The Lenape people who once inhabited the hills and valleys that we now call New York City knew that caves should not be dug in stream beds. They noticed how salt marshes and barrier beaches worked together to protect the coastline and restore it after storms. They saw with their own eyes that the ground absorbs water and the rock repels it.
Most importantly, they understood, as their descendants – contemporary Native Americans – often remind us, that we are to live on earth with humility and compassion, as if we were there for a while. We can learn from streams, forests and swamps what it means to live in a particular place. And it’s our job to put that knowledge into practice. It’s our home.
We might think we have dominion over the earth, but our power is nothing compared to the glaciers that shaped New York or the climate change that is taking hits now.
What to do? The truth is, some people are going to have to move.
By this I mean those who live in buildings built over former waterways and wetlands, those who run a business or rent a basement in low-lying areas, and those whose homes and workplaces are on the way to floods that will surely return.
The water asks for a place to go. This means making room for streams and wetlands, beaches and salt marshes. It means solving man-made problems with nature-based solutions. These include removing urban barriers to allow streams to flow again, a process known as daylighting; wetland restoration and tree planting. It also means using the collective power of our community – expressed in taxpayer dollars – to help people move to safer places.
A report published Monday by the administration of Blasio titled “The New Normal” warned that climate change “poses a serious threat to our people and our city, and its costs will not be borne equally.” Among other things, the city must “reinvent our sewage and drainage system and rapidly increase green infrastructure,” the report said.
In Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, for example, the city is building an artificial stream to channel overflows from the park’s lake into the Harlem River rather than draining it through the sewer system. During Ida, this overflow reduced the capacity of the sewer system to handle stormwater. The result: “Parts of the Major Deegan Expressway were inundated with several feet of water,” the report said.