When Superstorm Sandy struck New York City in 2012, the maelstrom blew open the urban landscape’s social rifts. The devastation opportunely coincided with a surge in Occupy Wall Street populist activism, which helped patch some of the immediate wounds. But today, the political energy around “sustainable” rebuilding has dissipated, though many impacted neighborhoods are still struggling. As the governments worldwide respond to climate crisis, the city—and the country—has much to learn from Sandy’s aftermath.
As part of a long-term climate adaptation and mitigation effort, post-Sandy recovery has revealed many of the challenges that other cities will face as global warming escalates in the coming years: To safeguard cities from future disasters, cities need to improve infrastructural protection and promote ecologically conscious urban planning. Locally this means creating resilient local food, transit and energy systems that are responsive to global environmental pressures and accountable to local communities. And all this needs to be done by putting communities to work with stable, living-wage jobs that improve the environmental and labor conditions of local workers.
And as cities prepare for the Trump administration, both activists and policymakers face new risks, and opportunities, in a renewed role for urban communities in building environmentally conscious local democracy.
In some ways, New York City environmental-justice groups managed to avoid some of the mistakes seen in the wake of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast. New Orleans represents the nightmare scenario of a city that has struggled to implement economic- and environmental-justice measures after environmental disaster left poor communities of color displaced, exposed to economic exploitation, and politically marginalized in the rebuilding efforts.
After Sandy devastated New York’s poor coastline neighborhoods, the community-labor coalition ALIGN seized on the recovery effort to develop a model for rebuilding fairly in the most vulnerable communities.