Considering the future of Urban Climate Resilience: Dependence vs. Autonomy & Solidarity

by: Jessica Serrante

Daniel Aldana Cohen’s “Carboniferous” map in “Nonstop Metropolis: A New York Atlas”, R Solnit and J Jelly-Schapiro, 2016. Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Bette Burgoyne.
“Disasters are extraordinarily generative, and though disaster utopias occur again and again, there is no simple formula for what arises; it has everything to do with who or what individuals or communities were before the disaster and the circumstances they find themselves in”
A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit (Solnit, 2009; 22)


The global ecological crisis of climate change is becoming more visible daily. Climate change is responsible for several years in a row of record breaking heat waves, the increasing strength and frequency of superstorms, glacial melt which will result in dramatic sea level rise within as soon as the next fifty years and much more (Rice, 2016). The impacts are severe and though no human community is immune, this is especially so for communities who have the least resources to begin with (Smith, 2016). No one knows for certain how the destabilizing of the earth’s systems will ultimately manifest, but we can be confident that it is already becoming a defining characteristic of this time.

In a moment where the US should be doing everything it can to put out the fire of the climate crisis, Donald Trump, president elect of the United States, has appointed Scott Pruitt, a climate denier, at the top of the Environmental Protection Agency, essentially lighting another match instead of reaching for buckets of water. As the stakes get higher and the odds get worse, there is a crucial question at hand for those who are committed to climate justice: “How must cities change in the face of a changing climate?”. The present truth of course is, as shown the by devastation left in the wake of storms like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Hurricane Sandy in New York, that these cities are already changing.

In New York City, the looming threat of storm surges and sea level rise threatens to turn coastal neighborhoods such as Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Long Island City, Red Hook, and nearly all of coastal Brooklyn and Queens into real life Atlantises within as soon as the next 50–200 years. (Rice, 2016. “Mapping Choices: Which Sea Level Will We Lock in?”). Catastrophic flooding will become more common as the climate warms, and as the sea level rises, the impact of each storm surge will become more dangerous to the communities that the water encroaches upon. Some of the city’s most crucial infrastructure systems are already at risk as today’s storm surges threaten to overwhelm sewers and the subway system. Already, the MTA is unable to insure the subways with traditional flood insurance, and has been forced into utilizing a strange debt instrument called “catastrophe bonds” to protect itself against the omnipresent potential of disaster. (Rice, 2016. “Mapping Choices: Which Sea Level Will We Lock in?”)

It is hard to know exactly how climate change will impact New York City. In part that is because some change is already “locked in” as a result of atmospheric carbon pollution that has already happened. It is also because the world is still trying to turn the tide on how much pollution continues to be spewed into the atmosphere through global political collaboration on efforts like the Paris Agreement, which has set a goal of cutting emissions so that global warming doesn’t exceed 1.5–2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures. The worst of the ecological changes that we face will depend on the extent to which these emission cuts happen and how quickly, but even if we manage to curb the warming at 2 degrees Celsius, that could mean roughly 10 feet in sea level rise which would put most of Brooklyn’s waterfront, the Lower East Side, the Rockaways, Coney Island and Battery Park City under water. (Rice, 2016)

Map of projected flood zones in New York City. The map shows what is projected to happen within the next 200–2,000 years, depending on different pollution pathways through 2100. (“Mapping Choices: Which Sea Level Will We Lock in?” )

Climate change may be the greatest risk to life in New York that the city has ever faced (Rice, 2016) and the City’s response has been varied and contradictory. In response to Hurricane Sandy, the City has invested $20 Billion dollars into the “NYC Build it Back” program which aims to bolster economic and social resiliency and invest in fortification projects such rebuilding homes destroyed in Hurricane Sandy on stilts, and the “Big-U”, a 10 mile berm that is designed to protect low-lying geographical areas of lower Manhattan from storm surges and sea level rises. (“Is NYC Ready for Serious Sea Level Rise: a Talk with Klaus Jacob (Transcript).”, 2016. Rice, 2016 ). This investment is happening as the City simultaneously invests in luxury apartments and massive development projects such as the World Trade Center, Hudson Yards, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, all within the projected floodplain for 2050.

What does it mean that the City is investing billions of dollars into luxury developments on “climate vulnerable”¹ coastlines while investing billions into post-Sandy rebuilding and a seawall in Lower Manhattan? The city has 520 miles of coastline, so while the “Big-U” may be a strategic attempt to protect businesses and communities in the floodplain in that part of the city, the vast majority of the climate vulnerable coastal areas remain unprotected. Critics of the City’s responses to the impending changes the city faces from climate change say that the current city planning efforts are both shortsighted and ultimately irrelevant (Rice, 2016), and I would agree. There are seemingly countless contradictions surrounding climate action in New York City. The City funds a panel on climate change, a project started by Mayor Bloomberg, and the Mayor’s office of Recovery and Resiliency, an office that “leads the City’s efforts to build a stronger, more resilient New York by [guiding the city to] strengthen coastal defenses, upgrade buildings, protect infrastructure and critical services, and make our homes, businesses, and neighborhoods safer and more vibrant” (“NYC Mayors Office of Recovery and Resiliency”).

This work to strengthen and support NYC communities happens while the City government also seems to be in denial of just how soon the changing climate will fundamentally change the landscape on which New York City sits. Perhaps, in part this is a result of the need to juggle climate action with responding to the immediate needs of today’s voters. The rising sea level seems like such a distant and abstract threat when there is a worsening housing crisis to attend to and investors are pouring billions into New York’s booming real estate market.

[1] Throughout this paper I will use the term “climate vulnerable” to refer to land areas that are seen as being most at risk of threats to human life during severe weather events and as a result sea level rises created by climate change. It is also important to note that vulnerability tends to be highly differentiated (as exemplified by the city of New Orleans, where the most low-lying and therefore vulnerable to flooding communities tend to be low income communities and communities of color). When I use the term “climate vulnerable communities” throughout this paper, I am referring to 1. Communities of people who are likely to be the first to be affected by extreme weather and flooding 2. Those low-income and working class communities whose vulnerability to disaster is increased by a lack of financial resources to respond to and mitigate the risks they face 3. Those communities whose vulnerability to disaster is increased by a lack of social and political will to protect them, as it is related to discrimination, typically communities of color (Smith, 2006. Worth, 2015.)


We may refer to this time as the era of global climate change, or, as the anthropocene, a geological era which is defined by the impact of human behavior on the environment and the climate. As the earth changes, the capitalist global economic system, which is fundamentally dependent on access to the earth’s natural resources (and a mythical interminable abundance of those resources), will be dramatically affected in turn (Movement Generation, 2015: 21–24). This change will likely exacerbate the problems created by what is already dramatic urban economic inequity, and thus now is the moment for climate, economic, and racial justice activists alike to be thinking critically about how to facilitate and co-create a just transition to whatever the next ecological and economic reality of our society will be.²

The question remains: How will American cities change in the face of a changing climate? I assert that within this question, there is a choice that we have to make between dependence on the current political structures, which as shown above have taken contradictory and mediocre action on climate change thus far and as I will outline, have repeatedly failed to meet the survival needs of the most climate vulnerable communities in times of disaster or of autonomy. If we choose autonomy, to take it upon ourselves to design the future ourselves rather than relying on systems that have proven inadequate, then we must build it based on principles of deep democracy, equity, sustainability and solidarity and reclaim the powerful notion of Resilience (Movement Generation, 2016) as environmental justice groups such as Brooklyn’s UPROSE and Oakland’s Movement Generation already have.³

As we look forward at the work ahead, it benefits us as well to look back and to develop a deep understanding of how American society has tended to respond to natural disasters. This historical knowledge will support those who want to create truly just and equitable responses to the climate crisis to design the future with a clear understanding of the social, political and economic basis from which we begin our work. As climate change worsens, and powerful storms hit land at a growing rate we will need to expand our understanding of the successes and failures of our society’s current capacity to respond to these disasters as well as to clarify our vision for what we want that response to be in the future.

There are several consistencies that we have seen about how federal and city governments and local communities have responded to recent disasters in American cities. In the forthcoming paragraphs, I will use my primary and secondary research on Occupy Sandy’s grassroots response to New York’s most recent climate disaster, Hurricane Sandy, as examples of how these consistencies have played out. Some of these consistencies are heartening and some are dismal, and all are important in order to create a future of just, equitable response to the changing climate:

[2] The question of what this next economic reality will be is a fascinating and crucial one, but I do not seek to answer that question in this paper. Recognizing the fact that the threat we face is economic as well as ecological is a crucial element to piecing together what the future will look like. This is largely because if the changing climate indeed destabilizes the economy, the worst impacts will disproportionately fall on those who are already disenfranchised by the current economy.

[3] Resilience is often criticized as having become a buzzword, and thus, I recognize that to use this word without properly clarifying what I mean by it, may be controversial. In section III, I will further discuss the various understandings of the notion of resilience and clarify what I mean by it here as well as different way that the term is read and utilized.

1. Communities don’t typically see these disasters coming, and thus are unprepared for the loss of their basic urban survival infrastructure such as food access, power, water, sewage, transportation and medical services.

Photos from Victoria Berber’s “WOW ROCKAWAY” Photo Series

This, perhaps is an obvious element of natural disasters. The sites of the types of disasters that will worsen as the climate gets warmer (hurricanes, flash floods, wildfires, and tornadoes) will rarely get more than a few days notice that such a disaster is about to strike (with the exception of earthquakes which may hit with no warning, and droughts which have tended approach in ways more easily visible at a distance). The lesson from this self-evident truth may simply be that we will not see these disasters coming, and in most cases the urban infrastructure on which we depend will not be prepared to withstand it. New York City communities, particularly those who are most climate vulnerable — low income communities within the floodplain — stand to be thinking about how they want to prepare themselves for when the next superstorm strikes, which science is clear that it will, most likely before the end of the century (Rice, 2016).

After an interview that I did with her for my primary research on Occupy Sandy, organizer and filmmaker Sofia Gallisa Muriente shared with me a film collage that she edited of images and sounds recorded by Superstorm Sandy survivors throughout the Northeastern United States. The film’s footage is cell phone and handheld-camera footage from the days leading up to the storm to the days after, and demonstrates this personal and infrastructural overwhelm through the personal and emotional experiences of the videographers in reaction to severe wind destroying their neighborhoods by knocking trees into homes, electrical fires, home and street flooding and the rising ocean line that they were witnessing and experiencing. Below is Gallisa Muriente’s film:

“Sandy Witness” by Sofia Gallisa Muriente

2. In times of disaster, people tend come together and act with kindness and generosity to support their neighbors in need.

Photos from Victoria Berber’s “WOW ROCKAWAY” Photo Series

There is a myth that humans are essentially selfish and will turn on one another in trying times that permeates mainstream culture. This story is rooted in fear and affirmed by a spectacle making media, but as writer Rebecca Solnit proves in her book A Paradise Built In Hell, “When all the ordinary divided and patterns are shattered, people step up — not all, but the great preponderance — to become their brothers’ keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amid death, chaos, fear and loss” (Solnit, 2016).

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Solnit’s claim proved to be true yet again. In Rockaway, Queens, the most immediate relief efforts were characterized largely by the spontaneous emergence of Occupy Sandy, “a grassroots disaster relief network that emerged to provide mutual aid to communities” (“Occupy Sandy Recovery.”). Occupy Sandy was a decentralized, volunteer run group which organized themselves wherever they could, in churches, soup kitchen’s assembled under carport canopies, storefronts that survived the floods and the streets of New York as well as online, on Organizers and volunteers offered services that the community needed the most: They organized flood clean up and mold remediation crews, medical tents, soup kitchens, knocked on doors and brought food and medical support to the elderly and homebound, collected and distributed donations, provided resources on conflict resolution, legal assistance, tenant rights and resources for immigrants.

In my interview with her, Sofia summed up the ethos that drove her to do the work that she did in the Rockaways: “Occupy Sandy was about mutual aid. With my heart on my sleeve I’m going to knock on your door and see if there is anything that i can do for you, with no professional hurricane dealing skills. My intention is to be useful to you.” (Gallisa Muriente) Her quote sums up spirit of generosity that was at the heart of the work that Occupy Sandy did, which can be seen time and again as communities come together in the aftermath of disaster (Solnit, 2016)

3. Formal and federal emergency response organizations cannot be relied upon for meeting either immediate post-disaster survival needs nor for the long term work of rebuilding homes and social and economic centers. In some cases, they make matters worse.

Occupy Sandy organized to support survivors and relief volunteers alike, providing ways for those in need of and offering support to connect with one another without relying on official relief organizations like FEMA, the Red Cross and the NYC Department of Health, which were lacking in their presence or altogether absent from the Rockaways in the days and weeks after the storm hit (“Occupy Sandy a People-Powered Emergency Response: Sofía Gallisa Muriente at TEDxHampshireCollege”). The Red Cross, NYPD, and FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose mission is to “support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate all hazards” (“About The Agency”) didn’t arrive to the Rockaways until two weeks after the storm according to Occupy Sandy Organizers . FEMA, for example, certainly had a role to play in providing written resources to teach people crucial response skills such as how to how to clean up mold from their flooded houses or providing funding for disaster case management in the months afterward, but volunteers were the experts on the ground to the extent that when the Red Cross did arrive in the Rockaways, they were following Occupy Sandy’s leadership (Gallisa Muriente).

In moments of disaster, the elite have a tendency to believe that since they are no longer in control, that the situation itself must be out of control. They take repressive and often militarized action in response which creates a secondary disaster (Solnit 2009; 21). While I have not heard accounts of this in the case of Hurricane Sandy, power struggles are not uncommon in disaster scenarios. Accounts of the days after Hurricane Katrina are pervaded with stories of violent and militarized police who enforced an early curfew by pointing guns at those who were found outside of their (flooded) homes and held those trying to evacuate the decimated city at gunpoint (and in several cases, killing them, as in the case of events on the Danziger Bridge).

4. If it is to be done, the heavy lifting of immediate relief labor as well a just, community centered long term rebuilding program needs to come from volunteers.⁴ ⁵

Photos from Victoria Berber’s “WOW ROCKAWAY” Photo Series

If we can indeed trust our neighbors and federal relief organizations do not reliably show up to do the immediate relief labor, it bears highlighting that this work, if it is to be done, will happen by the hands of volunteers. The logic of my point may be overt, however it demonstrates that as we consider how to build resilience in our communities, community members must recognize that they are their own first responders, and own that the most urgent relief work (work that is often a matter of life or death) may be theirs to do.⁶

This is also the case when it comes to the long term work of rebuilding. During my interview, Sofia told me a story of an Occupy Sandy volunteer who spoke with a FEMA relief worker about rebuilding the Rockaways. In their conversation, the worker said in essence “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but the government isn’t going to take care of this. It’s going to have to be volunteers who rebuild this place” (Gallisa Muriente). In the Rockaways, rebuilding work has indeed happened thanks to non-government organizations such as Wildfire Rockaway, which has supported the community by building a broad-based coalition, organizing a community benefits agreement and engaging in political education to ensure that residents have a say in redevelopment and land use in the Rockaways. Similarly, Worker Owned Rockaway Cooperatives has supported the community by equipping Far Rockaway residents with the skills and financing that they need in order to create small worker-owned businesses that fill needs in their community (“Occupy Sandy Recovery”).

[4] There is an important but unanswered question for me here about the funding of this work, however. At this time, I’m unclear where funding for relief work tends to come, where it tends to be allocated and on what sort of timeline (i.e. If the Red Cross or FEMA had federal money to fund immediate relief work, storm victims in the Rockaways most likely didn’t see that money until at least two weeks later).

[5] Here I am referring to relief as the immediate, life saving and survival oriented work of providing for a community’s needs in the wake of a disaster, when the infrastructure that they depend upon in daily life such as power, water, food and medical services have been lost or destroyed.

[6] This point may lead us to ask a question that will play an important role in considering the future of climate resiliency, which will be addressed in the next section: “If my neighbor is the one who may save my life in the event of a disaster, how do we want to relate, organize our community and prepare ourselves now?”

5. The most vulnerable communities will be the most vulnerable populations during and after a disaster.

Historically, some of the harshest negative impacts of catastrophic weather events in the US have come as a result of poor preparation and inadequate emergency response and have fallen disproportionately on low income communities and communities of color. CUNY Professor, Neil Smith, in his post-Katrina article “There’s No Such Thing As A Natural Disaster” says that “It is generally accepted among environmental geographers that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. In every phase and aspect of a disaster — causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction — the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus” (Smith, 2006). By this logic, it is no coincidence that studies have shown that low income communities and communities of color in New York and New Jersey were among the hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy and continue to struggle to find housing in the years since the storm (Worth, 2015).


The consistencies that I’ve outlined above point to conclusions which some groups in the climate movement, particularly leaders and members of climate vulnerable communities have drawn long-ago. In response to the choice of dependence on systems that are reliably inequitable or autonomy, many of these leaders and their communities are paving the way for the rest of the climate movement by reclaiming the notion resilience as a reflection of their choice of autonomy.

Resilience remains a highly contested term in the climate movement today. The word is often critiqued as having become a buzzword that it is over used and hence has lost its meaning, and rightly so. From the White House to the Rockefeller foundation, institutional bodies which uphold the current political status quo have adopted the word within their work, which in many cases does not align with the needs of the communities who have the most at stake. In mainstream conversations about “climate resilience,” the term has been reduced to near synonymy with “surviving” and has come to imply that its work stops at mitigation, leaving space for capitalist economics to continue to wreak havoc on the most climate vulnerable communities while they are asked to weather the worst impacts of climate change with their “resilience” (Movement Generation, 2016). This framework is not only an unambitious structure from which to create the future, but it is also downright dangerous. This understanding of resilience, allows institutions (such as the aforementioned) to pass the responsibility for dealing with climate change on to those who are most severely impacted by it.

Much of the existing public discourse around responding to climate change has to do with mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation has come to mean the reduction of the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and to a lesser extent, increasing carbon sequestration. Mitigation discourse is largely a world of resource intensive high tech solutions and unfortunately, it tends to exacerbate social inequality. Adaptation is “the process of responding to the impending or inevitable consequences of the climate disruption already set in motion that, due to lag-effect, cannot be avoided or reversed” (Movement Generation, 2016: 23–24). As we seek to answer the question “How must cities change in the face of a changing climate?”, mitigation and adaptation will likely be crucial elements of the answer, but left alone, the solutions they have produced thus far have sometimes perpetuated or ignored the injustices created by these strategies’ solutions.

In response to these shortfalls in the climate movement’s current strategies, some environmental justice groups have chosen to define resilience on their own terms. In their report “Pathways to Resilience” ecological justice organization, Movement Generation, has defined resilience as “the capacity of a system (whether a community or an economy) to maintain an intact core identity in the face of change, and a state of dynamic balance within which change can be avoided or recovered from without a fundamental transition to a new form.” Movement Generation articulates a vision of resilience that centers a process of moving from our current economy to the next economy (a change that they say is inevitable, as a result of the dramatic ecological changes that are already underway) which they call a Just Transition. The organization emphasizes that this transition is being lead by those who are experiencing the worst impacts of the current economy and that their vision of resilience is guided by efforts to“(a) respond to the current effects of climate disruption, (b) prevent new impacts, and © remake their relationships to each other and the natural word in ways that are deeply rooted in place.” They continue to describe this vision as one that comes from “an ancient wisdom that says economic activity — if it is to be sustainable — must be subordinated to the governing principles of living systems, as it has been for most of human history” (Movement Generation, 2016; 23).

One of the communities that Movement Generation’s definition of resilience alludes to is UPROSE, an environmental justice organization from the Sunset Park Neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. UPROSE, in collaboration with local community members, have created the Sunset Park Climate Justice Center. The center was founded in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to help the local community to “adapt to the changing climate, prepare for the next storm and put the neighborhood on a block-by-block, building-by-building path to sustainability, adaptation and resilience” (UPROSE). Through deeply listening and engaging with community members to understand the personal impacts and challenges that people faced as a result of Hurricane Sandy, the Climate Justice Center has come up with community resilience strategies and climate adaptation projects to make their homes, neighborhood blocks, and their community at large more sustainable and resilient. The Climate Justice Center has defined resilience in their own terms, and have defined their mission as such:

To build the capacity of Sunset Park’s indigenous leaders and local businesses to effectively respond to future severe weather events, coordinate the allocation of community resources, and mitigate the impacts of future severe weather, including the possible release of harmful chemicals; such capacity will enable the community to care for itself and to enter the future not as passive victim, but as active designer and agent. (Resiliency)
To engage community members and local businesses in leadership development and in a block-by-block, building-by-building assessment, mapping and relationship–building process to create, implement and manage a truly grassroots-led climate adaptation and community resiliency plan. (Adaptation and Resiliency)
To develop the tools and partnerships needed to transition the Sunset Park Industrial area from a traditional 20th Century industrial operations model into a 21st Century climate resilient and sustainable industrial area adapted to climate change; such a transition will ensure the long term availability of business development and employment opportunities for NYC’s largest walk-to-work community, Sunset Park. (Adaptation)
To engage community residents and local businesses in the public processes (land use planning, infrastructure design, permitting, etc.) required to adapt the community’s infrastructure to climate change. (Adaptation and Resiliency)

Organizations such as UPROSE and Movement Generation are actively engaged in creating a vision for the future with and for their constituencies that is rooted in values for deep-democracy, equity, sustainability, and justice. Understanding and thinking critically about the future of the climate movement in terms of the the implications of the aforementioned consistencies and by extension the choice of autonomy and resilience, is not just the work of those who see themselves as part of climate vulnerable communities. I assert it is the work of all people who see themselves as part of the global climate movement. The changes that cities will undergo both ecologically and economically will most likely leave very few, if any communities unimpacted, though it will likely be highly differentiated as a result of preexisting social inequity (Smith, 2006), so all will be affected by the choices that the climate movement makes today about how to act in response to the climate crisis.

If we are to act in order to articulate and realize a vision for the future that is just, sustainable, equitable and democratic, than solidarity across economic, social and racial groups must inherently be a part of it. If the climate movement as a whole chooses autonomy, solidarity and resilience, how might we strategize, organize, speak, write and design our work, and therefore the future we are collectively working toward differently? What might it look like if being prepared to do just relief and resilience work was at the heart of the whole climate movement’s mission and identity? These are questions for the current and future members of the climate movement to consider. It seems likely that when it comes to climate change, the situation will get much more dire before things start to get better. Many will be displaced from the land where they have built their livelihoods because of the rising seas and the forthcoming floods, droughts, heatwaves and other climate related disasters. As this happens, those of us who see ourselves as part of the climate movement will need to evolve our collective identity as a global movement for resistance against the forces and powers-that-be which create climate change to more wholly include expertise at building collective resilience and responding to disasters with autonomy and solidarity.

This evolution in identity is already underway, as those communities who are experiencing the worst effects of climate change and the global capitalist economic system are articulating a new vision for emergency relief work as well as the building of deeply democratic and resilient communities (Movement Generation, 2015; 23). Their leadership is the model upon which the rest of the climate movement may learn to deeply integrate the values of justice, sustainability, equity and deep democracy into their strategies. It is possible that our most inspiring visions and effective strategies have yet to be put into action, and maybe, by grappling with these questions individually and as a movement, the answers will continue to emerge.

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