Service The Sound of Silence: Where are the Community Stakeholders in the Building...

The Sound of Silence: Where are the Community Stakeholders in the Building of the Big U?

By Leslie Aarons

A computer generated model of what the berm will look like.<br> Rebuild By Design/ Bjarke Ingels Group
A computer generated model of what the berm will look like.
Rebuild By Design/ Bjarke Ingels Group

An article in the July 2016 issue of Rolling Stone magazine strikes at the zenith of environmental and public philosophy. Indeed, this magazine is an icon of popular culture, offering the cutting-edge news that the insatiable public craves. In his article, “Can New York Be saved in the Era of Global Warming?,” James Goodell discusses the development of the “East Side Coastal Resiliency Project” (ESCRP)an impressive, federally funded, coastal protection initiative to build a 10-foot-high steel-and-concrete-reinforced berm aimed at reducing flood risk due to the presumptive increase in the frequency and severity of coastal storms and sea level rise. The levee for the ESCRP will encompass 2.2 miles of a 100-year floodplain on the East Side of Manhattan. The construction of this $335 million project is just the beginning of New York City’s $20 billion “climate resiliency program.” The ambitious plan culminates in the building of the “Big U,” a continuous berm to protect what many regard as one of the greatest cities in the world, from the impending perils of climate change.

Inspired by Goodell’s article, I started searching online to find out more about the ESCRP. The first website that I happened upon (the community group Rebuild By Design’s page on the project), encouraged guests to learn more by visiting the NYC Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency.  While I was discouraged to see that the link to the Mayor’s office misspelled “website” as “WEBITE,” I was more disheartened by the fact that, although this page is almost a year old and features a prominent place to leave comments, there were no comments on it—not one. I could not find any significant public forums or discussion boards regarding this colossal project anywhere on the web. I emailed ESCR government team to inquire if I was inadvertently missing the online public forums that surely ought to exist. Although I did not expect a prompt reply, to my surprise I received one within hours: “Unfortunately, there are no existing public forums/discussion boards online currently. We will add you to our email list and invite you to any future public community meetings. Thank you, ESCR Team.” This is truly bizarre and disturbing. The ESCR Project is just the beginning of a $20 billion plan that is well underway, as a result of years of planning and collaboration among federal, state, and city agencies. With hundreds of millions of dollars allocated, top architectural firms from around the world competed to win the contract for the ECSR project, and construction is set to break ground in the summer of 2017. So why is there such an appalling lack of public awareness?  What is the explanation for the absence of discussion among New York City residents regarding this immense project that will dramatically change the landscape of Manhattan on scale with the loss of the World Trade Towers and the building of the One World Trade Center?

A map of the planned "Big U" in Manhattan
A map of the planned “Big U” in Manhattan.
Rebuild By Design/ Bjarke Ingels Group

In 2012, a devastating upshot of global warming slammed New York City. It was under siege, deluged by the powerful effects of Hurricane Sandy. Climate scientists are resolute in their analysis that such weather events are a direct result of global warming, precipitated by human-caused pollution. These climate events are predicted to continue to be more frequent and more severe as the Earth contends with human-induced effluence. Cost estimates for damages to New York City exceeded $19 billion, with New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) sustaining approximately $5 billion in damages to the city’s infrastructure and lost revenue. Hurricane Sandy was the second-costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, second only to Hurricane Katrina.

Nevertheless, New Yorkers are rightly famous for their true grit. As Frank Sinatra correctly sang: “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” The famed New York tenacity comes from a take-charge attitude that has made New York City an Alpha++ city, with a #1 ranking on most reputable global cities lists. New York City residents have a robust reputation for their forthrightness and bold ingenuity.

Living in a place where being demure might just get you run over, New Yorkers tend to be an informed and outspoken community. So where is the public’s voice weighing in on this profound project to build a visible berm that will swaddle the city? There needs to be a palpable influence from the public regarding a project of this magnitude, as there are substantial issues and questions that must be addressed by the community to ensure a healthy and democratic outcome. There are questions regarding the planned berm’s impact on marine life, communities, access, transportation, businesses, industry, real estate, and tourism, just to name a few. These essential questions from the community inspire the demand for more critical studies to be conducted to address concerns proactively, responsibly, fairly, and sustainably. There are grave and inevitable dangers when public reform is enacted without being properly informed by public opinion. The driving force of public opinion is requisite for such progress.

Perhaps this disturbing public mystery can be characterized with a quote that is often attributed to famed playwright George Bernard Shaw that states, “The biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”


Leslie A. Aarons, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at City University of New York (CUNY) LaGuardia Community College. Her specializations are in Environmental Ethics, Public Philosophy, and Continental Philosophy. She has published chapters in a number of Philosophy and Popular Culture series, and she is presently writing a book on Environmental Public Philosophy. She is the President and Conference Organizer for the Long Island Philosophical Society.


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  1. Greetings,

    There was a public input process for the Big U. berm. It was led by the Rebuild by Design team, had two phases and lasted several months. The list of the stakeholders is here:
    And the old comments are still on the site. But you are absolutely right, there is very little if any city wide, big picture discussion of the implementation of the rest of NYC’s climate change plan, much of which is now folded into One New York: a plan for a just and strong city. The one exception of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance comment on One New York. Several of us are working on creating a more public process tho and CUNY would be a great place to host it!

  2. Thanks for your reply Michael. It’s always great to find fellow philosopher/activists. Yes indeed, CUNY would be a perfect venue to host informative events to inspire public engagement in significant issues such as the Big U project, that will no doubt have an immense impact on our lives here in NYC, as well as on the global community.

    Does Brooklyn College have a Sustainability Council of some kind? At LaGuardia, I have partnered with our Council to host Environmental Ethics events each year at the College in April, coinciding with Earth Day. The “Big U” project would be a Perfect theme for the 2017 event!


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