Panel Paper: The Rockaways' Place on the Map: Civic Disparities in Climate Adaptation Policymaking and Planning

Friday, November 7, 2014 : 9:10 AM
Enchantment Ballroom E (Hyatt)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Leigh Graham and Bryce Dubois, City University of New York
Climate adaptation is one critical policy response to disasters and extreme events linked to climate change.  The “adaptive capacity” of communities to adjust to post-disaster circumstances and associated long-term risks of climate change is constituted in part by communities’ degree of social capital and their potential for collective action (Adger, 2003).  This adaptive capacity can be measured in how a community comes together in the aftermath of a disaster to influence recovery planning and policymaking towards long-term community sustainability. 

This paper analyzes community engagement in recovery planning and policymaking following Superstorm Sandy on the Rockaway peninsula (“The Rockaways”) in Queens.  Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay, The Rockaways was one of the hardest hit regions in New York City, pummeled by storm surges, flooding and fires. Prior to Sandy, the peninsula long suffered a sense of physical and psychological isolation from the centers of power in Manhattan, exacerbated by community perceptions of the peninsula as a “dumping ground” for undesirable community uses, especially a disproportionate percentage of New York City’s public housing, nursing homes, SROs, and halfway houses.  Yet, with federal, state and city recovery resources flowing to the peninsula since Sandy, and the Rockaways previously identified as a key site for sustainable development in the former Bloomberg Administration’s long-term sustainability plan, PlaNYC, the community is enjoying a renewed sense of empowerment and perception that policymakers are listening as residents envision the peninsula’s future.

The Rockaways is an important laboratory to study inequalities in policymaking.  The seven-mile long peninsula is racially and economically segregated, with the “west end” primarily populated by white, upper-middle-class neighborhoods of single-family homes, and the “east end” dominated by middle- to low-income housing, including substantial density of high rises, occupied by people of color.  Based on 18 months of observation, documentary research, in-depth interviews, and content analysis, we analyze socioeconomic, ethno-racial, and geographic disparities in community engagement to understand which stakeholders in the community are defining recovery priorities and how these differences influence adaptation policies and plans.  Observation and secondary research capture stakeholder participation in public recovery meetings and via appointments to community boards, associations, and recovery committees, while in-depth interviews have uncovered a stakeholder network that reveals gaps in participation in recovery policymaking and planning. 

The concern here for policymakers is that climate adaptation policies risk failure if a) a community’s range of needs are not well-represented due to disparities in participation, or b) the community is unable to consider important policy measures needed to successfully adapt to climate change, whether due to government distrust, desire to return to the status quo, or other critical factors.  Bloomberg’s prior long-term sustainability planning combined with Sandy’s devastation is pulling this segregated and formerly underserved community into an era of climate change adaptation unfolding from the local to global level.  The contribution of this research for policymakers and scholars is in understanding how we capitalize on newly energized communities’ willingness to participate in climate change adaptation without exacerbating pre-existing community inequalities that threaten truly sustainable change.