Digital Humanities
@ Pratt

Inquiries into culture, meaning, and human value meet emerging technologies and cutting-edge skills at Pratt Institute's School of Information

Near Future Flooding and Cultural Heritage in New York City

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[Click image above for link to interactive map in Carto]

Digital Humanities as a field does not typically cover topics like climate change and infrastructure, as those subjects are not widely considered relevant to the “humanities” and are typically left up to work by people other than humanists. But in the past few years there has been an exponentially increasing amount of interest by humanists in defining and discussing the anthropocene–an epoch in the history of the Earth defined by humans’ environmental impact, especially by the burning of fossil fuels over the past 150 years. But further from defining and integrating the idea of the anthropocene into our philosophical and political thinking, are there or will there be measurable, researchable, impacts on the humanities by climate change?

Much of the work done in the Digital Humanities comes out of academic institutions, museums, and libraries. Digital Humanists, especially those interested in historical fields, should also be interested in the way that landmarked sites and historic areas will be effected by climate change. A clear way to see these effects is to compare predicted flood maps to sites that the DH community uses and has vested interest in.

I chose to focus on New York City in this map, as it is my home, and also because it is dense with cultural heritage sites. But how at risk are New York City’s cultural heritage sites to inundation by flooding? This map shows answers to a section of that question. It specifically shows the locations of landmarked sites, historic districts, museums, and parks–all representative of cultural heritage–overlaid with shape files showing the 100-year predicted floodplain for the 2020s and the 500-year predicted floodplain 2050s.

I downloaded all of the data sets used in this map from NYC Open Data. The flood plain data is perhaps the most complicated. It was generated by FEMA and the Mayor’s Office for Sustainability, and shows the areas that will be at risk during a major flood in the 2020s and the 2050s respectively. “100 year floodplain in the 2020s” specifically means that the highlighted area reflects the high water mark during the most powerful storm in 100 years; a storm of this powerful nature has a 1% chance of occurring each year. The 500 year floodplain data for the 2050s similarly represents the high level water mark for the most powerful storm in 500 hundred years, where each year has a 1 in 500 chance that a storm of this magnitude will occur. These estimates take into account the given sea level rise of 4 to 8 inches from 2011 to 2020, and 11 to 24 inches from 2020 to 2050, as proposed by the Mayor’s Office for Sustainability. Therefore, the water lines that appear on the map are not everyday waterlines that will change by these dates, but instead represent a kind of risk assessment for conditions during and following a large storm given how waterlines will change.

However, as the New York City Panel on Climate Change notes in their white paper on this floodplain data,”While these new maps superimpose sea level rise onto FEMA’s flood maps, they do not account for other changes in climate, such as possible changes in storm intensity and frequency that could affect storm surge occurrences and heights.” This data was generated after Hurricane Sandy devastated New York City in 2012 (the data itself is from 2013), but perhaps this disclaimer can speak to the highly unpredictable nature of the floods that followed it, as seen in the map below from WNYC. The white paper also explains that, while generated in part by FEMA, this mapping data should not be used to assess insurance rates or property values, as the information is so unpredictable.

The WNYC map reveals that FEMA’s estimates for flooding in the city were conservative compared to actual flooding and subsequent surges that took place during and after Sandy, which was downgraded to a tropical storm just before it made landfall.

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[Click image above for link to interactive map on WNYC.org]

In my map, I chose a light blue color to represent the flood risk areas for 2050, and a dark blue to represent the flood risk areas for 2020, as the dark color would give an indication of deeper and more established flood zones, or perhaps areas that would be dealing with flood water more regularly. It was also dark enough to effectively shade the other points of interest on the map, to show the overlapping spaces. Toggling between the floodplains for 2020 and 2050, it becomes evident how much overlap there is, and how the flood areas grow dramatically larger in 2050 only in certain places.

The second most noticeable factor on the map is the individual landmarked buildings, which are light yellow in color and very dense in some areas. This is due to the fact that every building in a historic district is marked and protected as a landmark; while this makes the map somewhat busy, I wanted users to have the sense that each individual building is protected and has been deemed historically valuable by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, an agency of the municipal government. I also highlighted historic districts in red, which can be seen beneath the yellow dots, so users could have a sense of their overlap with landmarked sites. There are of course landmarked buildings outside of historic districts too, seen as stand alone objects.

Museums appear as purple dots on the map, and college and university campuses appear as orange dots. I would have preferred if both were available in shape file format on NYC Open Data, as campuses like New York University and Columbia University, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are actually quite large and encompass large portions of certain neighborhoods. These places, however, are also highlighted to a certain extent by their respective historic districts on this map.

I included parks (in green) on this map as sites of cultural heritage not only because of the presence of historic parks in New York City like Central Park and Prospect Park, but also to show the vulnerability of vital public spaces; this is especially pertinent to cultural heritage when we consider the events that take place in parks in warmer months, and the type of meeting and exploration sites they provide to the public for free.

The map is not meant to draw final conclusions about the vulnerability of humanities infrastructure, but to expose and explore the intersecting risks associated with climate change in the near future. It shows which areas of the city are rich in cultural heritage, and which ones are particularly vulnerable to flooding, and which are both rich and vulnerable. Areas like the Battery in Lower Manhattan, or Red Hook and Gowanus on the Brooklyn waterfront, are exposed here as being both particularly dense with cultural heritage sites and at high risk of flooding in 2020. In Red Hook in particular, almost all of its public heritage spaces are highly vulnerable to flooding. While not particularly highlighted by my map, it also becomes clear how public and utility infrastructure is vulnerable when finding arterial roads and highways, or public transit stops in this map. In this screenshot, we can see the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, South Street, and many bridges and tunnels cutting through an area highly vulnerable to floods.

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Far more than being made only for the Digital Humanities community, this map seems relevant to many different groups, even those with interests competing with the acknowledgement of climate change. I have been interested in insurance costs and the potential costs of property damage as factors that may motivate lawmakers and private citizens who would be otherwise uninterested in climate. It seems to me that still others may not have considered the way that flooding, even temporarily, might effect regions and sites in the city that we do not think of as being “waterfront.” Showing the way that the collections at the South Street Seaport Museum. or even the 9/11 Memorial Museum may be effected by storm flooding in the near future may be vital in showing the very broad impact of climate change.