• 07.02.14

Why New York Might Need Canals To Survive Climate Change

The geophysicist who warned that New York City was due for Sandy says that the city ought to function like a half-submerged kingdom.

Why New York Might Need Canals To Survive Climate Change
[Image: Venice Canal via S.Borisov / Shutterstock]

Seven years after the financial crisis, most of us remember the name of Nouriel Roubini, the New York University economist who warned us of economic doom. Fewer know of Klaus Jacob, the Columbia University geophysicist who, years before Hurricane Sandy, issued warnings about the likelihood of a 100-year storm surge in New York City.


Last week, Jacob wrote an op-ed for urban policy nonprofit Next City, arguing why one of New York City’s newest climate adaptation plans falls short. Manhattan should, he writes, be building “Venice-like canals,” turning the city into something like a half-submerged (but fully functional) Atlantis.

Earlier this month, a plan to wrap lower Manhattan in a protective layer of parkland won the Rebuild by Design competition, a challenge funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But Jacob argues that the “Big U” system would only work in the short-term, for moderate storms:

To truly learn to live with water, New York needs to make, at least in current and future flood-prone areas, its infrastructure submersible; remove vital building systems from basements to higher floors or roofs; and eventually connect skyscrapers with “high-lines” like the recreational park not far from the Hudson River. By 2100, we need to have transformed many city streets into Venice-like canals so that businesses can continue to flourish; that goods, services, people and waste can get in and out unhindered using watertight subways, and where needed, barges, ferries and water taxis.

Embracing the notion that much of the city will be underwater by the end of the century isn’t a popular approach. Outside of being the “I told you so” scientist, Jacob is also known for supporting something called managed retreat–an adaptation strategy that would have New Yorkers fleeing their luxury, waterfront condos.

Unfortunately for managed retreat, abandoning the waterfront is an idea that ran completely contrary to the development plans of the Bloomberg era. Those economic gears are still in motion, and there’s no telling if the city’s new mayor might be more willing to make radical changes to the city’s basic infrastructure.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.