Scenario Planning to Build Coastal Resilience

Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath have underscored the vulnerability of the region to extreme weather events such as hurricanes and coastal storms. As the region recovers and rebuilds, understanding the costs, benefits and implications of our alternatives to responding to this disaster is imperative.

There are many coastal adaptation strategies that reduce damage and the risk of damage from large storms. These strategies can be site-specific, local or regional in scale. For the most part these tools — such as levees, bulkheads, constructed wetlands and zoning and site plan review powers — are familiar to planners and policy makers. But consensus among governments, planning agencies and the private sector can be difficult to achieve.

The wake of Sandy's devastation has brought attention and political will among these parties. There are many questions and tough decisions ahead: Will the region rebuild in place, and armor its coastline with a combination of "hard" and "soft" infrastructure, or retreat from coastal areas? How can local government best support homeowners and businesses facing decisions about needed improvements and higher insurance premiums?

To help frame and answer those questions, Regional Plan Association recently led a scenario planning exercise that looks at regional resilience to extreme coastal storm events — tropical storms and nor'easters — across four alternative futures. Scenario planning is technique often used by planners in situations — as with coastal storms and climate change - where uncertainty is a critical factor.

Our goal is to illustrate the implications of alternative policies and investments in a way that will help decision makers create more resilient coastal communities in the face of an uncertain future. The result will be a framework that will help local and regional planners select the most appropriate coastal adaptation strategies.

Working with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the Consensus Building Institute and Bio-Era, RPA convened our partner organizations from the HUD Sustainable Communities Initiatives from New York-Connecticut and North Jersey to participate in this exercise. RPA had established draft parameters based on the frequency and severity of storm events; the degree of activity from local, state and federal government; and possible responses from the marketplace. At the workshop, SCI partners fleshed out these factors and help ensure the scenarios to reflect the situation in their own communities.

Building on coastal adaptation strategies identified by the New York City Department of City Planning, one of our SCI partners, RPA will now identify risk exposures based on coastal geomorphology, land use and critical infrastructure systems. We will test the site-specific, local and regional coastal adaptation strategies across a sample of these exposures under each of four scenarios as to the resulting opportunities and constraints, costs, and co-benefits. The work will be presented at the annual RPA Assembly on April 19.

In many ways, the future of the region has never been more uncertain. The return rate of such severe weather is unclear. The ability of the public sector to undertake long-term improvements and maintenance is in question. The response of the private real estate market to these risks is unknown. As we start down the path of framing a coherent policy and investment response to Sandy, it is critical that this uncertainty be addressed from the start.