Columbia Students Address Climate Change Adaptation in NYC

Columbia Students Address Climate Change Adaptation in NYC

Within the maze of the seemingly endless concrete jungle, we often forget that New York City is comprised of largely low-lying coastal areas, vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate. Steve Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute, welcomed participants and attendees at the Climate Change Adaptation Initiative Conference on April 17 with a stark pronouncement: “Two things are fundamental: Climate change is happening and we’re not moving, and so we have to figure out a way to adjust the infrastructure and to adjust the city to these changes.”

The conference provided an opportunity for Earth Institute interns to publicly present their research on issues related to climate change adaptation. Funded by a generous grant from the HSBC in the Community (USA) Inc., Earth Institute interns have teamed up with scientists, policymakers, community organizers and city planners from the New York metropolitan area to engage in research and to work on projects geared towards climate change adaptation. Cohen said of the challenge of global warming,The hope that we have for solving these problems is not with people my age, but with the next generation, and it is always very exciting for us to see the potential through these students’ work.”

Gita Subramony, a master’s candidate in urban planning, worked with Richard Plunz and Richard Gonzalez of the Earth Institute’s Urban Design Lab to map out a model “adaptation corridor” on 145th Street in Harlem. The corridor project highlighted changes that can be made in communities to promote more sustainable living, including eliminating vacant store fronts to increase safety, planting gardens, and implementing porous sidewalks to improve drainage and air quality. “We see the corridor as a potential example of a sustainable community, with mass transit infrastructure, walkable corridors, and an active streetscape. It is a prime example of a river-to-river corridor that can break east-west barriers by creating a unifying approach to a more livable community,” said Subramony.

Eleanor Blomstrom, a graduating M.I.A. student in environmental policy studies, and supervisor Wade McGillis, a research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, examined the environmental benefits of green roofs for New York City. Blomstrom pointed to the importance of green roofs in absorbing rain water, noting that, “Combined sewer overflows happen when sewers are overwhelmed during precipitation events and discharge untreated storm water and waste water into water bodies in New York City; one calculation shows that green roofs could potentially decrease the amount of combined sewer overflows in New York City by as much as 40 percent.”

Increases in the prevalence of West Nile virus, more extreme heat waves, and compromised air quality are all potential health impacts that could result from climate change in New York City. Victoria Trinies, a Master in Public Health candidate at the Mailman School of Public Health, worked at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) looking at preventive and reactive strategies for the City to undertake in preparation of potential health crises triggered by climate change in the New York metropolitan area. “I first looked at New York City’s existing plans or measures that deal with vulnerable populations, health preparedness and emergency planning,” said Trinies. “I expanded my view and looked at other counties, states and countries to analyze best practices as well as gaps in climate change induced health impact plans of action that are in place.”

While much of the attention at the conference focused on the potentially negative impacts of climate change on New York, a few students looked at how the city and state can view adaptation as an opportunity. Josef Szende, an urban planning master’s candidate, outlined the cost savings, social benefits and individual benefits of having lesser-offense inmates or recently released inmates sent into green jobs training programs. Working at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Szende argued that the resulting social benefits of retraining inmates for the emerging green jobs sector would exceed the social benefits of constructing a new jail and suggested redirecting funds for the proposed new South Bronx jail into a green jobs training program. 

A panel discussion moderated by Steve Cohen cast light on the lengths that various agencies from across the New York metropolitan area are going to in order to collaborate and push for concrete climate change adaptation strategies. Across disciplines and sectors, it was clear that climate change mitigation and adaptation is a top priority, and traditional boundaries of thought are being challenged. Creative planning and problem-solving can be seen through both the projects completed by the HSBC-funded student researchers, but also through the work that their supervisors are engaged in and are using to guide the adaptation projects.

Heather Nesle, vice president of community & philanthropic services at HSBC Bank, captured the essence of the discussion when she noted that in a future that will be shaped by a changing climate, individual and corporate responsibility for one’s own actions holds the key to lasting behavioral changes. “Everyone contributes to climate change; everyone emits carbon,” she noted. “So from a business perspective we ask, where can we invest, where can we send people and how can we lower our own emissions.” 

Steve Cohen concluded the conference by reminding those in attendance of the actuality of climate change and our role in that new environment, saying, “Because of the way we live, and because of the things that we’re doing, we do have to focus quite a bit on the issues of adaptation.” 

Video clips and the posters and presentations displaying the students’ research are available on the Climate Change Adaptation Initiative conference website at