11: The Pitfalls of Adapting Cities for Climate Change

What does it take for whole cities to take the actions necessary to adapt to a changing climate? What is required for millions of people who live in the same metropolis to agree to certain changes to become resilient to climate change-driven natural disasters? These are the questions that Malcolm Araos has been asking.

Malcolm Araos is a Wilkes Center post-doctoral student in the Department of Geography.  Previously Araos, who is originally from Canada, was a PhD student in Sociology at New York University where he researched the process for how the city of New York began changing its infrastructure to become more resilient to sea level rise and future hurricanes in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which caused mass flooding and destruction in 2012. 

As a postdoctoral student now at the University of Utah, Araos has turned his attention to the Great Salt Lake. He is just beginning to examine how millions of Utahns living on the Wasatch Front are confronting risks of dust and air pollution stemming from the shrinking lake levels. 

[Feature image: a rendering of the original BIG U proposal — of which the $1.45 billion East River Park is one small part — for building climate resiliency around Lower Manhattan. (Credit: Rebuild By Design/The BIG Team)]

Listen to the Interview:


Ross Chambless
Malcolm Araos, thanks so much for being here to talk with me today.

Malcolm Araos
Thank you for having me.

Ross Chambless
I’ve been really looking forward to this conversation and specifically just about because I’ve been very interested in sort of the sociology of climate change and really, you know, specifically sort of how governments and communities are responding or taking action or not taking action, I guess. And sort of like how that is sort of orienting people in their everyday lives around making these adjustments. So yeah, excited to learn more.

The first question I really wanted to ask is about your background in examining the East River Park experience with New York City after Hurricane Sandy. You spent a lot of time, I understand, researching this topic for your dissertation and I’m curious what lessons were learned. Like, what did you learn about the value of involving the community in that process?

Malcolm Araos

Malcolm Araos
Yeah, great question. So, you know, I think sociologists have lots of different roles that they can play in this bigger climate change issue. There’s a lot of sociologists studying decarbonization, so trying to remove carbon, reduce carbon emissions to kind of slow or stop climate change.  My focus is more on adaptation. So, how human societies respond to climate change impacts that are already happening. And my specific focus is on the social challenges of getting these policies done. So, how governments plan these initiatives and how they’re playing out and how the public response to these initiatives.

And so, for my dissertation, I studied this one specific adaptation project, which is maybe the biggest, most expensive adaptation project in the world right now, which is the project to protect Lower Manhattan from the impacts of sea level rise and storm surge. And this started being planned in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. And this is an experiment that was a policy experiment that at first was to have this very, very participatory kind of democratic planning process to plan this project. And the project essentially would be a wall around the Lower Manhattan. And the initial idea was to have it as a park. So, it would be not just a seawall that would protect Lower Manhattan from having the ocean come into the city, but also would be a kind of this public amenity for people. And another part of the notion behind the project was that it would be, again, very democratic, and very participatory.

So, I was really interested in how these projects play out. I was really interested in documenting this potentially successful example of democratic planning for climate change adaptation, which in the literature and just common sense it makes sense that we would want people to be involved in the planning of these initiatives, right? The people that these projects are going to affect. And I spent a few months studying this process, and then after a while the city decided to totally change the project into this project that they called more technically sound.

But that was very different from the participatory democratic process and the public consensus plan that the public and the government had arrived at. And there was tons of anger about this. Right? There was a huge response, you know, protests and lawsuits, people yelling each other at these community meetings.  Because the project was no longer democratic.

So, I started pondering this idea, and I reached some conclusions after lots of lots of research. There’s lots of other details of what happened in that case. But this idea of how democratic in planning for these projects, how democratic can these projects possibly be? They have to combine the technical expertise of climate scientists, and engineers, and architects, and landscape architects, and designers with public input, Right? So that these projects can be legitimate. So, I started pondering these questions. And I think there’s no kind of right answer, but I think this will be a challenge that other cities will have to face: how democratic can these projects be?

Ross Chambless
Yeah. Would you say that the East River Park example with New York City was an example of what not to do for a successful large scale adaptation process? I mean, it seems like the city sort of moved the goalposts, right? And they almost started one process and then kind of bulldozed later through meaningful public involvement.

The East River Park (Photo Credit: Malcolm Araos)

Malcolm Araos
Yes, totally. The process unfolded in a really messy way, and the city did not do the best that they possibly could have. But again, this is a kind of an experimental project. And as cities start to grapple with these issues, they’re going to run into these problems, right? Because they don’t have experience doing these projects before.

And so, yes, it’s kind of an example of what not to do to create this, you know, illusion of a participatory process and then the government changing their mind and doing whatever they want to do and try to push this project through. That’s going to create resistance and lawsuits.

But again, there’s this deeper question of can these large-scale complex projects ever be 100% Democratic or 100% led by public input? And I think we need more experimentation on that to find that out. Public input and kind of democratic planning is important to gain legitimacy, right, to avoid having this resistance, this public resistance. But at the same time, the public input can’t have expertise on every aspect of the planning project, on the planning process. So, you still need the input from engineers and climate scientists. And so, the challenge I think cities should take seriously is how could we potentially mix these two aspects?  The technical expertise and the democratic participation. I think that’s not really clear yet how that’s going to pan out.

Ross Chambless
Yeah, and sort of like what you’re describing, these sort of competing philosophies over whether it should be the educated planners and engineers who are the ones who ultimately decide how the city is going to grow and adapt, versus the ordinary residents who live there every day and they’re on the street level. And ultimately, should it be them who decide what their city is going to become? So, it seems like it’s a balancing act. Is that it? That’s the question?

A small demonstration in support of the East River Park project by tenant leaders of people living in subsidized housing. (Photo Credit: Malcolm Araos)

Malcolm Araos
Yeah, it’s a balancing act for sure. Like I said, sociologists are really bad at proposing solutions and really good at identifying what the problems are and explaining them. So, I think I identified this as a big challenge that cities are going to have to face in the future, right.

And it’s not just in the realm of climate change and climate adaptation. We saw that with the coronavirus pandemic, right. This tension between expertise and public knowledge and what other forms of knowledge look like, and that clash with technical knowledge and expert knowledge. And we can think that, we can say that the people on the ground who have this ultimate knowledge are wrong, but that doesn’t really help solve the problem that you still need some kind of mutual understanding to avoid this public resistance. Yeah.

So, I think cities should continue experimenting with using public input and participatory governance methods, but also maybe they could be more transparent about, ‘hey, listen, we’re going to run into some barriers of just using public input to create this plan. And we’re going to have to combine that with the knowledge from engineers and climate scientists. So we’re going to have to have some limits and we’re going to have some kind of back and forth interaction.’ I think that’s another way that this could pan out.  These iterative planning processes where with public input people come to a meeting and say this is what we want the project to be like. And then you have engineers say, okay, how can we work with this? And then go back to the public and say, we can do this, but we can’t do this other part, and so on.

Ross Chambless
Yeah. It does seem like a very extremely challenging process for policymakers to go through, but seemingly very necessary, to make sure that they don’t get ahead of where the public is, and to bring them along on the journey. Otherwise, there isn’t going to be buy-in, right?

Malcolm Araos
Yeah, there isn’t going to be buy-in.  I want to just also identify another problem. When we talk about “community input” or “public input,” there is not a single community voice, right? And there’s not a single public voice.

And so, another really important part of the story that I found out in the Lower East Side of Manhattan when I was studying the East River Park, was that you had these two community groups responding in very different ways. So, New York City is a very segregated place by race and by class. And what I found, during Hurricane Sandy, the Lower East Side has a ton of really high-concentrated public housing. So, working class people living in subsidized housing. And they were really affected by the flooding. And over time, we’ve been talking about this public resistance to this project, you know, protests and lawsuits. There was a split in the community and the people who had been really affected by Hurricane Sandy, the flooding, in public housing, ended up supporting this plan.  And saying, you know, it’s not perfect that the city “betrayed us” and they changed the plan. But still, we want this plan to go ahead because we want, to quote from a tenant leader, “we want protection for the 20,000 people living in public housing and Lower East Side.”

And you have this other group that remained vehement in their opposition to the plan. And they ended up leading the protest against the plan. And people started seeing this conflict in both class- and race-based ways. So, the people living in public housing, the people who spoke for them, the tenant leaders tended to be women of color. Working class women of color.  And the people who opposed the plan tended to be kind of older, whiter folks on the lower East Side. Also, it’s a very kind of artistic community who tend to be poets and directors. These are the people who composed the group opposing the project.

So, you had these kind of bitter community fights. The city, and other cities in the future, will have to deal with these problems. Not every neighborhood has the same composition as the Lower East Side.  But this problem that we saw exemplifies that there is also no single community voice. So, cities also have to deal with that.

Ross Chambless
Yeah. It does seem that the issue of social equity is going to be a factor in any community, especially dealing with these large-scale adaptation projects going forward. I guess, there might be other examples, but what were your main takeaways for why social equity is really important to consider when going through this process? And what might be better practices, better ways to go about it?

Posters at the park during construction showing some of the reasons people opposed the park project (Photo Credit: Malcolm Araos)

Malcolm Araos
Great question. I mean, this is a really basic question of what social scientists call climate justice. Overall in the world, the people who bear the brunt of climate change impacts are the people the least responsible for putting those emissions into the atmosphere right. On a global level, wealthy nations are the countries that put the most carbon emissions in the atmosphere. But the countries having the hardest impacts are countries like Bangladesh or Kenya, the poor countries in general.

But this also works at the local level. The people even most responsible for consumption, for flying, for eating a lot of meat, buying high-emission electronics like laptops and stuff like that. Those are the people that are best positioned to protect themselves from climate impacts. And the people who can protect themselves least are people that don’t have a lot of money, don’t have a lot of social networks to rely on in times of disaster, don’t have a lot of money to bounce back after disasters.

And so, it’s a basic climate justice issue to prioritize the most vulnerable groups, the most vulnerable areas of a city, of a nation, first.  So, that investment should happen there first.

Ross Chambless
So, it does seem that when it comes to coastal cities, by not having, or by even completely sort of avoiding these transitions, a lot of cities are setting themselves up for a chaotic or cataclysmic adaptation, or evacuations down the road. Whereas New York City, for all its difficulty in trying to roll this out, at least they’re showing that they’re leading the way, as far as U.S. cities. By showing how this process can take place and hopefully giving us lessons to learn, right? Maybe that’s another way of looking at it.

a rendering of what the park would look like when the project is finished (Credit: City of New York)

Malcolm Araos
Yeah, for sure. Lessons to learn, and problems that cities that haven’t gotten started maybe might face in the future. So, New York City is an ideal place for progress to happen. They have leadership that takes this issue very seriously. They had a disaster that people are responding to, that governments at various levels, federal government, city government is spending billions of dollars to respond to, to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy in a more resilient way. You have public opinion that’s supportive. You have many universities in the region that have created very specific, tailored science for New York City, what the impacts are going to be in New York City. So, you’d imagine that all the conditions are excellent for New York City to make progress on these projects, more than in other places where those conditions might not be in place.

But even then, we still run into these other problems of like the social conflict. Like this public resistance to plans. And just really deep disagreement about how these planning processes for adaptation should take place. Really different visions of the future for their neighborhoods, what people want their neighborhoods to look like under climate change conditions, and how to adapt to these new threats.

So, yes, the takeaways I think there are, even in places where the conditions are ideal, and for other places down the line when we get to build these projects, it’s useful to know this information about these other social conflicts that could arise, in order to kind of get ahead of them as well.

Ross Chambless
Yeah. So, I do want to pivot to where you are now as far as your research focus. You finished your doctoral degree, Ph.D. at NYU. Now you’re in Utah doing your postdoctoral research specifically on the Great Salt Lake. Which is obviously a very big issue here in this community. And I understand that now you’re just in the early stages of your research, and so I don’t really want to ask too much about it, because obviously, you know, you probably don’t have many findings yet.  But I’m just curious to ask about what research questions are you framing and going about asking on this specific topic now?

Malcolm Araos
So, I’m taking basically the same a similar approach to what I did in New York City, with the same sensibility to study the social challenges of responding to complex environmental threats, and thinking about the Great Salt lake in those terms.

So, the research questions that I’m interested in here in Utah — I think we’re all familiar maybe with the basic Great Salt Lake situation, that the water levels are the lowest they’ve been in recorded history.  I want to interview lots of different people belonging to different types of groups, right. So, policymakers, politicians, activists, people working with non-governmental organizations, scientists, people working in private sectors of agriculture or mining or even the brine ship industry around the Great Salt Lake, and ask them, how do you see this problem? How do you understand this problem? How do you understand the roots of this problem? You know, just get people to describe to me the shape of the issue as they understand it.

And then, compare that across these different groups. Depending on what kind of groups these people belong to, maybe they understand the issue in really different ways.  And then asking the question of solutions, like how do you see the future of the Great Salt Lake? How do you see the future of just life in the region in general? You know, along the Wasatch Front there is not just environmental stresses here. There’s also affordability crises and housing shortage crises. So, how do people see life in this region of the future in general?

And I think my goal is, again, to understand… my thesis is that making progress on this issue is going to require everyone to work together in some way, and to understand where other groups are coming from. So, there might be a lot of disagreement.  But I think it’s important to document and map out where everyone is on this issue. And then that’s a good way to start working toward solving the problem.

And in my view, the Great Salt Lake and this problem of water scarcity stands in also for the future of the American West, more generally. The whole American West has problems regarding water and not having enough water. And I think the case of Great Salt Lake and this general urban region could be an example of lessons that we could learn for just this part of the country more generally.

Ross Chambless
Yeah, absolutely. I have a couple of thoughts on that. Certainly one of the obvious differences between New York City is that we’re not a coastal city here, right. Very far from the ocean. So, different challenges as far as trying to get a community to adapt, in this case to a lake that’s drying up. And, you know, so potentially various other health-related challenges that we might be facing down the road.  But another aspect of it is, you know, Utah is a conservative state and I think when it comes to climate change policy, things tend to be slowly evolving here.  We do see a lot of incrementalism in policymaking on in this space.  And I guess a question I have for you, and maybe the question generally is, is incrementalism progress in a way? Is it the best we can do?

Photo taken during a Utah National Guard Black Hawk helicopter training exercise over Great Salt Lake that was organized in February 2022 to allow state legislators to see the condition of the lake. (Photo Credit: Ross Chambless)

Malcolm Araos
Yeah, good question. I mean, that’s kind of a subjective question. I think to make big change on this issue, maybe need what people call a transformative adaptation, right. So, instead of even these infrastructure projects that protect people from the impacts of climate change, there are deeper drivers of vulnerability in the region. So, people here talk about water law and the way that water is apportioned to different actors. That is a much deeper source of problems of water scarcity in this part of the country than, say a solution that could be just water conservation in this area. And that maybe is a more surface level solution and a more incremental solution, as you might call it, than changing water laws, right.

But there is also this kind of… pragmatism is boring, right. But there is a limit to how much you can do in certain contexts, given certain limitations. So, we can talk and understand what deeper solutions might be needed and kind of deeper structural changes might be needed. But like you say, in a place like Utah, those might not necessarily be feasible, right.  So, it might be worthwhile identifying them. But then working toward a solution. I think you really have to take into account what is possible and what do people want.

I think that’s part of my approach to understanding what other groups, what all the groups involved, how they understand the problem. Like I said, they might really disagree with each other.  Buy it’s my thesis, and really I believe this is true, that you need some understanding, and some consensus, and some kind of deliberation across these different groups that maybe don’t think the same way.  Maybe they don’t understand the problem in the same way, they don’t see the solutions in the same way. And that’s kind of the incremental part of just whatever happens is going to have to… we need buy-in from all the different actors to get to get something done.

Ross Chambless
Absolutely. Well, very interesting research. I know that there will be a lot of people here who will be really interested in whatever sort of results you find, and perhaps we can follow up a few months down the road and see what you’ve been learning on this topic.

Before we end, I wanted to ask more of a personal side question. So, now that you’re in Utah, I what are you finding enjoyable? What are you discovering about life here in this state? What do you do when you’re not doing research?

Malcolm Araos
I love nature. I love cycling. I did that in New York City even, but that involved just going around Central Park dozens of times. But here there’s many more opportunities to do different things going up and down the canyons. Just got a mountain bike trying to get into skiing. So definitely trying to take advantage of that of those things. Yeah. I’ve been loving that.

Ross Chambless
Great. Well, Malcolm Aaros, thank you so much.

Malcolm Aaros
Thank you.

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