Interviews & Profiles

Is climate resilience an issue of equity?

An interview with Cortney Koenig Worrall, CEO and president of the Waterfront Alliance, discussing its Climate Informed Communities initiative and protecting New York’s most vulnerable regions.

Cortney Koenig Worrall, CEO and president of the Waterfront Alliance

Cortney Koenig Worrall, CEO and president of the Waterfront Alliance Ian Douglas

As more and more sea ice melts, experts warn that the hazards of climate change will become unavoidable realities for New Yorkers across the state. But among them, low-income communities, often aggregated in areas near shorelines, are most vulnerable to these effects.

The Waterfront Alliance aims to advance climate resiliency projects across New York and New Jersey, deploying experts and collaborating with leading organizations to administer cutting-edge guidelines for future sustainability projects. The organization became independent in 2007, growing into a coalition with more than 1,100 organizations representing the region’s waterways and 700 miles of shoreline. In addition to advocacy, the Alliance’s Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines help projects receive national recognition to create resilient, ecological, and accessible waterfronts. Following Gov. Kathy Hochul’s 2024 State of State address, which pledged a new comprehensive resiliency plan aimed at protecting New Yorkers from extreme weather events, The Waterfront Alliance noted that these resiliency projects ultimately advance equity for vulnerable New Yorkers. New York Nonprofit Media spoke to Waterfront Alliance CEO Cortney Koenig Worrall about the effects of climate change on low-income communities and the organization’s Climate Informed Communities initiative. 

How does climate change disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color? In what ways is this a systemic issue? 

The country and New York City has a history of redlining, where we moved, incentivized, and also forced people to live in the parts of the city and to make their homes in parts of the city that were most vulnerable to flooding, historically, but also in the least desirable land. That means that so many of the communities that are now facing even worse impacts from flooding, are on the frontlines of climate change, and are likely to have the greatest effects from it. So those people who have the least to do with climate change as a problem that that has been accelerating and brought to us by our policies, people who have the least amount to do with that are actually going to be threatened the most, because they tend to live in the most vulnerable places that are less able to withstand major impacts from heavy storms or heavy weather events.

I'm curious to learn more about the climate-informed communities initiative and what sets this apart from other climate change programs?

We spearhead the Rise To Resilience coalition. And this is a coalition of many groups that have come together, and we work to fight for the best and policy legislation and funding for new climate projects that will prevent major impacts from climate change and will change policies and laws to bring in new infrastructure. All of that work to help prepare the city for climate change, which will take a very long time; infrastructure can take anywhere from 5 to 10-20 years to be built. So in the interim, what we created, in addition to our coalition and our advocacy work is Climate Informed Communities. Climate Informed Communities is the program that informs New Yorkers that before these major changes come, before the infrastructure can come on board, that they need to take personal measures to protect themselves from climate change, especially if they live close to water. So we're pushing to make sure that most vulnerable communities know how to get flood insurance, know their evacuation zone for hurricanes, have the tools to advocate and tell their elected officials that this flooding is really affecting their ability to live in different neighborhoods and making sure that communities have access to emergency notification systems. And while the city has some good notification systems, we are finding that very, very few people are aware they even exist. And we're trying to make sure that as many people as possible, who are at threat, can access and know where to go for this information to protect their lives and their property. Because impacts of climate change are just accelerating, much more than was expected. 

Following Gov. Hochul’s State of State address, what are your thoughts on the governor's agenda on climate change?

Well, we were absolutely thrilled to see that she is looking to put into place a comprehensive climate resilience plan for New York state. So we were very pleased to see that. And I also have to say that one thing that we're also pleased about which is a little bit of a policy issue: now New York City state, as well as New Jersey as of just this week, have both finally come together with an agreed upon approach to the federal plan for protecting the entire region with major infrastructure projects. 

Would you mind talking a bit more about this plan?

It's a federal plan administered by the Army Corps of Engineers. It's called the harbor and tributary study. This plan was conceived after Hurricane Sandy, and the idea was to build barriers and sea gates and walls. That plan, it has been found, by analysis from the federal government and others is just unrealistic financially and also doesn't do a great job of protecting people from smaller storms. So we've been pushing now for years, to shift the direction towards a much more holistic approach where the federal government will commit to solving issues of smaller flood events.  Because sea levels are going up, there's flooding now in neighborhoods in New York City that happens without rain, just because of high tide.  

Is there any way that we can make use of existing infrastructure to help mitigate some of these effects of climate change?

There are ways to retrofit – to just make stronger existing infrastructure. A really good example would be if you have a wastewater treatment plant – they're usually located close to a water body so a lot of them are very susceptible to flooding. So instead of moving a plant up land or elevating it some way, a lot of the strategies that are taking place for retrofits just moves the electrical equipment, the equipment that if it were flooded would shut down. Moving that to higher levels at the site, so they're not vulnerable to major impacts. Other examples include, a number of the major buildings in lower Manhattan that were flooded now have their heating and cooling and electrical systems up on higher floors, so that if and when the next hurricane comes, the entire building isn't taken down in terms of its systemic functioning. And so those are just examples of where we can work with existing infrastructure to make it more strong and more resilient to future impacts.

What are some of the biggest obstacles that might prevent these solutions and new investments from being implemented?

One is awareness. We will never get a better climate event with the one we have today, it’s just going to continue to get more and more severe. And so if you're a developer, landowner, or an architect – and you're not factoring climate change into your decision making for the long term, you’re really missing the opportunity to make a difference. The next is funding, the funding that is needed at the government level to support all the awareness that's needed for the most vulnerable communities through our climate informed Communities Program. The funding is needed at that local level by the city and for nonprofits like us to help bring this information to New Yorkers who are really on the frontlines of climate change. The next is, we really need to tie in economic development. When the city talks about economic development it must be through a climate change lens. I think climate preparedness and economic development have to go hand in hand, the two cannot be separated as different conversations. 

And is this where the Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines come in to better inform developers and future designs?

Yes, that's right. The waterfront edge design guidelines program is incentivizing the very best and the most long-term and resilient solutions for any type of development that's located where water needs land. The WEDG is a national standard. It works for coastal areas, freshwater systems, lakes, rivers, streams, etc. [WEDG] incentivizes landowners or developers to go above and beyond what's currently required and that has a real amplification opportunity. So those developers who do go above and beyond get credit through us and through others by having the WEDG stamp of approval, which shows the world and their peers that they invested in things that [make a property] resilient to climate change. So this is a way of really making it visible. And we believe, over time, that the program itself can help to accelerate funding for these projects that will stand the test of time. 

Why is addressing climate change, ultimately an issue of equity?

The people who had the least to do with carbon emissions and greenhouse gas emissions are the ones who are and will suffer the most from the consequences from climate change. And people who have faced historic inequities will be the least able to recover from major impacts, either because of their financial assets or other vulnerability. So there's no separating climate change from the need to build equity, build resilience, and ensure that all communities in New York City have equal access to resources. One of the things that are critical to the environmental justice issue is that there can be this perverse incentive to build the best climate resilient structures and climate resilient infrastructure in neighborhoods with the highest tax base. And that is an example of where we as advocates have to make sure that the neighborhoods that have the greatest chance of losing the most from climate change, get the funding they need for climate resilience.