Visions of Resilience: New York City’s Infrastructural Response to Climate Change

Ferry docks at One North Fourth

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, the storm surge rose over thirteen feet in Battery Park, breaking a record set in 1960, and the New York Stock Exchange was forced to close for two days, the longest closure due to weather since 1888.1 When it reopened, Mayor Bloomberg himself rang the bell, signalling to the world that Wall Street, and more generally the entire American economic enterprise, could not be defeated by climate disaster. This event signalled a recognition by many in power that the economy, politics, and infrastructure will have to change if the current order of society is to persist during global climate change. Now, five years after Sandy, infrastructural plans drawn up for Michael Bloomberg, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Bill de Blasio are being enacted without much response from the communities affected by the hurricane. These efforts to make New York resilient in the face of climate change are ultimately only a way of normalizing instability, in an attempt to preserve the very exploitative infrastructure that allowed for disaster in the first place.

Over the past two decades, waterfront property in New York City—especially in Brooklyn—has been transformed from a collection of industrial zones where you might sneak in to avoid surveillance to one of the most expensive and surveilled real estate markets on the East Coast. The 2005 rezoning of two-hundred blocks in Williamsburg was supposed to create affordable housing and public parks, but ultimately only left room for new expensive development and public areas that require the policing and surveillance that come with any wealthy development.2 Buildings such as Schaefer Landing (2003), the Northside Piers development (2007), The Edge (2008), and 1N4th all drew criticism for their inaccessibility, and yet far more development is expected. While the gentrification caused by these buildings is clear, the environmental impact is not as obvious. All of these towers were built in close proximity to the East River, precisely in line with Sandy and rising sea levels. However, it is hard to see the residents of 1N4th worrying too much about either gentrification or climate disaster. According to the New York Times, 1N4th “has more than 20,000 square feet of interior and exterior amenities, including an 8,500-square-foot sun deck on the third floor with a swimming pool, a movie screen and a barbecue area, […] a 3,000-square-foot fitness center, a media lounge with billiards, a party room with a kitchen and a children’s playroom.”3 A one-bedroom studio rents for over $2,400 in 1N4th. While residents enjoy these amenities, the river is rising, and real estate firms are coming together with the government to push policies to protect their very expensive properties.

The first major plan came from Mayor Bloomberg, following Hurricane Sandy. Titled “A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” the plan would become a catalyst for cities around the United States to change their infrastructure.4 Since leaving his position as mayor, Bloomberg has not been quiet. His consultancy group, Bloomberg Associates, has worked closely with other mayors to prepare cities for flooding and other climate-related disasters. Over 180 European cities registered for Bloomberg’s 2013-2014 Mayor’s Challenge, and in the same time period he gave twenty-three million dollars to cities including New Orleans, Chicago, and Atlanta to hire advisors.5 Bloomberg’s response to Sandy marks the beginning of a new kind of thinking about climate change, and we must ask whom these plans are motivated to protect, and how the infrastructure reshapes the city.

The idea of resilience has its roots in ecological theory from the 1970s, particularly the work of theorist C. S. Holling. Paraphrasing Holling, The Resilience Alliance, a research organization that specializes in sustainability, defines resilience as “the capacity of a social-ecological system to absorb or withstand perturbations and other stressors such that the system remains within the same regime, essentially maintaining its structure and functions. It describes the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization, learning and adaptation.”6 It is not any accident that many of the infrastructural plans for New York City’s response to climate change use the concept of resilience as their framework. The capacity to absorb disaster and yet stay exactly the same is what many of the plans for resilience actually want, and their idea of remaining “within the same regime” often means continuing patterns of gentrification, class exploitation, and capitalism, all through normalizing the instability caused by climate disaster under the guise of resilience.

The same year Michael Bloomberg released his plan for New York, the Rockefeller Foundation announced the 100 Resilient Cities organization to support “the adoption and incorporation of a view of resilience that includes not just the shocks—earthquakes, fires, floods, etc.—but also the stresses that weaken the fabric of a city on a day-to-day or cyclical basis.”7 It is clear that their idea of resilience means not only preserving 1N4th and other waterfront property, but reconfiguring the city’s infrastructure to withstand any event that could challenge the current order. The announcement of 100 Resilient Cities came not only after Hurricane Sandy, but also only two years after Occupy Wall Street—another event involving infrastructure that upset the current structuring of New York.

One North Fourth

The goals put forward by 100 Resilient Cities are not only ecological, but also tackle unemployment, public transportation, and violence. Although these goals seem sound, a closer look only makes the Rockefeller’s idea of resilience all the more sinister. Headed by Michael Berkowitz—who worked at the Office of Emergency Management in New York until 2005, when he left for Deutsche Bank—the 100 Resilient Cities program will fund cities across America to hire a Chief Resilience Officer. Many cities may desperately need the money and will find themselves beholden to a Resilience Officer, whose job is to implement a resiliency strategy. The officer is not the only one with input on how the cities need to reorient themselves. According to 100 Resilient Cities, the plan is also made “with significant stakeholder engagement and input, support from Platform Partners, and peer learning with other cities in the 100RC Network.”8 Far from being only about protecting cities from climate disaster, the resiliency strategy is about creating a marketplace for those partners who have invested large sums of money. 100 Resilient Cities writes about the marketplace: “Coordination between cities and Platform Partners is constantly uncovering new opportunities to combine Platform Partner tools and services to yield resilience benefits.” It seems clear that one of the main objectives of 100 Resilient Cities is subcontracts for those corporations lucky enough to partner with the Rockefeller Foundation, and once cities accept the money an officer will be sent to ensure such subcontracting occurs. The organization is not covert about their capitalistic intentions either. On their website, under “Our Impact,” they state, “We seek to build an urban resilience marketplace,” and “these partners deliver solutions to cities and collaborate to create new services and tools where necessary.” This may seem promising to cities that are already mired in economic downfall, but a closer look reveals that the Rockefeller’s idea of resilience is only giving contracts to the World Bank, IFC, and Cisco, a few of the partners of 100 Resilient Cities.9

In New York City, Bill de Blasio has taken the reins of making the city more resilient and shows no signs of stopping. This past November, De Blasio won an overwhelming victory in the mayoral election. His opponent, conservative Nicole Malliotakis, offered little critique of de Blasio’s climate-preparedness plans. De Blasio’s plan, OneNYC, has proposed many different initiatives for shaping New York’s infrastructure. Working with the Mayor’s Office of Recovery & Resiliency, OneNYC has released Climate Resiliency Design Guidelines in an attempt to create a “consistent methodology for engineers, architects and planners to design facilities.”10 Another project, the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, aims at creating flood protection, improved access, and open spaces along the East River and Stuyvesant Cove Parks. The East River project is also part of the Rebuild By Design competition, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The project claims it will help protect more than 110,000 residents along 2.2 miles of waterfront property and spaces. Rebuild By Design is a competition, originating as the Hurricane Sandy Design Competition, and is in partnership with 100 Resilient Cities. The managing director of Rebuild By Design, Amy Chester, formerly worked for Mayor Bloomberg as Chief of Staff for the Deputy Mayor. Although on the surface the Rebuild By Design competition is more innocuous than 100 Resilient Cities, it too is intricately tied to Bloomberg’s and the Rockefeller Foundation’s vision for New York City.

De Blasio’s OneNYC and Bloomberg’s “A Stronger, More Resilient New York” have come under fire from some activists, such as those grouped in the New York City Environmental Alliance. On January 26, 2013 the Sandy Regional Assembly released an analysis of Bloomberg’s plan with specific policy recommendations based on voices from affected communities and environmental justice and labor workers. The recommendations asked that public agencies responsible for rebuilding “demonstrate that recovery and resiliency planning efforts integrate community priorities and use transparent and democratic decision-making processes; guarantee that NYC Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) integrate regional rebuilding efforts with local resiliency priorities; and ensure that future New York City recovery and resiliency planning efforts address the needs of the most vulnerable communities.”11 So far, OneNYC has been a mixed bag, but has ultimately not met the Alliance’s demands. This past October the city partnered with FEMA to draft new flood insurance maps that the city claims will save homeowners tens of millions of dollars. The plan also aims to rebuild the New York City Housing Authority, and eight large-scale construction projects are underway. While these measures appear to be democratic and working towards the betterment of New Yorkers, they only actually preserve the city as it currently stands, and reinforce existing infrastructure. If a true resilience means a system that is self-organized and able to learn and adapt, OneNYC, with its top-down approach, is precisely the opposite of this. In order to create infrastructure that is adaptable and self-organized, we cannot preserve the infrastructure that already exists, as it is a testament to New York City at the pinnacle of capitalism, gentrification, and class exploitation.

A similar idea of resilience is being implemented in Miami.12 On November 8th voters approved of a $400 million general obligation bond titled Miami Forever. Fifty-five percent of the electorate voted for the bond, which raises taxes on Miami residents in order to pay for it.13 The bond was first proposed by Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who ended his term this past November. The bond has been criticized by the Miami Climate Alliance, which stated, “History has left us skeptical that the bond program will be implemented in an equitable fashion and without negative impacts to vulnerable populations.”14 Much like OneNYC, Miami Forever claims to support infrastructure to be resilient in the face of disaster, but ultimately is unclear about who it actually protects. As Maggie Fernandez, a leader of the Miami Climate Alliance, put it, “The biggest concerning part for a lot of residents and some organizations is the lack of specificity in projects, and how it’s ‘You just gotta trust us.’ So as the Miami Climate Alliance, we’re trusting, but we want to make sure that the projects... truly are the projects where there’s the most need.”15 But how can the Miami Climate Alliance and the New York City Environmental Alliance trust these programs to protect the most vulnerable communities? To understand whether these programs will live up to their promises, it is necessary to look into their sponsors and their idea of resilience.

The World Bank, a partner of 100 Resilient Cities, which is a partner of Rebuild by Design, which worked on OneNYC, released a report titled “Unbreakable: Building the Resilience of the Poor in the Face of Natural Disasters,” in which they detail their vision of resilience. They emphasize financial services to help vulnerable communities and what they call “risk management.” This report is illuminating, in that it shows how the World Bank and all of its offshoots tasked with bringing resilience to New York and Miami see the poor as “unbreakable,” gifted with natural resilience. If the poor are naturally resilient and unbreakable, then why provide them with support? What is not unbreakable in the eyes of the World Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation is the infrastructure that supports their accumulation of wealth. What if climate disasters challenge the stability of class structures under late capitalism? The only breakable people and structure in the eyes of those leading the charge of resilience are the wealthy and the infrastructures that support their accumulation. Risk management is the World Bank’s idea of managing climate disaster in a way that preserves these infrastructures rather than have them fall into the hands of the poorer communities of New York.

Climate change presents an opportunity. The idea of resilience is not a bad one, but people are being hoodwinked, and the policies on offer do not mean real resilience. Occupy Sandy brought 60,000 volunteers together to help clean up areas affected by the hurricane. Their efforts, and the communities’ response, provide an example of true resilience—adaptability and self-organization in the face of destruction. However, the response would not have been possible without the networks of people and communication established during Occupy Wall Street only one year previously. That movement was not about resilience or preserving infrastructure, but rather about blocking the infrastructure itself to make a point. In fact, all of the major social movements of the past decade—Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, and the Women’s March—have used infrastructure to their advantage. Blockades, riots, and occupations have become recognized as the most effective forms of protest we now have.

Development along the East River has only increased. 1N4th, The Edge, and Schaefer Landing have been joined not only by new glass buildings, but also by a new ferry system. This system began operations in May 2017 and has already serviced more than 2.5 million passengers16—so many that the city is requesting larger boats and working on creating express routes. However, for anyone taking the ferry along the East River, it is clear who the intended users are in the eyes of the Mayor’s office. Most of the stops are in affluent areas, such as Wall Street, Dumbo, North Williamsburg, and Long Island City. The ferry actually makes a stop at Schaefer Landing, a few feet from a public park. The stop in North Williamsburg also lets off at a private development, close to a public park where the ferry could be serving the public. The problem is that the ferry was never intended to serve the larger public, but rather shepherd bankers and others working in finance from their new glass homes on the waterfront down to work at Wall Street—while never having to step into a subway car. The ferry is another initiative in the name of resilience and sustainability, but in fact infrastructure supporting the current social order.

If the World Bank is correct that climate change offers an opportunity to build resilience, then working-class communities must come together and self-organize. These communities are far from unbreakable; they have been broken time and time again. What is breakable is the current order of capitalism—class society as it now exists. It is the infrastructure of this social order that Michael Bloomberg and the Rockefeller Foundation are so desperate to keep afloat. If these channels can fall to rising sea levels, how resilient will they be in the face of mass movements? The new infrastructure being built in the name of resilience is only to support an old way of ordering society. It was this infrastructure that brought gentrification and class exploitation in the first place, and it was the fossil fuels that went into building the infrastructure that brought us the disasters we now face. It should not be the duty of the poor and vulnerable communities of New York City to face the brunt of climate change while Wall Street and Long Island City are connected and fortified. The best chance we have of real resilience is occupying, disrupting, and destroying these infrastructures, with the recognition that they were never there to protect us in the first place.


    1. “Hurricane Sandy Fast Facts.” CNN. November 02, 2016. Accessed October 2017.
    2. Gregor, Alison. “Brooklyn: New Towers for Williamsburg.” The New York Times. December 19, 2014. Accessed December 2017.
    3. Gregor, Alison. “Brooklyn: New Towers for Williamsburg.” The New York Times. December 19, 2014. Accessed December 2017.
    4. “Community and Economic Recovery.” June 11, 2013. Accessed December 2017.
    5. Gardiner, Beth. “Michael Bloomberg brings his New York manifesto to the world.” The Guardian. January 29, 2014. Accessed October 2017.
    6. “About.” Resilience Alliance - About. Accessed December 2017.
    7. “About Us.” 100 Resilient Cities. 2013. Accessed October 2017.
    8. 10.03.2016 | by Bryna Lipper. “How to Develop a Resilience Strategy.” 100 Resilient Cities. July 14, 2017. Accessed October 2017.
    9. Dawson, Ashley. Extreme cities: the peril and promise of urban life in the age of climate change. London: Verso, 2017.
    10. “Mayor’s Office of Recovery & Resiliency.” NYC. Accessed December 2017.
    11. “Community Resiliency.” NYC Environmental Justice Alliance. Accessed October 2017.
    12. See Stephanie wakefield, “Field Notes from the Anthropocene: Living in the Back Loop,” Brooklyn Rail, June 2017.
    13. “Voters Approve $400 Million Miami Forever Bond.” CBS Miami. November 08, 2017. Accessed December 2017.
    14. Stein, Kate. “‘Miami Forever’ What? Breaking Down The City’s $400 Million Bond Proposal.” WLRN. Accessed December 2017.
    15. Stein, Kate. “‘Miami Forever’ What? Breaking Down The City’s $400 Million Bond Proposal.” WLRN. Accessed December 2017.
    16. Mcgeehan, Patrick. “New York City’s Ferry Fleet Is Off to a Fast Start.” The New York Times. November 29, 2017. Accessed December 2017.


Max Moorhead

MAX MOORHEAD is a writer, editor, and artist based in Ridgewood, Queens.