Meme Weeding: Climate Resilience

I recently heard of state-level American standards for climate resilience that made it clear that, as a concept, it makes climate change worse. The idea of resilience is that catastrophic climate change is inevitable, so might as well make the world’s top per capita emitter among large economies resilient to it through slow retreat from the waterfront. The theory is bad enough – Desmond Tutu calls it climate apartheid – but the practice is even worse. The biggest, densest, and most desirable American cities are close to the coast. Transit-oriented development in and around those cities is the surest way of bringing green prosperity, enabling emissions to go down without compromising living standards. And yet, on a number of occasions I have seen Americans argue against various measures for TOD and transit improvements on resilience grounds.

The worst exhibit is Secaucus Junction. The station is a few kilometers outside Manhattan, on New Jersey Transit’s commuter rail trunk, with excellent service. So close to city center, it doesn’t even matter that the trains are full – the seats are all occupied but there’s standing room, which may not appeal to people living 45 minutes out of Midtown but is fine at a station that is around 10 minutes away today and should be 6 minutes away with better scheduling and equipment.

The land use around Secaucus is also very conducive to TOD. Most of the area around the station is railyards and warehouses, which can pretty easily be cleaned up and replaced with high-density housing, retail, and office development. A small section of the walkshed is wetlands, but the large majority is not and can be built up to be less ecologically disturbing than the truck traffic the current storage development generates.

Politically, this is also far from existing NIMBY suburbia. In North America, the single-family house is held to be sacrosanct, and even very YIMBY regions like Vancouver only redevelop brownfields, not single-family neighborhoods; occasionally there are accessory dwelling units, but never anything that has even medium density or visibly looks like an apartment building. Well, Secaucus Junction is far from the residential areas of Secaucus, so the most common form of NIMBYism would be attenuated.

And yet, there is no concerted effort at TOD. This is not even just a matter of unimaginative politicians. Area advocacy orgs don’t really push for it, and I’m forgetting whether it was ReThinkNYC or the RPA that told me explicitly that their regional rail proposal omits Secaucus TOD on climate adaptation grounds. The area is 2 meters above sea level, and building there is too risky, supposedly, because a 2 meter sea level rise would only flood tens of millions of South Asians, Southeast Asians, and Africans, and those don’t count.

This goes beyond just wasting money on needless infrastructure projects like flood walls, or leaving money on the table that could come from TOD. In the 2000s, New York City was emitting 7 metric tons of CO2 per capita, which was better than Germany and a fraction of the US average. This must have gotten better since – New York had an abnormally high ratio of building emissions (i.e. energy) to transportation emissions (i.e. cars), and in every developed country I’m aware of, only energy emissions have fallen, not car emissions.

A bigger New York, counting very close-in suburbs as New York, is an important part of the American green transition. To have the emissions of the inner parts of the city within the city is a luxury people pay $3,000 a month in rent for; to have it in exurbia means having a smaller car than everyone else in an environment in which accumulating lots of stuff is the only way one can show off status. Breaking the various interests that prevent New York (and Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and Boston, and Washington) from growing denser is a valuable political fight. But here, no such breaking is even needed, because the anti-growth interests think locally, and the only locals around Secaucus Junction live in one high-rise development and would if anything welcome more such buildings in lieu of the warehouses.

And yet, Americans argue from the position of climate resilience against such densification. Normally it’s just a waste of money, but this would not just waste money (through leaving money on the table) but also lead to higher emissions since housing would be built in other metropolitan regions of the US, where there is no public transportation. Once adaptation and resilience became buzzwords, they took over the thinking on this matter so thoroughly that they are now directly counterproductive.
Somehow, the goal of avoiding catastrophic climate change has fallen by the wayside, and the usual American praxis of more layers of red tape before every decisions can be made (about climate resilience, design for equity, etc.) takes over. The means justify the ends: if the plan has the word climate then it must be environmentally progressive and sensitive, because what matters is not outcome (it’s too long-term for populists, and all US discourse is populist) but process: more lawsuits, more red tape, more accretion of special rules that everyone must abide by.

46 comments

  1. michaelrjames

    Of course the real reasons are that property developers can’t make as much money building and selling condos in New Jersey. And that if a Great Big Beautiful Flood Wall is going to be built it will encircle that much more expensive real estate in lower Manhattan while Jersey will be left to go under the waves.

    • Eric2

      “as much money” as what? This is nonsensical. Developers don’t refuse profitable projects just because somebody else is making more profit elsewhere. Just like you don’t refuse to go to work just because you are earning less than Jeff Bezos.

      As usual you are just spinning Marxist fantasies rather than engaging with actual economics on even an undergraduate level.

  2. adirondacker12800

    would if anything welcome more such buildings in lieu of the warehouses.
    The people living in tall apartment buildings or short apartment buildings, even single family houses, like to eat. And have other stuff in the store when they go there. Or get their mail. Or packages other ways. Parts for whatever needs fixing… The warehouses have to be somewhere.

    • Alon Levy

      The argument I was given was not “this is an important location for warehouses,” it was “redeveloping this area is difficult because of climate resilience.”

    • keaswaran

      Is Secaucus Junction a particularly significant location for warehouses? Are there no other locations where warehouses could be just as effective? It seems that proximity to a transit station is a major amenity for residential uses, but it’s not at all clear that it is relevant for warehouses.

      • adirondacker12800

        It’s in the middle of a metropolitan area with millions of people who use the stuff in the warehouses. Right next to railroads and highways and very close to a major airport and container port.

        • DCUrbanist

          Christ, no one is saying there should be no warehouses in New Jersey, or even that general region of New Jersey. They’re simply saying that maybe there are more effective uses for society within the easy walking distance of one of the busiest passenger train stations in the country.

          • adirondacker12800

            Those trains go someplace that have sewers and schools and shops. That don’t have access to the highways and railroads. That don’t flood. That don’t have big chunks of land where you can put things like enormous warehouses. And they aren’t all warehouses. But looking at across Ninth Avenue it’s seems like a good idea.

  3. Joe Wong

    I totally agree with you on this one. The area around Secaucus Junction is a excellent location for redevelopment as you proposed.

  4. Hugh B

    There are 2 very easy responses to anyone who cries “climate resilience” to Secaucus development proposals:
    1. Development fees! Just looking at the area on Streetview, it seems…unpleasant to pedestrians. This infrastructure would have to be improved with a massive influx of development i.e. an exit from the Bergen County platforms on the north side of the turnpike, wider sidewalks, etc. This infrastructure could also include some sort of sea-level rise protection and could be financed through developer fees.
    2. The whole concept of “moving to higher ground” applies less to heavily populated areas. My rough guesstimate for a rezoned Secaucus is that it could house a bit less than 100,000 people plus some offices and retail (in terms of Suburban TOD, this just might be the place where offices are most warranted). Even if the flood protection system for just that area (and it wouldn’t be for just that area) cost $1,000,000,000, that would add up to $10,000 per person, a good value.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, American cities have moved up one story before, e.g. Chicago. But also nowadays there’s a Vogon can’t-do spirit in the US public sector, so it’s likely they don’t even think it’s doable.

  5. Frederick

    An overwhelming majority of Americans, no matter left or right, or black or white, are against densification. Climate resilience is just an excuse.

    • Eric2

      They’re against densification in their community, but want affordable housing. Even though these preferences, applied society-wide, are incompatible.

    • Alon Levy

      For what it’s worth, the various YIMBY bills keep winning handily in NorCal, and even statewide there are the votes for some of them on the floor, so that committee chairs and speakers have to resort to tricks to keep them from winning an up or down vote (like, say, scheduling the vote 3 minutes before the end of the session so that the other house won’t have time to concur).

      • Nathanael

        Oh, YIMBYs even win local elections in small towns. (Points at local small city.)

        I do think building in a swamp in a future flooded zone is… kind of extremely stupid? If a developer wants to do the full 7 meters elevated ocean platform for some reason, sure I’m not going to stop them, but I don’t want to repeat the “let’s put houses on all our barrier islands” scheme which was done before.

        There’s plenty of high ground along the Metro-North lines just waiting to be upzoned. Plenty.

  6. hieronymous

    From the climate apartheid post: “All of these adaptation plans should be prohibited on grounds of climate apartheid.”

    Alon, it does not require radical anti-western position to promote TOD. Of course resilience planning is a tool that countries including America have a right to use. What kind of insanity is it to say otherwise? You would never suggest that flood defenses in Dhaka are unjust. It is possible that the people who need flood defense in the USA are not all oil and gas execs and politicians. Who are you to deny them the ability to secure their communities?

    • Alon Levy

      I would never suggest that flood defenses in Dhaka are unjust, because Bangladesh emits 1 metric ton of CO2 per capita per year, and I don’t even know what the income distribution there is but it’s poorer than India, where the average income in the top decile is maybe a bit higher than the American poverty line. I want to deny Americans the ability to secure their communities, because Americans emit around 16 t-CO2 and are the main historical reason why Bangladesh will need to spend money that it does not have on flood protection and adaptation.

      • Aaron Moser

        “I want to deny Americans the ability to secure their communities, because Americans emit around 16 t-CO2 and are the main historical reason why Bangladesh will need to spend money that it does not have on flood protection and adaptation.”

        Yes you must die because of the sins of your ancestors. That is justice!

        • DCUrbanist

          The thing is, none of these things are past tense only. We’re still emitting that and have shot most plans to reduce that in the States. Our ancestors certainly built America in a way that makes changing that very difficult, and are responsible for a huge percentage of the CO2 ever emitted, but even then we’re doing absolutely nothing about it in the present or the future, both for ourselves and for others. That’s the real moral failure here.

          • adirondacker12800

            A few short years ago we got half of our electricity from coal. It’s under 25 percent and dropping. There are days when we get more from renewables than we do from coal. Our emissions are dropping.

        • Joe Wong

          Yes – I totally agree with you on this one. However, since much of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) is currently -10 to -15 feet below sea level already, it may be a wise investment to try to keep their land from sinking further into the Indian Ocean. Similar situation is happening in Northern Europe such as the Netherlands as well, since the land over there can be as much as -30 feet below sea level. Israel is also trying to keep the Dead Sea from sinking any further, at an considerable expense to the Israeli government, since it is also already -1,350 feet below sea level, and it’s currently the lowest point with the highest salt deposit’s on the face of this planet.

  7. AlexB

    I agree with your argument to prioritize TOD to reduce emissions instead of resiliency projects but I’m not sure Secaucus Junction should be the poster boy. It’s is in a swamp off the Hackensack River and it would require major resiliency infrastructure if it were built to last, like raising the area a number of feet before redevelopment and probably some flood walls. With some additional sea level rise, a good sized storm surge from a hurricane would inundate the whole area. The location on major rail lines makes it a great idea but it never would never have been developed with current federal Wetlands standards in place and for good reason. A region right next to the station with large enough towers to support maybe 10-20k people would be a nice little bedroom community right next to Manhattan and could be made flood proof if it covered a small enough area.

  8. Jardinero1

    Resilient development is a marketing ploy. Residential units are functionally obsolete in less than 30 years, retail and low rise office about 30, warehouses about 20 – 30. Industrial facilities are typically obsolete between ten and twenty, after which they are retooled or abandoned. Major skyscrapers are functionally and practically obsolete after about 40 years. Heavy rail transit has to be rebuilt every 25 – 30 years, light rail about twenty, high traffic volume roads, twenty years. Any climate change/sea level rise which occurs over the next 50 years, regardless of cause, is irrelevant to the siting/construction standards of today, because all of today’s capital outlays, will be fully amortized and the buildings can/will be abandoned or razed. Development will continue elsewhere where the financials make it work. This is just as true in New York City as it is in Dhaka.

    • Alex Cat3

      Huh? The median age of NYC’s residential buildings is 90 years, and many are much older, especially the ones closer to the urban core. The NY area’s heavy rail lines (with the exception of tiny connector tracks) were all routed 100 years ago. Even new lines like the Hudson Bergen Light Rail were built mostly by connecting 100 year old rights of way. People need to plan for the future.

      • Joe Wong

        Very True Statement – That’s only possible if we just mind our own crumbling business instead of putting our noses where it does NOT belong all of the time, we would probably have a “State of the Art” infrastructure instead of one that’s crumbling….

      • Jardinero1

        @AlexCat3 The NY area’s heavy rail lines require replacement of all rail, electrical and plumbing every twenty to thirty years. Upgrading and replacing a decrepit system is hugely expensive. The projected cost of the NYC subway repair and replacement is in the neighborhood of forty to sixty billion dollars.

        • adirondacker12800

          Things wear out. When you have a lot of things a lot of them wear out.

        • Eric2

          And if the NYC subway were built from scratch now, it would cost $600 billion. Investing 10% of a physical asset’s value once per generation to keep it in good repair is pretty normal, I think, and much more affordable than building new assets.

          • Jardinero1

            So why isn’t the MTA raising the sixty billion and taking care of the deferred maintenance and replacement?

          • michaelrjames

            @Jardinero1 “So why isn’t the MTA raising the sixty billion and taking care of the deferred maintenance and replacement?”

            That’s easy. Cuomo and the American political class. The MTA under its then manager Andy Byford proposed the $50bn restoration program but he was sacked by Cuomo. Like every transit authority on the planet they can’t magic up that kind of money themselves. The politicians and the voters need to decide what they want in their prime city.

            On the broader issue, the cost has become so big because of failure to do regular maintenance and upgrading over the previous half century. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if it had been deployed over those 50-odd years like every other big world city. As I noted earlier it is partly the American mindset of not wanting to invest in old stuff, being more inclined to demolish and build anew. This leads to decrepitude and poor efficiency that one sees today, compared to its peer cities of London and Paris, also with century-old Metro systems that function very well. Even if NY were to spend that $50bn, it would only be catching up compared to them. Paris is spending almost the same amounts ($40bn) on new stuff, in the M15 orbital, RER-extensions etc as part of its GPX program that will greatly expand the reach and efficiency of its transit system. In a single project London CrossRail is spending similarly, about $25bn and it will transform its network and is planning CR2. (Incidentally London gave Andy Byford the job of running it all.) Even Moscow is putting very big resources into expanding their system, not to mention future peer city competitors like Shanghai.

          • Matthew Hutton

            To be fair London only really started doing good maintenance in the late 1990s. The reliability has improved massively since then though.

    • Jardinero1

      The going rate for a new skyscraper in Manhattan is about about 35 million per floor(the was the cost of One World Trade Center). Cost to upgrade the Empire State building: 53 million per floor. Only in New York state does that make any kind of sense. The median age of residential, in NYC, is 90, and so what? Yes the old structures may stand, but they remain functionally obsolete unless and until someone invests substantially more than the costs of new construction to upgrade them.

      • michaelrjames

        @Jardinero1

        Only exaggerated by a factor of ten. The Empire State building renovation cost about one seventh that of the new OWTC. (And not clear if the WTC construction cost includes final fitting out of each floor which mostly occurs as they are occupied by the tenants or landlords.)
        Wiki (but note this was also in Adirondacker’s link).

        Starting in 2009, the building’s public areas received a $550 million renovation, with improvements to the air conditioning and waterproofing, renovations to the observation deck and main lobby,[232] and relocation of the gift shop to the 80th floor.[233][234] About $120 million was spent on improving the energy efficiency of the building, with the goal of reducing energy emissions by 38% within five years.[234][235] For example, all of the windows were refurbished onsite into film-coated “superwindows” which block heat but pass light.[235][236][237] Air conditioning operating costs on hot days were reduced, saving $17 million of the project’s capital cost immediately and partially funding some of the other retrofits.[236] The Empire State Building won the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold for Existing Buildings rating in September 2011, as well as the World Federation of Great Towers’ Excellence in Environment Award for 2010.

          • adirondacker12800

            No is forcing you to live in a New Law tenement. If it was cheaper to tear it down and build new people would be doing that. They don’t.

          • michaelrjames

            @Jardinero1
            You’re the one who claimed it was “expensive” yet that was false. It turns out it cost one seventh of new-build to renovate and bring up to the best standards possible, and to allow it to function economically for perhaps another 90 years. Apparently it was worth it to the investors and owners to spend that money.

            To come to rational decisions one first needs to begin with facts, not your alternative facts. There is also the matter of the material and carbon costs associated with a new build of a 100-floor skyscraper versus a renovation.

            As regards “worn out and obsolete”, other than your arguments, those owners clearly didn’t consider the building obsolete. I know it is a foreign concept to Americans but a bit of maintenance or periodic updating can extend the useful life of buildings. And I do indeed choose to live in such “obsolescence”. I lived in a 350 year old building in the heart of Paris for many years and it was fabulous. Now I live in a veritable youngster, which is merely 120 years old–a wool store that was obsolete in terms of function and was repurposed to residential and that is highly desirable compared to our modern hi-rise neighbours.

            Incidentally, elsewhere you wonder why the city’s Metro system is in such a mess but in some serious ways it is a result of your kind of mentality. After all, it is more than a century old and many (Americans) don’t want to spend money on keeping it in good condition. Their “alternative” is some fantasy of more roads, autonomous vehicles and hyperloops. Anything except what works.

          • Jardinero1

            @adirondiker Actually, in other parts of the country, outside of the Boston to Philly corridor, they do tear down obsolete buildings routinely. It is only in places like NYC where the regulatory climate basically prohibits demolition that you find so many functionally obsolete buildings still standing.

            @michaelrjames As a matter of fact, I pay for my sons upkeep in Paris now(he is a student at Sciences-Po). I am very aware of the obscene cost to live, in tiny spaces, in obsolete buildings, in Paris. I can’t deny the aesthetic argument for preservation(especially for Paris), but there is no economic case for it. But few cities are Paris. Actually, 99.999 percent of cities are not Paris and there is little worth preserving. Finally, the aesthetic argument only works for those who can afford it.

          • adirondacker12800

            Occupied buildings. Someone is finding their function adequate. If they aren’t to your tastes, no one is forcing you to use them.

          • Eric2

            Actually, nearly all European cities have a beautiful historic core like Paris. In most cases though, there is plenty of room for dense development outside that core.

  9. Alex Cat3

    Sorry for the late comment, but at the current level of service, there is barely any standing room left on these trains, and any local passengers at Secaucus would have to compete with the throngs headed from the Main/Bergen/Port Jervis Lines.

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