Brooklyn under water: Conference debates environmental threat

The Times pointed out the problem last Tuesday. On Wednesday, Brooklyn searched for answers. Will Brooklyn be swamped by a 100-year flood?

The answer is yes. Not only Brooklyn but also Queens and Staten Island. When? We don’t know.

A panel held at Kingsborough Community College Wednesday evening voiced its opinion in the college’s art gallery surrounded by pictures and maps from “Brooklyn’s Waterfronts: Past, Present, Future.” Sponsored by the Brooklyn Waterfront Research Center, the discussion drew an audience of over 100 to hear the six panelists reveal their opinions of Brooklyn at risk from climate change.

The panelists from the New York City College of Technology, Columbia University, New York’s Department of City Planning as well as Kingsborough represented a range of academic fields: architecture, physics, biological sciences, English and history. While all agreed that a flooding danger exists, the solution to the problem was varied and inconclusive.

Suggestions included corrective measures used by other threatened communities: dikes, mounting buildings on pilings, building sea wall barriers. The solution revolved around costs; the problem, while inevitable, is not immediate.

At least two of the panelists disagreed that a solution was possible. Klaus Jacob of Columbia University’s Lamont-Dougherty Earth Observatory claimed that a sea barrier would not be practical or effective because the height would be impractical and therefore an impossibility. Christina Colon of Kingsborough’s Biological Sciences claimed that nature’s “diversity will save us” if we protect nature.

The problem—historically speaking—focusses on the global sea level rise from 1870-2006, according to Reginald Blake of New York City Tech. Many of the homes bordering on Jamaica Bay and in southern Brooklyn are on filled in sandy soil subject to erosion and called a “soft urban edge.”

Betsy McCully of Kingsborough’s English Department addressed the natural history of New York City citing the depletion of wetlands in Jamaica Bay for JFK airport and Marine Park. On the positive side, she noted that the city and federal government are restoring these areas, allowing wetlands and grasslands to heal the earlier damage.

Maps showing Brooklyn's potential danger zones. Photo by John Manbeck

According to Michael Marrella, director of the city’s waterfront with the Department of Planning, New York is addressing the potential situation with its open space planning offered in PlaNYC for Vision 2020. These approaches include varied strategies for both a 100 and a 500 year plans through 1) changing the physical design of the city; 2) enhancing readiness; and 3) increasing the understanding of risks.

Many of these solutions seemed generalized and theoretical but as Ilya Azaroff of City Tech stated at the opening of the conference, the ”at risk” scenario must be examined before it’s too late.

In a wrap up, students in the audience were told that involvement and education are vital. On the more practical side, engineering with a nod to nature would help. The solution, everyone agreed, must be ethical for the answers require hard decisions from politicians since governments do not have the resources to solve the immensity of the situation.

Kingsborough’s President Regina Peruggi opened the conference citing the Times article and directed the audience to find out what we need to know about the crisis. Director of the Brooklyn Waterfront Research Center, Richard Hanley, stated that the situation is dire.

The conference was developed by Prof. Libby Garland of Kingsborough’s Department of History, Philosophy and Political Science in coordination with Prof. Peter Malone of the Art Gallery who curated the exhibit. The moderator was Michael Spear of Kingsborough.

The accompanying art exhibit consisted of photographs, art and maps depicting the Brooklyn waterfront and its ephemera. The exhibit will run through September 19.