Public Sector Future Podcast | Episode 42: Future of Infrastructure: Building for Resilience

Episode 42 guest speaker, Dan Zarrilli

Future of Infrastructure: Building for Resilience

with Dan Zarrilli

The Special Advisor for Climate & Sustainability at Columbia University talks about lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy and how a comprehensive infrastructure approach mitigates the impact of climate change.

Episode 42: Future of Infrastructure: Building for Resilience

Public Sector Future

Episode summary

Dan Zarrilli, Special Advisor for Climate & Sustainability at Columbia University, and former Chief Climate Policy Advisor in the New York City Mayor’s Office, joins us to talk about lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy and how New York City committed to a comprehensive approach to infrastructure that helps mitigate the impact of climate change and extreme weather.

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How New York City used lessons from Hurricane Sandy to build better infrastructure

Dan Zarrilli, Special Advisor for Climate & Sustainability at Columbia University, and former Chief Climate Policy Advisor in the New York City Mayor’s Office, joins us to talk about lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy and how New York City committed to a comprehensive approach to infrastructure that helps mitigate the impact of climate change and extreme weather.

Paying attention to New York

Daniel Zarrilli is a Special Advisor on climate and sustainability at Columbia University. Previously he was the Chief Climate Policy Advisor in the New York City mayor’s office.

“I’m a trained engineer. I worked for a number of years in the construction industry, and it was clear to me when I was the consultant for the contractor for a bunch of public sector projects, that the real decisions obviously get made on the owner side and on the government side. And when I had the opportunity to make the shift onto the government side of the industry, I jumped at it because it was a place to have great impact on the city I love and the city I live in, here in New York City.”

Zarrilli had the opportunity to join the New York City Economic Development Corporation in 2004 to help manage, oversee, and run the city’s waterfront infrastructure.

He explained, “This is the city’s cruise terminals, ferry landings, heliports a variety of cargo facilities and other maritime infrastructure and transportation infrastructure that served New York City. It was a great place to then get onto the public sector side and really have an impact on job creation, economic development, making sure that the systems that serve New Yorkers are functioning well, are improving and serving the needs of New Yorkers every day.”

Hurricane Sandy’s impact

In 2012, Zarrilli was working in government in New York City. That was the year Hurricane Sandy devastated the area, taking dozens of lives and causing billions of dollars in damage.

“It was a real pivotal moment for me, for my career, and certainly for the city in lots of different overlapping ways. After the devastation of the storm and understanding the lives lost and you know, the livelihoods upended, we were in a different moment in New York City.”

Zarrilli continued, “Hurricane Sandy, still to this day, is the worst natural disaster that we have ever faced. It was a storm really like no other. It was one of the largest storms on record and it pushed a lot of water into the coast. And so, the dominant damage came from a storm surge that was something like nine feet on top of normal high tide that hit New York City. And what that meant was that we had water in parts of the city that had just never seen it before and at record levels. Subway systems flooded, homes and neighborhoods damaged and destroyed in many parts of our coastal communities, the Rockaway Peninsula, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan, parts of the Bronx. It was just a totally devastating event. And tragically, 44 lives were lost here in New York City during that event.”

How does a city respond to a disaster of that magnitude? There are of course recovery efforts first and foremost, trying to save as many lives as possible, but what happens in the months that follow? Zarrilli outlined what the city did in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

“There’s the immediate need to work on getting power restored and getting people back in their homes and the housing recovery efforts that need to happen and that went on for years afterwards, in fact. But what the city did that was unique, was to recognize this as a moment not just to make sure that we recover from the storm. Of course, there was lots that needed to happen and that went on for a long time, but that it was a moment to really situate ourselves in this new era of climate change and recognizing that climate change made Hurricane Sandy worse than it otherwise would have been.”

Zarrilli added, “There was more damage just because of the fact that we’re now in an era of climate change, that it was Mayor Bloomberg at the time, decided to pull together a task force to look at how we were going to really understand what happened during the storm, what could have happened or what could still happen to us with climate change and really widening our view of not just coastal storms, but more intense heat, more intense rainstorms. And then to lay out a comprehensive plan for how we’re going to move forward, how we’re going to invest to reduce those risks and prepare this city for this new era that we’re in.”

Implementing the right improvements

“What’s interesting is that we’re a coastal city. New York City is defined by its harbor. And yet when Hurricane Sandy hit, there was basically zero coastal protections. The idea that the ocean and the harbor presented some sort of threat from coastal storms just was not part of the conversation, and our infrastructure reflected it.”

Zarrilli continued, “We didn’t have any of those flood protection projects or anything like that here in New York City. We did have certainly robust sand on our beaches, but mostly for recreational purposes, lots of wetland restorations for biodiversity and other things. And they did serve some purpose during the storm, but it wasn’t part of a comprehensive approach. And so, what we were intending to do at that moment was to then begin standing up a brand new class of infrastructure here in New York City that we’d never had before.”

In some parts of the city, that task was easier to accomplish than others.

“When we want to build out more dunes and integrate those with our boardwalks, like we did in the Rockaway Peninsula, that’s an easier process to develop. But when you get into a place like Lower Manhattan or certainly on parts of the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront on the East River, as different ideas for flood protection are being discussed, you’re doing it in a way where you’re thinking about putting new infrastructure to serve new purposes on top of an already dense urban environment.”

Zarrilli looked to New York City’s past for infrastructure inspiration and tried to mix the old with the new.

“Some of the important lessons from the past in New York City, when we built out the subway system there are these really like interesting photos of the subway being built out almost through farmland in parts of the city and it was the first thing that got there that enabled the city to grow. Much like the water, when we built out the water system to upstate, forward-thinking infrastructure that enabled the city to grow.”

Zarrilli added, “We’re already a built-out city, and now we’re in a position of having to react differently to a changing climate and the threats that that’s throwing at us. That means we’re building out this infrastructure in very dense places where the layering of infrastructure is already there. And so, what it means is a much more complicated design process over and around and above transit infrastructure, electric and power infrastructure, water and sewer infrastructure that’s in place and needs to continue to stay in place to serve New Yorkers.”

“And there’s been a lot of interesting lessons learned on the community engagement, the communication of the challenges that you’re facing and the infrastructure that you’re working around as you’re building out these projects, that has made it an interesting test case for other things that we need to do here, but also for what other cities are grappling with at the same time.”

Looking ahead and tackling climate action

“We’re also, I think, rapidly approaching a point where we’re going to exceed our ability to adapt to what we’ve done to our climate if we don’t slash emissions as rapidly as we can. And so, there’s a whole other conversation around making sure we’re really getting at the root cause of the problem.”

Zarrilli continued, “One great example of that that just became real here in New York was the approval of two new clean energy transmission lines serving New York City. And it’s very difficult to build out extensive renewable energy in New York City because we have a lot of the land that you might require for big solar farms and things like that. And in many ways, these conversations are tougher because the impacts may be in communities that aren’t getting the direct benefit of the project. And so, if we’re building transmission lines that connect to upstate or to Canada, a lot of that construction is happening outside of New York City in order to decarbonize New York City.”

“How do we align those incentives in new ways, whether it’s through job creation and the air quality benefits, or like finding the right ways to get everyone to agree that we’re going to do this and do this together. We’ve seen projects in other states that have been shot down because of these same concerns. We were fortunate that we had the right leadership to be able to get two big projects approved here in New York City that are going to cut fossil fuel generation here in New York City by 50% by 2030. So, all these things are connected in ways that we need to be able to come together and work across jurisdictions in order to get good outcomes.”

Searching the world for inspiration

New York City doesn’t have many peers, so Zarrilli had to search far and wide to find other big cities that were succeeding at the infrastructure challenges he was facing.

“We looked for good examples around the world. And nothing is a perfect fit necessarily, but you can learn a lot, certainly, from different innovative approaches in Copenhagen or in Rotterdam or in Venice. There’s a lot of interesting examples to draw upon. The challenge, of course, is to figure out what parts apply and what parts don’t apply and what are the local conditions that you need to really consider in a different way to make something work in New York City.”

Once you have a plan to tackle that challenge, remember to communicate what will be done to the folks that will be affected by it. Something Zarrilli says doesn’t happen enough.

“The other, I think, major point here is the need to overcommunicate and work with local organizations. People in government can tend to think that they are overcommunicating and it’s almost never true. And with certain projects that we’ve had hit here that have had some bumpy roads because of the tendency to make decisions in different ways as you’re bringing the community along in the design process, and then certain things change, and then you take some different directions, has not always been an ideal approach to project development.” 

“And so, it’s important that the community has trust in what’s happening, that they understand the general details of what is driving the decision making and that the government does everything it can to overcommunicate and in a lot of ways to empower communities to be part of the decision-making process, which is a really hard thing for government to do.” Zarrilli concluded.

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