Friday, January 19, 2018

Grading New York’s Harbors

August 1, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

  grading ny water

Many people first listen to the forecast of a hurricane or another destructive force of nature with a certain detachment. Though early forecasts are a call to action, it’s easy to be apathetic. When the event is days or a week away, rising water levels, flooding, catastrophic heat, or devastating cold just doesn’t feel real. The knot in your stomach only begins to tighten as the time draws closer and the forecasts become dire. However, by then, it’s often too late to take the best course of action.

Courtesy The Waterfront AllianceThe consequences of a changing climate appear too abstract for many people to comprehend now, but the warning signs should be heeded — New York is a state with a lot of vulnerable waterfront property. Preparation, especially at our harbors, is a present-day must.

The Waterfront Alliance, based in downtown Manhattan, stands prepared to nudge or even push people from their climate change inertia. The coalition, formed in 2007 to “protect, transform, and revitalize our harbor and waterfront” now has more than 950 organizations under its umbrella.

The Alliance’s Harbor Scorecard rates all harbors in the boroughs of New York City on how prepared each is for coastal flooding, how accessible the waters of the harbor are for people and boats, and whether the waters are healthy enough for swimmers and anglers.

The scorecard reveals that 408,000 New Yorkers live in areas with a 50 percent chance of experiencing major flooding by 2060. As 41 percent of those same people live in impoverished areas, overflowing waters imperil lives, homes, and economic wellbeing.

José SoegaardThis year is the 10th anniversary of the Waterfront Alliance as an independent organization. Therefore, according to José Soegaard, the alliance’s director of programs and policy, coalition members wanted to “produce something new to commemorate that milestone, to communicate to New Yorkers simply and succinctly about the waterfront in their neighborhood: Can you access the water, is the water near you clean, and are you safe from the next major storm?”

Compiling all this useful information took time and effort, as Soegaard explains. “We think of this region as ‘one harbor, two states’ but there is variability from community to community across those big questions. We worked with a team of advisors with subject-matter expertise to help us identify and interpret existing data sources, so in essence we are leveraging others’ research and distilling those details down to the community district level. The data gathering phase took about three to four months, followed by another few months working with designers and web developers to present that Harbor Scorecard screenshotinformation.”

He’s pleased with how all this was received, says Soegaard. “We have been thrilled by the response from community organizations and activists who view the Harbor Scorecard as an advocacy tool. Where a community is rating poorly across one or more indices, we see an opportunity to use the Scorecard as a way of helping them tell that story to decision-makers, to lobby for clean water, better coastal defenses, or more recreational access to the waterways.”

Of course, something that’s this ambitious has had its challenges. “As with other data projects, one of the biggest challenges has been how to present complex and varied information in a way that quickly communicates the broader risks of climate change and how better, safer access can build ownership of the waterways,” Soegaard notes.

“When we sit with the data for weeks, we have a pretty good sense of what some of the key issues are, but when we are pushing that information out to busy New Yorkers, many of whom are constantly being inundated with news, facts, and other information, we need to be simple and direct.” (Yes, he does know the mindset of a New Yorker quite well.)

Harbor Scorecard screenshot mapHarbor administrators can take actions to prepare, but boaters also play a big part in the health and safety of docks, ports, and waterways. Waterfront Alliance staff are keenly aware of this, explains Soegaard. “Boaters are literally on the front lines — reporting what you see is critical, whether it’s a maintenance issue or a perceived health hazard.

“Joining a citizen science water testing group, or organizing a constituency for better boating access, can go a long way toward shaping a harbor and waterways that are more open and inclusive, and can help bring the experience of being out on the water to countless others.”

For more information on the Harbor Scorecard and the Waterfront Alliance, visit

By Michael Griffin


is a native New Yorker who has many fond memories of going deep-sea fishing in his youth. He lives near Long Island with his wife, son, and cat (who is sitting in his lap as he types this).

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