Sink or Swim: In Search of a Model for Coastal City Climate Resilience

81 Pages Posted: 3 Apr 2015 Last revised: 4 May 2016

Date Written: 2015


New York City, like other major cities around the world, has acknowledged the problem of climate change, undertaken a comprehensive risk assessment, created a suite of adaptation and mitigation planning initiatives, and begun to implement policies to decrease the city’s contribution to the problem and to make the city less vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This detailed analysis of the city’s climate change resilience initiatives concludes that, although many of the city’s initiatives provide a model for other coastal communities, the initiatives likely still fall short of what is required to sufficiently moderate harm from dangerous interference with the climate system.

The city’s robust suite of initiatives put it ahead of the pack as compared to most other U.S. municipalities, especially with respect to comprehensive reform of zoning and building codes, integrated mitigation and adaptation planning, transparent climate change-related data analysis initiatives, and commitment to reduce GHG emissions 80% by 2050 from 2005 levels and progress toward that goal. However, the city also faces a host of wicked policy binds, ineffective regional structures, a lack of support at the federal level, and numerous conditions that constrain its ability to remain resilient. In light of this, the “toughness” theme that runs throughout the city’s plans risks undermining its robust data analysis and reporting initiatives by instilling in New Yorkers a false sense of security with respect to both the scope of the problem and their local government’s ability to protect them from it. The city faces an equally wicked policy bind with respect to waterfront development. Given the foreseeable risks of increasingly intensive and frequent coastal storms, flooding and storm surges, coastal municipalities must carefully evaluate their waterfront development policies to assure consistency with future climate risks and vulnerability and adopt regulations that curtail or eliminate waterfront development in high-risk areas, encourage or require relocation away from vulnerable areas, and take maximum advantage of opportunities to develop natural flood-mitigation infrastructure.

Keywords: land use, zoning, climate change, resilience, mitigation, adaptation, municipal governance, urban planning, waterfront development, coastal zone management

Suggested Citation

Adams-Schoen, Sarah, Sink or Swim: In Search of a Model for Coastal City Climate Resilience (2015). 40 Colum. J. Envtl. L. 433 (2015), Touro Law Center Legal Studies Research Paper Series No. 16-17, Available at SSRN:

Sarah Adams-Schoen (Contact Author)

University of Oregon School of Law ( email )

1515 Agate St.
Eugene, OR 97403-1221
United States

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