutions to these challenges may depend less on current development and modern infrastructure, and more on rethinking the value of existing or restored natural resources.” The Natural Solutions Toolkit explores nature-based solutions by:

  • Developing hybrid approaches that link natural and built defense structures
  • Managing freshwater resources in innovative ways to benefit nature, economy, and society
  • Connecting freshwater resources to coastal habitats and communities
  • Accounting for multiple ocean benefits provided by various ecosystems
  • Reducing water treatment costs for downstream cities while protecting biodiversity, storing carbon, and improving human health and well-being in upstream watersheds
  • Using water markets to incentives water conservation and reallocate saved water back to freshwater and estuary ecosystems

[In Part II of this four-part series, scheduled for publication on May 28th, Haynes will discuss the impacts of recent hurricanes on NYC, and what is required to build a stronger, more resilient city.]


Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) alumni (2017) Kyle Haynes is an environmental consultant and sustainability professional with over eight years of experience in natural resource management. As a consultant, he leads environmental studies for transportation and infrastructure projects throughout the mid-Atlantic.  Additionally, he is a certified Envision Sustainability Professional and Virginia DEQ Combined Administrator in Stormwater Management and Erosion and Sediment Control. Kyle also has a BS in Geography from Radford University.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: Michael Muraz; Patrick McFall; Roman Iakoubtchik; and Pamela Andrade.


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