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 Many cities over the years have been challenged by incursions of the sea. Think of Venice, Rotterdam, London, Shanghai, Tokyo, and others. They all tell stories and provide lessons. We read of the great Delta Works of the Netherlands with its networks of levees, dykes, surge barriers and more recently their adjustments to embrace nature. I have been fascinated over the years with the so-called retractable barrier system at the mouth of the Thames. It was envisaged back in 1953 after the disaster of the North Sea floods, commenced in the 60s, and opened (wrong word!) by the Queen in 1984. I dream of such a structure across the entrance to Sydney Harbour and also Botany Bay as sea level gets to those scarily believable heights of +1m or more. But how do such decisions get made in a democracy?

Michael Kimmelman wrote a fascinating piece in the New York Times (2/12/21) exploring this topic. He wrote it as a parable about making urgent decisions in a democracy involving a range of issues including inclusion, expertise, problem solving, funding sources and politics at all levels of government. The problem was how to find ways to protect housing, commercial businesses, public amenities, and infrastructure services in Lower Manhattan. Why? Because in 2012 Hurricane Sandy devastated large parts of the area south of 39th Street including Wall Street and the subway system (an aerial photo in his article is very dramatic on the impact on power supply). More recently Hurricane Ida with its intense rainfall has added to the city’s drainage woes reminding us even further how past legacies of sewer and stormwater construction can have horrible adverse effects.

President Obama responded immediately after Sandy with federal support. Kimmelman details all that followed with a design competition on establishing protective works that embraced a public park. This all became the “East Side Coastal Resilience Project” aimed to prevent storm surge impacts in future while maintaining public amenities. Over a four-year period there was extensive consultation although issues of costing, concerns over maintenance of “rickety and ancient” sewer systems, and who pays remained unresolved. In 2018 the City Mayor stirred the proverbial pot with an announcement of an alternate design on a grander scale because of the need to better protect underground services amongst other things. This led to a fracturing of the community, lawsuits, commencement of works by the city government, periodic stoppages, and a loss of faith in the consultation process. The author states that “even when money is at hand our consulted systems often make it difficult or impossible to find consensus and work at speed and scale required”. Yet work is progressing but the timetable has blown out and adjustments are in hand for modifications as sea level continues to rise.

The whole process made a fascinating read as I could see parallels with what we are facing in Sydney and other Australian coastal cities. He demonstrated just how planning can be so imperfect with local government having to engage other levels of government, conflicting community interests, legacy infrastructure, and the private sector. Many communities wanted to be heard and whose voice was listened to most when public good infrastructure such as a public park was at stake? He wondered how any progress is made when operating in “A nation steeped in individual liberty and Manifest Destiny is not accustomed to thinking about prevention or retreating from places too unsafe to occupy and too costly to save”. Climate change is seen as a crisis simply too big and fast moving for the “snails pace of participatory democracy”. Reliance on expertise may have satisfied the Dutch, but in the USA expertise comes with “different stripes” that slows down decision making causing some communities to lose faith.

I see shades of all this in Australia. It is worth being aware of how other cities are coping, or not!


Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2021. For correspondence about this blog post please email