• Sat. Feb 24th, 2024
How ‘unbuilding’ can help weather climate disasters |  Healthiest Communities Health News

There is more where it came from.

In a warming world, we can expect more devastating floods. A warmer atmosphere can contain more water vapor, which means more precipitation. As warm ocean waters expand and glaciers melt, sea levels rise, with severe consequences for coastal residents.

How can communities prepare for that water? For decades, we’ve tried to protect floodplain communities with more buildings: seawalls, levees, concrete river channels, pumping stations.

This concrete and metal infrastructure is important, but the next wave of development must be “unbuilding”—using plantings and landscaping to transform low-lying areas from gray funnels into green sponges. This approach favors waterfront parks, rain gardens, and other natural features that can channel floodwater back into streets and basements.

Following that work, dozens of community organizations have become part of a network, the Anthropocene Alliance, or A2, which helps local groups implement green solutions to flooding.

The partnership has worked for many.

“A2 is a small organization, but we have many brilliant community leaders in our ranks,” says Harriet Festing, Executive Director of A2. “That means we can do big things together, like proving that green infrastructure can mitigate climate change and create safer, healthier and more enjoyable urban spaces.”

Transforming the waterfront

The South Bronx, located at the confluence of the East and Harlem rivers, is also prone to flooding. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy brought waist-high flooding. But the region’s beaches also offer exciting opportunities for natural beauty and recreation in a community that could greatly benefit from more green space.

“Polluting facilities, fragile water bodies, and a lack of open green space all dramatically reduce the quality of life for people living in this neighborhood,” says Arif Ullah, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy organization South Bronx Unit. “It largely determines what kind of life a child can have.”

Today, much of the South Bronx waterfront is a restricted industrial zone, with residents protected by barriers such as highways and barbed wire. The Army Corps of Engineers’ plan threatens to worsen those conditions by building a seawall on land.

Neighbors have a better idea. The South Bronx Unit has developed a community-conceived plan for the waterfront that “includes open, green spaces that can be used by community members that act as meaningful defenses against flooding and mitigate pollution.”

The community plan previously won the support of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s advisory committee and received approval from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. All that is needed is the funds.

For South Bronx Unite — and many other community groups with good ideas — this is the hard part. Navigating the maze of public and private funding opportunities, each with its own requirements and paperwork, can be daunting. A2 is helping South Bronx Unite raise funds for pre-development work so the waterfront plan is “shovel-ready” and can attract major funding.

Sometimes the best way to prevent flooding is to preserve existing green space. In Newark, New Jersey, another A2 member, the Weequahic Park Association, is working to restore a 311-acre park designed by the Olmsted Brothers firm, the legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame, at the turn of the last century.

Anchored on an 80-acre lake, Weequahic Park is an island of green in a sea of ​​concrete. With Newark Airport and a busy container port, the park is surrounded by heavy — and polluting — industry. The lowest-income black and Latino neighborhoods near the park face multiple environmental assaults. Smoke from constant truck traffic contributes to high childhood asthma rates in Newark, as well as high cancer risk.

These neighborhoods are also prone to flooding. Once a vast expanse of wetlands along Newark Bay, the area around the airport is now covered in hard surfaces that cannot absorb flooding. So heavy rain means swamped cars and flooded basements. And, given the city’s concentration of industrial facilities, that floodwater could be contaminated with toxic chemicals.

Concerned about the park’s state of disrepair, neighbors formed the Weequahic Park Association in the 1990s. They succeeded in making improvements: replacing dead trees, preventing shoreline erosion, and adding recreational facilities. But there is still much to do. The lake in the park hides deep silt layers from nearby industrial sites; Visitors are not required to go by boat and eating fish caught in its waters is not recommended.

Although in a state of disrepair, the park serves an important function for the people of Newark. “During the pandemic, parks and green spaces have become a haven,” says Winnie-Fred Victor Hinds, executive director of the Weequahic Park Association.

Hinds sees an even bigger role for Weequahic Park as climate change unfolds. They describe the park as a “resilience hub” — a reference to critical infrastructure that mitigates the harmful impacts of climate change while providing recreation and recreation. The park’s forested areas can absorb floodwaters and purify the air; Its cooling shade can alleviate the urban heat island effect.

Hinds and her neighbors have developed an elaborate plan for the park’s future. A dredged and cleaned lake can once again support boating, healthy fisheries and other aquatic life. Native trees and pollinators feed beneficial insects and wildlife.

“The park can be a conservation laboratory where experts and community scientists can learn about ecosystems and find solutions to flooding and other problems,” says Hinds.

Hinds and other members of the association are now working with A2 to raise funds to make that vision a reality.

Amplifying community voices

Preparing for a hotter, wetter future starts with admitting there’s a problem.

In Rosemont, a predominantly black community in Charleston, those impacts reached. For years, residents have been wading through flooded streets following heavy rains, and the problem is only getting worse. But local officials remained unconvinced and concerned.

“Historically, decision-makers have focused on areas where they speak up and demand a response from their government,” says Mohammed. “Communities like Rosemont that don’t have a loud voice are left out of conversations, they’re left out of decision-making. When a tragedy happens, it’s, ‘Oh, we forgot about them’.

To help solve that problem, LAMC deployed a strategy known as “PhotoVoice” — encouraging residents to document conditions with their cellphones and then presenting those photos and stories to Charleston’s mayor and chief resiliency officer.

Within days, the community received a response from the city of Charleston asking, ‘How can we help?’,” says Muhammad.

That exchange won a $100,000 commitment from the city to help Rosemont develop a community-led prevention plan. Next, LAMC and its partners worked with A2 to raise an additional $300,000 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to identify and implement green infrastructure projects to prevent flooding in the area.

Possible projects include a living bank that restores a once storm-watered marsh, as well as rain gardens and rain barrels on private property that collect water and slowly release it back into the system without overflowing.

Although it partnered with experts such as hydrologists and landscape architects for the Rosemont project, LAMC did not rely solely on expert opinions.

“We want to put in place long-term, sustainable solutions that address the problems that the community identifies,” says Muhammad. “For that to work, our residents must be involved in every step of the project.”

To that end, LAMC created Community Advisory Boards that focus on residents’ voices and lived experiences.

“It leads to the kind of solutions that the community will embrace,” says Mohammed.

In Rosemont — as in the South Bronx and Newark — the push for “non-building” and green infrastructure comes from communities on the front lines of the climate emergency. Long neglected and underinvested, these neighborhoods face legacy pollution and the new threat of climate impacts. They organize and talk. They devise projects aimed at addressing long-standing injustices while building a greener, more resilient future.

Lori Mazur is the editor Island Press Urban Resilience ProjectSupported by the Kresge Foundation and the JPB Foundation. Foundations have partnered with the Anthropocene Alliance.

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