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How to Keep the World From Creating 'Sinking Cities'
October 31, 2018  | By David Hinckley

We all speculate from time to time about what cities like New York, Tokyo, London, and Miami will look like in the future.

This produces a wide range of dreams and visions, among which we usually find a consensus on at least one point: We don’t want them to look like Atlantis.

Unfortunately, given the fact many parts of those cities today lie almost at sea level, and the global sea level is rising, simply keeping them above water becomes an ever-more-urgent challenge.

A new four-part PBS series starkly titled Sinking Cities launches Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings), with the mission of looking at what we can do and are doing about all this.

These four shows, which begin with New York, are part of a larger PBS series, Peril & Promise, that examines the looming real-life impacts of climate change. It doesn’t debate the issue of climate change but instead accepts that whatever forces and factors lie behind it, we need to start dealing with it now or our children and grandchildren will pay a terrible and perhaps deadly price.

On the rising sea level front, there is a widespread scientific consensus that by the year 2100, the oceans will rise another six feet. This would be an accelerated pace from the two feet they have risen in the last 200 years, at least in part because accelerated industrialization and other human-generated activity has that consequence.

For New York, where four square miles of Lower Manhattan are already built on man-made landfill, a six-foot rise would put about a third of the city underwater – even without a traumatic weather event like 2012’s superstorm Sandy.

Big chunks of the city in the outer boroughs like Queens and Staten Island are already in flood plains, meaning they can be flooded even in routine storms. Six more feet of water will turn those parts of the city, at best, into Venice.

The encouraging news, Sinking Cities suggests, is that many people and institutions recognize these scary scenarios and are proposing or implementing countermeasures.

The most optimistic consensus is that while humans will never defeat nature, there are ways to work with or around it.  

The Whitney Museum, for instance, has constructed the closest thing we have to a waterproof building. It’s designed to keep out floodwaters or, in the extreme cases where floodwaters break through anyway, to absorb them without significant damage. The construction materials on flood-susceptible floors are stone and concrete, not wood.

In a similar vein, the shells around electrical transformers in low-lying areas have been hardened, to prevent the kind of massive blowouts and subsequent power outages triggered by Sandy.

On a larger scale, perhaps the most radical plan examined here is called "The Big U." A seawall would be built up to 20 feet high around the bottom part of Manhattan, from West 57th Street around the Battery up to the East 30s. It would have open space and recreation areas, like an unbroken 10-mile bike path.

The architectural drawings look cool. “Cool” would also describe the reception the plan has gotten since a whole lot of other interviewees here say that a walled-in Manhattan is not the city they know or want.

Less draconian plans include the ideas incorporated in Brooklyn’s recently constructed Domino Park where the waterfront area is sloped parkland that is designed both as a sponge and a conduit for rapid runoff of any encroaching water.

Other experts, including Klaus Jacobs of Columbia University, say that the city is just going to have to rethink its configuration. Some areas that now include low-lying uses like subways may have to be used for something different.

The city has morphed considerably over its 300-year history, they say, and the rising sea may force it to do so again, even as more and more people also continue to pour in.

The broad problems in London, Tokyo, and Miami are not dissimilar, though there are individual circumstances. Collectively, Sinking Cities makes a calm, strong case that at the very least, we won’t address any of this by burying our heads in the sand.

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