# 34 — Un-Natural Disasters, Recursive Resilience, Unjust Compensation, Visionless Planning

Un-Natural Disasters, Recursive Resilience, Unjust Compensation, Visionless Planning

Summary: The “disasters” we care about are not “natural,” but social, and they are different from the disasters of previous eras. “Resilience planning” recursively accepts their recurrence, and often uses them to further already desired urban restructuring rather than preventing them. Vulnerability to the damages and compensation for the suffering suh “disasters”  cause are both unjustly distributed. No vision informs disaster planning policy, and participatory planning to deal with them is badly under-developed.  Good, democratic, equity-oriented planning is badly needed. [1]

Un-natural disasters. There is no such thing as a “natural” disaster.[2] A natural event, and earthquake, is only a disaster if it affects people, socially arranged. Vesuvius was only a disaster because Pompeii lay in its path; a tornado in an uninhabited desert is not a disaster.[3] (Bishop Berkeley, are you listening?).   Today, most disasters resulting from the forces of nature are avoidable; even building in earthquake-prone zones can be regulated, within the limits of advancing scientific knowledge. Today, disasters are caused by social-and economic arrangements, the forces of market capitalism – climate warming, filling in of wet lands for development, inadequate provisions for durable building ,  polit6ical terrorism, the unequal distribution of incomes leaving  poor people, particularly in the global South, to settle on undesirable, therefore cheap or empty erosion-prone sites and only the better off to build on desirable but hurricane-susceptible land or sites in desirable but flood-prone zones.[4]

Calling socially avoidable harm caused by natural events “natural disasters” is a politically-loaded evasion of responsibility.

Recursive resilience. Not only the causes, but even more the responses, to disasters are dictated by the existing economic and political structures of the society. . Obviously planning for resilience is accepting the inevitability of that to which resilience is the response, in this case including un-natural disasters. In the real world, the choice between dealing with the causes of a disaster, on the one hand, or on the other hand, accepting them but mitigating their consequences, is a matter  of cost-benefit analysis, weighing the costs and benefits of the alternatives against each other. But costs and benefits are not distributed randomly. Some consequences may even be desirable, and fit in with the on-going restructuring of urban space that is a feature of mainstream economic development policy in most cities today.

Two examples: In New Orleans after Katrina, resilience planning served to accentuate processes already under way, desired by the power structure, and facilitated by the hurricane damage. 4,5000 units of public housing, long neglected both by the City and HUD, although badly damaged by Katrina, have been totally demolished by the city with HUD approval, although many participants considered them quite  salvageable. But, as Louisiana’s Republican Congressman Richard Baker said a week after Katrina: [5]

‘We finally cleaned up public housing. We couldn’t do it, but God did.’[6]

In the waterfront areas of New York and New Jersey hit by Sandy:

Homeowners and landlords are eligible [for loans and grants] if their primary residence was damaged, using a contractor chosen by the city or picking their own contractor within government-set cost limits.

Homeowners also have the option of selling flood-prone properties to the city and relocating elsewhere.

“It is true in some cases, based on the level of damage and other factors, owners may want to voluntarily sell their homes and relocate,” Bloomberg said. “The city will work with the communities and developers to strategically redevelop those properties in a smarter and more resilient way.”[7]

The new result may well be that in desirable beachfront locations, lower-income households, many of whom moved there and built there when the area was remote and undeveloped, will take the money and move, wealthier ones, arriving later and benefiting from extensive development and public infrastructure provision,  will take the loans and grants and rebuild. Net result: The public amenity that is the beach will become what the market would have it, a semi-exclusive preserve of the well-to-do, with even more beach available for their own use. And the future of damaged public housing is still very much in abeyance.

Unjust Compensation. The bias in the distribution of the costs and the benefits of the public governmental response to disasters might be most egregiously seen in the handling of compensation to the victims of disasters. Again, an example: After 9/11, the families of those who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center were provided compensation by special congressional legislation, administered through a Special Victims’ compensation Fund administered by clear standards rigorously applied. The measure was the loss of income from the victim that the victims’ families would have received had he (less often she) survived.

The formulas were spelled out and based on the loss of earnings that would have been received had the victim lived, so that the higher the income, the higher the award,  with a cap on that calculation if the earnings were above the 98th percentile of earners, or $231,000 [8]  In addition, “each claim received a uniform non-economic award [that is, independent of earnings or need] of $250,000 for the death of the victim and an additional non-economic award of $100,000 for the spouse and each dependent of the victim.”

By comparison, no such fund was established for the victims of Katrina, and the maximum required payment to the families of the victims was the coverage of funeral expenses! [9]

Think of how FEMA funds would have been distributed between New Orleans’ District 9  and New York’s financial district if the criteria were human need, rather than financial loss.

Visionless Planning. Good planning is supposed to start with a clear statement of the goals of the plan. Here, the challenge would be beginning with what measures might be taken to address the destructive forces creating the problem, and then develop an idea of how areas likely to be subject to those natural forces should be handled,. For the former, dealing with climate change would be an obvious priority. It is remarkable how little the big question of the causes of climate change have been linked to disaster planning. Obviously climate change is a long-range issue, and its causes will not be in hand in time to affect more immediately feared disasters; yet one would think it would produce a major upsurge in attention to what could be done, legislation would be debated in Congress, regulations proposed at all levels of government, funding for research hugely provided, to prevent the connected un-natural disasters from occurring and to deal with the complex legal problems requiring legislative solution involved in any serious planning efforts. This is not happening.

Relatively little long-range land use planning is going on at the local level.. The issues are indeed complicated, with all kinds of difficult trade-offs needing to be evaluated, long, medium, and short range. But some principles of a vision might be useful to structure a vision:

The amenity value of many fragile locations is high, e.g. beaches, river banks, marshes, etc. Such natural amenities should be available to everyone, and direct public ownership might be the default arrangement.

  • Permitted uses should be only those not requiring permanent structures, so that evacuation in a predicted danger could be simple and fast.
  • Relocation would undoubtedly be necessary, and the distribution of its costs is tricky. But the principles of social justice should be prominent criteria where government assistance is involved. Need should be a dominant factor, and loss of community and social networks, and possibilities of maintaining them with relocation, would be desirable.
  • Complex legal problems attend any comprehensive implementation. As it stands,planning needs to take into account, and intervene in legal and legislative discussions affecting:
    • definition of the zone, now up to “normal” high tide”, that are publicly owned;[10]
    • Definition of the next inland zone above high tide that is in public trust and  “subject to public trust uses”
    • Definition of the property rights of the holders of private title to land in flood-prone or environmentally sensitive areas where regulation now becomes a “taking” requiring compensation if no economically viable use of the affected property remains.
    • Flood plain regulation by and large will not be a taking if an economical use for the affected property remains.[11] Thus, disaster-vulnerable zoning should permit temporary uses, e.g. camp grounds, recreation, farming, in carefully defined zones.
    • In any event, for any plan, a social equity statement should be required, spelling out in detail who is affected, both on the cost and on the benefit side, and be a major consideration in any decisions; and
    • Procedures need to be worked out to make decisions on the many trade-offs involved democratically, not simply at the neighborhood and community levels –if only there, segregation by income and likely ethnicity will be perpetuated – or at the city-wide level – and not simply there, or active participation and local preferences will be ignored.[12]


Participatory Planning: Solutions will be complex, and much work needs to be done to arrive at the best combinations, which will vary widely from place to place and time to time. Structuring real participation is also complex, because there are multiple levels at which it is needed. First and foremost, of course, is participation by the immediate community affected. But that’s not enough; decisions and resources from higher levels are inevitably involved, and planning at those levels, and importantly even at the Federal level, is necessary. At the initial level, planning needs to respect the needs of those most directly affected, let them be involved in the rebuilding or removal decisions, and if removal, how and where, with community networks respected. At the city level, major resource allocation decisions are involved; likewise at the national. Regional plans are almost inevitably important. No technocratic report can take the place of participation a these levels, although the technical information needs to be readily accessible at each.

To say, as Mayor Bloomberg has:

“As New Yorkers, we cannot and will not abandon our waterfront. It’s one of our greatest assets. We must protect it, not retreat from it,”

doesn’t cut it. “our waterfront???”  No. “Whose waterfront? “  must be a central part of any analysis, and “whose costs” and “whose benefits” a central part of any solutions. In the New York City case, there is a well-developed Uniform Land Use Procedure in place, and the city has an experienced city planning department and competent staff. But the Bloomberg Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency was kept in the Mayor’s own office, and its report [13]does not even list the City Planning Commission or the Planning Department among the agencies they involved—not to speak of ignoring the ULURP process entirely.

Conclusion: Treating all disasters as alike, and un-natural ones as natural; limiting planning to increasing resilience; allocating resources, whether compensatory or developmental, without regard to participatory procedures or social justice; and doing all this without a constructive vision for the ultimate results desired – these are the wrong ways to go.

Good, equity-oriented, participatory planning is badly needed.


[1] This piece grew out of a productive discussion at the Planners Network national conference: “Beyond Resilience,” at a panel chaired by Norma Ratisi, participated in by Thom Angotti, Erminia Mericato, Nabil Kamel and, and Dick Flacks, as well as myself, New York City, June 9, 2013.

[2] Chester Hartman and Gregory Squires, eds.  There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina, Routledge, New York,.

[3] I owe the example to Nabil Kamel..

[4] Ermenia Mericato has explicated some of these cases.

[5] Jordan Flaherty, “Post-Katrina Reforms in New Orleans Continue to Disenfranchise African-Americans,” Wednesday, 29 August 2012 00:00, Truthout | http://truth-out.org/news/item/11192-reform-and-its-discontents

[6] “Some GOP Legislators Hit Jarring Notes in Addressing Katrina,” Washington Post, 10 September 2005, A4, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/09/AR2005090901930.html  (Thanks to Jay Arena and Bill Quigley)

[8]. Special Master’s Final Report, p. 8

[9] Marcuse, Peter. 2011. “Ignoring Justice In Disaster Planning: 9/11, Katrina, And Social Policy,” in Merlin Chowkwanyun and Randa Serhan, eds., American Democracy and the Pursuit of Equality: (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2011), pp. 132-161. Slightly differenct version in: “Ignoring injustice in disaster planning: an agenda for research on 9/11 and Katrina” at http://www.urbanreinventors.net/paper.php?issue=3&author=marcuse.

[10] See, for a good historical discussion, http://masscases.com/cases/sjc/378/378mass629.html.

[12] Indeed, some proposals, such as the sea wall with gates, would require multi-state review of their lop-sided expenditures running up to $20 billion dollars. See http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=russian-flood-barrier&page=2

[13] Hurricane Sandy After Action, May 2013, available at http://www.nyc.gov/html/recovery/downloads/pdf/sandy_aar_5.2.13.pdf

Blog #28: Sandy, Housing, the Market, and the State’s Planning Response

Blog #28: Sandy, Housing, the Market, and the State’s Planning Response
The attempt by government to mix the public and private market response to disasters such as Sandy, or indeed to mix the two in dealing with the crisis in housing for lower-income households, will bear some strange fruit. The likely effect will be to increase segregation and inequality, based on experience with the workings of the private market in housing. Two examples illustrate the danger: Governor Cuomo’s plans to deal with units damaged by Sandy, and Mayor Bloomberg’s plans to deal with the underfunding of public housing.

The alternative in both cases seems clear, but raises tabooed issues. To take them one at a time:

THE PLAN FOR SANDY: Cuomo’s plan for housing damages by Sandy is to offer to buy up, at their prior damage value, any home whose owner wishes to sell and leave, and to offer those who wish to stay a grant to defray the costs of storm-proofing their residences.
The New York Times describes it succinctly as follows:[1]
“The governor’s plan would pay the full pre-storm value of a house to owners who agreed to sell, with a 5 percent bonus to those who relocated in their home county. The plan would be voluntary; a homeowner could simply refuse to participate, and presumably elect to rebuild, despite higher insurance rates that doing so would entail.
The Cuomo administration estimates that 10,000 or so homes sit squarely in the danger zone, but, only a fraction — 10 percent to 15 percent — of these owners might actually participate in this program. The plan would not cover high-end properties like a wreck of a beachfront house in the Rockaways that is now on sale for $3 million “as is.” But the price tag could go as high as $300,000 per dwelling, assuming the Department of Housing and Urban Development approves the plan.
For those who chose to stay, the administration would offer another option: grants to help owners flood-proof their homes. That could include rebuilding a house on or near the beach on giant pylons at least 2 feet above the projected flood level, which could mean 15 feet or more above ground level — a costly prospect.”
What would be the likely market-induced result of the plan?
Owners with the resources to stay will grab the grants offered to help flood-proof their homes, add their own resources, and stay. Those without the resources, i.e. lower income households, will sell, and the government will take down their homes and convert their lots to some form of park or waterfront public use. The net result will be higher income owners have units on a less crowded waterfront, where no further building will take place on newly-added public open space, thus in fact increasing their property values after the deals are done. Lower-income households will have been removed from the areas, in any event back from the waterfront, since the required cost of storm-proofing is high, and be left to face the private market elsewhere.
So, net, a more exclusive enjoyment of the amenities of the waterfront for the well-to-do, a displacement of the less well-to-do from their desirable locations to the ordinary market in land. All government instigated and largely paid for. Hardly equitable.

THE PLAN FOR PUBLIC HOUSING: Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to deal with the very substantial short-fall in Federal funding for public housing, with the apparent approval of the chair of the New York City Housing Authority, is to lease for the long term available vacant land within and around existing public housing projects to private developers. In the words of the chair of the Housing Authority, it will be
“forming partnerships with real estate developers to create a mix of affordable and market rate housing on under-used NYCHA sites. Doing that can generate hundreds of millions of dollars – every penny of which will be re-invested in NYCHA and used to fix roofs, elevators, and building facades. And it will create thousands of units of new housing, of which a substantial portion will be affordable. Let me repeat that: it will create thousands of new market-rate and affordable homes.”[2]

What does that mean? Apart from the obvious failure to specify the number of “affordable” units to be built, or even whether “affordable” means eligible for public housing or some more moderate set off income limits, and apart from the disruption caused in the lives of the residents of the developments in the middle of which these new and expected high-rise structures will be built, there is the further elimination of the open space surrounding the high-rise public housing buildings, mostly built with a minimum of such space to economize on land costs from the very beginning, and already offering only very limited breathing space for project residents for open air, relaxation, sports, outdoor activities, and necessary parking. The new privately built units, already informally called luxury housing, on the other hand, will have privately provided internally and for their own residents amenities not available to the residents of the existing units, such as health clubs private security, probably parking, and others.

“Internal documents obtained by the Daily News show the planned 4,330 apartments in eight developments are all in hot real estate neighborhoods, including the upper East and West Sides, the lower East Side and lower Manhattan. Developers will get a sweet deal: a 99-year lease with the lease payments to the authority frozen for the first 35 years. … the land to be leased includes playgrounds, parking lots, and community centers — basically necessary amenities for those who live in public housing. And in the place of a playground for their children, tenants will instead look out on luxury housing.”[2a]

Mixing in this way is more likely to create tensions among neighbors that the “diversity” so admired in the abstract in housing discourse. Those tensions will be aggravated because the developments being considered for surrender of their land to market-rate housing are those where land values, low when the projects where built, are now the highest, in Manhattan on the upper West Side and the middle and upper East Side. The minority status of low-income, and undoubtedly minority, households in these areas will only be accentuated.

Hardly equitable.

THE ANSWER: What ought to be done is painfully obvious. If maintenance of public housing is inadequate, because of lack of funding, that funding ought to be provided, and provided by government, which after is created to secure access to the necessities of life for its citizens. And it should be provided by the federal government, which has access to the most equitable source of the necessary funds, a progressive income tax system. Further, it is ironic that the whole scheme proposed rests on the historic action of government to take undesired land of low market value for its projects. Now that that land has become valuable, the drive is to make more and more of its remaining limited available space available to the market. Should not the benefit of the improved conditions that have made their land so valuable today accrue to those who have been asked to live there when conditions were not as favorable?

The political problem here is also not abstruse. The answer suggested above strikes anyone using common sense, attuned to the realities of life, honestly facing the facts as they are, as totally impractical. Raising taxes to provide benefits skewed to the poor will never pass Congress today. It is not worth even discussing. And that is the problem: the real answers are not on the table, are not even argued in mainstream, by politicians, in the media, in electoral campaigns, in the halls of legislatures. The discourse of housing policy is one-dimensional,[3] its language is itself one-dimensional, a dimension restricted by confinement to things as they are, surrender to the limited apparent possibilities of the status quo. An adequate public housing program is in an alternate dimension, that of the potential, the possible but not yet factual. It is simply not on the table. The next task for housing advocates is to get it back on the table.

1. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/06/opinion/gov-andrew-cuomos-sandy-plan.html?_r=0
2. Speech by NYCHA chairman John B. Rhea before Association for a better new york
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 24, 2012, available at http://search1.nyc.gov/search?q=cache:OzTbkrGADyoJ:www.nyc.gov/html/nycha/downloads/pdf/ABNY-SPEECH-NYCHA-CHAIRMAN-JOHN-B-RHEA-9-24-12.pdf+nycha+plan+to+build+market+rate+vacant&access=p&output=xml_no_dtd&proxystylesheet=agency_frontend&client=agency_frontend&ie=UTF-8&site=default_collection&oe=UTF-8
[2a] http://gawker.com/5983190/is-building-luxury-housing-on-the-playgrounds-of-public-housing-the-worst-idea-ever-yes-yes-it-is
[3] See “The One-Dimensional Language Of Collaborationist Analysis,” forthcoming

Blog #27 – The Alternatives for Sandy: Banker’s Socialism,, the Private Market, Equity, Planning

Blog #27 – The Alternatives for Sandy: Banker’s Socialism,, the Private Market, Equity — and Planning

Three very different principles might be used to guide responses to the devastation wrought by a disaster such as Sandy – and might be applicable to responses to any disaster.

First, what might be called Bankers’ Socialism Approach: the assumption by government of all of the costs not only of the repair of the damage caused by the disaster, but of all costs of preventing similar damage from similar disasters in the future. One might call this the deprivatization of disaster response, placing the entire burden of the response on the public and exonarating the private sector of all costs.

Second, at the opposite extreme, what might be called the Private Market Approach: leaving it to each person or entity affected by the disaster to do whatsoever they wished, with their own resources, to repair the damages caused and prevent recurrences, subject to very limited government regulation. Because any significant private action is likely to rely on some level of public infrastructure provision, this approach will likely involve some element of Bankers’ Socialism also.

Third, what might be called the Equity Approach: using public assistance to ameliorate the damage caused by the disaster, taking into account the needs and resources of those affected, and seeking to return them to approximately their position before the disaster, not necessarily by restoring to the same conditions as preceded the events, and and then taking appropriate measures to prevent recurrence, assessing costs and benefits of both equitably. Thus, giving priority to the needs of lower-income households, and reducing inequalities of resources.

Of course, the three can be mixed, and details will be very dependent on the local facts on the ground; the discussion that follows is only of each as ideal types. In each case, the key questions are who bears the costs of the approach and what their magnitude, and who benefits from the approach and to what extent.

Planning is confronted with difficult issues, both technical and ethical, in providing answers. There are some tentative suggestions.


The Bankers’ Socialism Approach is so-called, with tongue somewhat in cheek,[i.] because it is the assumption by government of all of the costs of the actions taken, without consideration of whether the consequent benefits flowing disproportionately to property owners, investors, and financial interests, the larger their financial interests, the greater the benefits. The costs are borne by government, in most cases overwhelmingly the federal government,, but with participation at state and local levels, and thus of course by all taxpayers with whatever distribution of costs the structure of tax codes and revenue-generating measures of government established.

Example: Governor Cuomo, Mayor Bloomberg, and Governor Christie have all vowed: “We’re rebuilding.”[ii] “We” is not always defined, but from the description of what is planned, it will clearly be overwhelmingly government. It includes an Outer Harbor Gateway, across New York harbor between New York State and New Jersey, “a belt of landfill, stone and reinforced concrete… thirty-foot high sand berms would be piled on Sandy Hook and the Rockaways to prevent flood waters from circumventing the gateway. Another gate, this one a mile long, would be built in the upper East River to prevent surges coming in from the Long Island Sound.” The estimated cost is $23,000,000,000 (twenty-three billion dollars). The Army Corps of Engineers would conduct a feasibility study for the project, which itself might cost $20,000,000. It would be a joint Federal and State project.

What would the consequence be? The decision as to the amounts of public funding have not been made as this is written, and the likelihood that the full-scale Sea Gate proposal will be implemented seems dim. But whatever is enacted at the Federal level, it will be large, measured in the billions; the bill pending in Congress is for $50.1 billion; of that $3.8 billion would go to the Army Corps of Engineers, and $6.5 billion to transportation agencies, all as mitigation to reduce future dangers, not disaster relief. The estimate is that by 2080 the metropolitan area affected will contain about $2,150,000,000,000 (two trillion one hundred and fifty million dollars) that could be damaged by an extreme storm.[iii.] That is a substantial amount, of which the proportion accounted for by the amount of resident-owned housing along the coast-line damaged by Sandy would be a trivial part.

The bulk of the benefit from the billions of public funds to be spent would thus likely go to the property owners protected, whose property values would be sky-rocket, now being protected from the environmental risks of climate change in locations already uniquely valuable because of the location at the center of a dense metropolitan region with an intricate web of transportation and communication links and commercial investments second to few other regions in the world. The New York Times reports houses in the Rockaways listing, after storm damages, in the millions; the Private Market approach would undoubtedly be adequate in such cases, without public aid. Benefit will undoubtedly also trickle down to less wealthy individual residents of the region, as an Equity approach would require, and there would be some increase in tax revenues to government resulting from the increase in private real estate value, but it is unlikely to even come close to the billions of dollars publicly invested or to capture very much of the trillions of private benefit produced.

The difficulty is that analysis of governmental appropriations looking at the distributional impact of costs and benefits, the equity implications, of the funding, is strikingly missing.

[As an aside: The prevailing ethos seems to be to privatize as many public services as possible: schools, security, railroads, mail. Might one speak of “de-privatizing” the costs of disasters?]

The Private Market Approach is the diametric opposite of the Bankers’ Socialist approach: it would essentially leave the government out of the decision-making process of what should be done either to remedy damages done by a disaster or to prevent future damages, and leave it to ther private market to allocate costs and benefits.. Each of those affected would be left to their own devices, to use such resources as they had to achieve such repairs or avoid such risks as they were able to afford. The distributional consequences of such an approach are clear: those with the fewest resources would be the worst off, those with the most, the best off. The disparities are likely to be greater after a disaster than before, because at least before the actual disaster the poor had the amenities of at-risk locations – the pleasures of the sea shore, the advantages of access, whereas under the Private Market approach they bear the full burden of the damages, with none of the offsetting amenities.

By contrast, those amenities can be garnered by those with the resources privately to protect themselves from the risks or to recover from damages that may be caused. It will be the rich who have had the private insurance needed to compensate for costs inflicted, and who have the resources to weather-proof their structures, provide means of escape, provide for themselves privately that which had been publicly made available but destroyed.

Examples: Hotels and mansions can be privately built along the waters’ edge, office towers can be constructed, maintained, reinforced, provided with insulated sources of power and escape, and the amenities of location will be further concentrated in the hands of those able privately to afford them, driving out those with less income who by reason of historical circumstances had had some enjoyment of those amenities before. It will be the one and two family homes in Breezy Point and the Rockaways whose residents will be further disadvantaged, and only the wealthier will be able to have the benefits and protect themselves from the risks that those accompany those locations. Building codes, zoning codes, health and safety requirements will no doubt be imposed at higher standards that before, for the general protection of life and property; again, only those with sufficient resources to pay the higher costs imposed will be able to obtain their benefits. And the normal accompaniment to new and more expensive development, in terms of supportive infrastructure a standard obligation of government, will be a cost born generally by government, not only those privately benefiting.

What would the consequence be? Existing inequalities of wealth would be sharply reflected in the net differences between the conditions prior to the disaster and those following it.

The Equity Approach combines some element both of the socialism approach, but not for bankers, and some element of the private approach, but not based only on the pre-existing resources of those involved. In trying to achieve social equity, it takes into account differences in needs resources of those damaged by the disaster and exposed to future similar risks, and attempts to distribute the costs and benefits of doing so equitably among the population. Unfortunately, detailed studies of how those costs and benefits are today distributed are not yet adequately done and available; one major such study, that of Jeroen Aerts, asked whether the impact of alternatives on New York City’s 41% poor had been considered, said “That’s a new issue. We didn’t discuss it, no.” [iv.]

Example: The damage caused by Sandy can be readily mapped, and overlayed on demographic data for the affected neighborhoods. They are likely to reveal a disproportionate damage to lower income households, consuming proportionately more of their resources, and with proportionately less private assets with which to make up for the losses. The costs of compensating them for their losses, generally replacing housing completely destroyed, washed away, sometimes burnt out, are generally accepted as an appropriate obligation of government. The extent to which differing needs are taken into account has historically varied. For instance, the poor who lost lives in Katrina in New Orleans, received far less compensation per person than the wealthy killed by the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, because different standards of compensation were used in the two cases, but that equity was a criteria was generally accepted in both. [v.]

In spreading both the costs and benefits of public action equitably, a distinction might well have to be faced. Rebuilding, in the same form as existed before the disaster, is hardly desirable; it would expose to the same risks and loses all over again, or perhaps even more severely. To rebuild to the same level but with full protection might be feasible for those have the ability to do so in the private market, but whether it is a sensible use of public resources might well be debated. But an effort might well be made to provide, net, the same level of quality after as before, if in a different mixture or a different location, that is with a different but equivalent mix of locational benefit, amenity, and space. Thus, if it is feasible to rebuild in the same location, keeping the locational and amenity and social community advantages of before, it might be done at a higher density, sacrificing some of the individually-occupied space in favor of greater multi-family forms. In any case, priority would be given to the needs of lower-income households, and reducing inequalities of resources.

What would the consequence be? Since key, in the Equity Approach, is the concern with giving priority to the needs and desires of those needing assistance from the approach: the lower income, generally the elderly, those with uninsured health problems, etc. The outcome will depend on the separate facts of each case, but in the planning and decision-making process the requirements of equity should lead to a reduction, not an increase, in inequality. It should also lead to a fair distribution of access to and ability to enjoy the benefits of the locations targeted for assistance, so that, for instance, the advantages of a shore-front location are equitably shared. The attention paid to repairing, protecting, and/or fully replacing the extensive public housing damaged by Sandy may be some indicator of the extent to which equity will be a consideration in the case of Sandy. In residential areas in which community solidarity has been a vita tradition, participation in the planning process, decisions on funding, and implementation should be made with real participation by those affected.Solid research assessing the relationship between economic position and damages from the disaster would be a welcome addition to our knowledge of how such a balance of costs and benefits might look.


Conclusion: Deciding how to deal with the dangers of disasters is a difficult and complex task in a democracy. It calls on careful consideration of all the the known and foreseeable facts, matters requiring careful studies in geography, geology, economics, engineering, the physical and social sciences. But it also requires careful consideration of the values involved, how different groups of the population are affected, how the costs and benefits of each alternative are measured and evaluated. Certainly considerations of equity ought to place high in those deliberations, more than is presently the case.[vi.]

Planning needs to go beyond simply thinking about resilience, as Paul Farmer recently pointed out. [vii.] Resilience can simply mean ignoring the causes of the problem, from climate change to heedless development, accepting those as inevitable, and simply mitigating their consequence. Rather, serious planning needs to be long range in time and spatial scope, well beyond most current practices. The basic question needs to be honestly confronted: which of the three alternate approaches described above should be applied to communities within the endangered flood plain, including confronting squarely the question of who is benefited and at whose costs, and making an ethical distinction between risks to life (and what risks) and risks to property (and of what social nature). Serious land use planning should be at the center of what is needed, and it poses difficult choices. For residential lower and moderate income communities in danger, for instance, planning without participation will not work. Equity planning will inevitably involve some form of public investment, not for the benefit of bankers, but of residents. Perhaps the choice will be between staying in place but at higher and more efficient densities, or relocating inland, perhaps on a community basis, with the waterfront dedicated to open public enjoyment. Real community involvement is a sine qua non, but the issues are also regional. The challenges are both technical and ethical, and inevitably political. They need to be faced.

Peter Marcuse February 11, 2012


i. Although it bears thought: did not likewise the banks’ bailout at the beginning of the current crisis have some analogies to what socialist policy would have done, the big exception being that it was socialism for private bankers, not for government banks?
ii. Facts are taken from an excellent summary of the situation in New York by Arun Gupta, “Disaster Capitalism Hits New York,,” In These Times, February, 2013, pp.24-27, but the basic facts are well known and not controversial, although details may vary. Quotes are from that article unless otherwise noted.
iii. The estimate by Professor Aerts, a risk management and climate change expert from Amsterdam asked by the city to provide an estimate. See Mireya Navarro, “Weighing Sea Barriers as Protection for New York,” published: November 7, 2012 available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/08/nyregion/after-hurricane-sandy-debating-costly-sea-barriers-in-new-york-area.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
iv. Arun Gupta, op. cit., p. 25.
v. See Marcuse, Peter. 2011. “Ignoring Justice In Disaster Planning: An Agenda For Research On 9/11, Katrina, And Social Policy,” in Merlin Chowkwanyun and Randa Serhan, eds., American Democracy and the Pursuit of Equality: Essays in Honor of Herbert J. Gans (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2011), pp. 132-161. Slightly different version in: “Ignoring injustice in disaster planning: an agenda for research on 9/11 and Katrina” In Urban Reinventors, November, 2009. http://www.urbanreinventors.net/paper.php?issue=3&author=marcuse

vi. It is remarkable how little considerations of equity have been taken into account in discussions of alterative responses to Sandy, See, for instance their complete absence in Protecting the City, Before Next Time By ALAN FEUER, New York Times,: November 3, 2012, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/nyregion/protecting-new-york-city-before-next-time.html?pagewanted=all. Or see the debate at http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/11/01/should-new-york-build-sea-gates/big-storm-projects-will-cause-big-problems-so-think-small. For one of the few exceptions see Tom Angotti, “On the Waterfront,” The Indypendent #181, November 8, 2012 Indypendent available at http://disc.yourwebapps.com/discussion.cgi?disc=243054;article=2342. For an early piece raising some of the issues here, see my Blog #21 – Sandy, Katrina, and the World Trade Center: Are There Social Justice Issues? At pmarcuse.wordpress.com.

vii.“Now Sandy,” Planning, The Journal of the American Planning Association, December, 2012, p. 3.

Blog #23 – Occupy Sandy: Social Change through Prefiguring Action

Blog #23 – Occupy Sandy: Social Change through Prefiguring Action

The Occupy movement has been involved in organizing aid for families hard hit by storm Sandy, and many volunteers , both from Occupy groups and not but organized through them, have been in the hardest hit areas, in some of those hardest to reach and to help. How did that come about?

This isn’t the Wall Street that Occupy Wall Street is occupying; it’s a section of Brooklyn that runs from single-family moderate income housing to public housing. And they’re not there proselytizing for Occupy; they’re working with volunteers from other groups, church groups, neighborhood associations, and with FEMA and other government agencies, including the police, as well.

Occupy Sandy’s “anthem” is spritely without politics or moralizing.1 A New York Times reporter’s account2 says the only link to other Occupy movements is that the organizers came from earlier ones, including Occupy Wall Street. Time runs an account about a visit of a volunteer from Occupy Sandy to a house-confined elderly woman that ends with the words: “The word occupy was never spoken.”3

One headline from a OccupyMutualAidFacebook post,4 helps explain:

More Evidence that A Better World is Possible: FEMA and#OWS Occupy Sandy breaking bread in Staten Island.

What evidence? It’s that people will show solidarity, will volunteer to help their neighbors or others simply in need, working without compensation (no market relations here), without state compulsion (no hierarchy of power here, externally or internally), no ideological no ideological.

One of the Occupiers says:

“Remember, Occupy Sandy is NOT charity work. We are here because we know another world is necessary, and the way to make it is through practice in our own communities. This is the Mutual in Mutual Aid. ‘If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.'” Lilla Watson5

Sometimes, indeed, a sign betrays the link to other Occupy activities, but very muted:

A perceptive comment from an Occupy volunteer clarifies, as reported by the Associated Press:6

Is this Occupy Wall Street’s finest hour? In the church basement, Carrie Morris paused from folding blankets into garbage bags and smiled at the idea.
“We always had mutual aid going on,” she said. “It’s a big part of what we do. That’s the idea, to help each other. And we want to serve as a model for the larger society that, you know, everybody should be doing this.”

That’s the logic behind downplaying the link of Occupy Sandy with Occupy Wall Street. It’s also the explanation for a sometimes problematic but core feature of the internal “organization” of the Occupy movements in general: they don’t want to be organizations, but voluntary assemblies of people. The might have facilitators or spokespersons, but not leaders or officers. They operat by consensus rather than majority vote, usually open to anyone to participate, not “members.” General Assemblies in Occupy are not designed for efficiency, but as an expression of how democratic decisions might be made, of what horizontal democracy involves. The overlaps with, but is different from, historical model utopian communities, and indeed from many of the model communes and co-op enterprises of the 1960’s.

There’s a difference between creating a model and prefiguring a particular alternative to existing ways of doing things, exemplifying different forms of human behavior and different relationships between people, and between people and institutions. . The difference can be troublesome if not kept in mind. The utopian communities and the communes were largely seen by their members as isolated from the society in which they existed. There goals were self-government, self-determination, escape from outside determinants of behavior. Perhaps they saw themselves as models, but their efforts were aimed at perfecting their model, not spreading its example round broadly. They reacted to the ills that they saw in the world around them not by dealing directly with them, but by trying to insulate themselves from them. The focus of Occupying on a particular space was shared some of that view of things: Occupiers wanted, in a small way, to create a world of their own. If there also was a hope that their world would be a model for the larger world outside, it was muted, and certainly not widely realized. Thus there were many obituaries for the Occupy movement in the mainstream media when the space in which their model of self-direction was taken from them and the experience apparently ended in a bubble burst, obituaries that incorrectly saw the creation of insulated spaces as the essence of Occupy.

But this utopian “bubble” trend, or the aspiration for an ideal horizontal democracy in the Occupy movement, is not what drives Occupy Sandy. Occupy Sandy is not suggesting that all disasters should be met by voluntary loosely-organized efforts that occur spontaneously and without planning. Rather, it realizes the essential interrelationship between what its adherents are doing and the world outside, even in developing positive relationships not only with FEMA but also with the police and National Guards, most of the time institutions seen as unwelcome intrusions in the model of what Occupy would like to see in the future. Occupy Sandy is simply prefiguring, in its own behavior, how certain social relationships might exist independently of the assumed rigid requirements of the outside world, independently of the market and the state — actually, not independent of the state, but in reliance on it to assemble resources Occupy Sandy itself could not and should not assemble. It is not suggesting that its response to Sandy should be a model of disaster response, as opposed to the response of FEMA and police authorities; it is simply saying such responses should be coupled with an activation of fundamental human instincts of solidarity that are outside of state or market.

Occupy Sandy, then, is linked to the Occupy Wall Street—generated movements not by setting up a model in opposition to the outside world, making itself independent of the outside, but showing how, within that outside world, one can see in action relationships, ways of doing things, that prefigure how they might also be in a changed and better society. And they do it by example, not by signs or confrontations. It is oppositional to the prevailing order too, but in a subtler way than most Occupy actions. It does not replace them for both are necessary, but it is different, and the differences are important. And in what it does it changes people too, both the occupiers and those they come in contact with – a vital part of all Occupy activities.

Two other points about occupy Sandy, on practical, one theoretical. The practical one is that Occupy Sandy has a huge advantage over Occupy Wall Street: it has the support of a large majority of the population, perhaps even of all, certainly a much larger part of the 99% than Occupy Wall Street. There will be trouble in the future, as the differentiation between the effects of storm Sandy on the rich and the poor, the residents of well-built protected homes whose owners carry flood insurance and the lower-income folk who don’t have it, the difference between the residents of public housing and the owners of vacation homes, etc.7 And controversies will arise when, as for instance in the case of Katrina, evaluations show how some people, some activities, some sections of town (here perhaps lower Manhattan), are favored in governmental actions dealing with the damages from the storm.8 Then the militancy of Occupy Wall Street may indeed be needed.

The theoretical point is speculative. Herbert Marcuse, in An Essay on Liberation, begins by asking whether there is not a biological foundation for the need for liberation:

“We would …have, this side of all “values,” an instinctual foundation for solidarity among human beings – a solidarity which has been effectively repressed in line with the requirements of class society but which now appears as a precondition for liberation.”9

He speaks of a “vital need for the abolition of injustice and misery” as a very real and personal emotional need in individuals, often emphasizing particularly its role for the young, a need that impels them towards action designed to eliminate those undesirable conditions, a need to “so something,” actively, with body as well as mind. The frustration that young people experience in finding ways of acting towards fulfilling that need may result in what he calls The Great Refusal, an opting out from prevailing requirements constraining behavior. This line of thinking was often adopted by the participants in the communes of the 60’s and 70’s, and perhaps underlay some of the much earlier utopian communities of history. But Refusal, in his sense, is inherently frustrating. If the withdrawal that led to the communes and to some extent to the Occupy encampments also, is aborted, the need for other forms of action becomes pressing. Working with Occupy Sandy, perhaps, is an expression of that need and a clearly positive way to try to satisfy it.

It may well be that, in the very near future, the unambiguous positive elements of Occupy Sandy will be less needed and the more controversial and conflictual issues that Occupy Wall Street focused on at its beginnings will again come to the fore. In the meantime, however, Occupy Sandy can be wholeheartedly welcomed as not only enormously helpful to many individuals battered by a disaster today, but also as prefiguring actions and relationships that exist today and could be continued and become dominant in a better world tomorrow.

To put it in other terms, Occupy Sandy incorporates, in visible, physical, form the isiZulu saying “umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu”, which means that a person is a person because of other people. A profound truth, moved from philosophy to prefigurative practice in Occupy Sandy.

++++ Warning! ++++ To avoid possible distortions of the Occupy Sandy effort:

1. It should NOT be concluded that volunteer efforts are better than, and a desirable replacement for, public action to deal with disaster. Occupy Sandy’s efforts made full use of governmental assistance, and only government has the resources that are needed to deal with the range of problems those affected encountered. Occupy Sandy shows that more, not less, governmental action is required.
2. It should NOT be concluded that the assistance Occupy Sandy is helping to bring to affected areas is the end of the concern of Occupy with the problems encountered there. In particular, a very watchful eye needs to be kept on how government aid is distributed, and to whom. Experience suggests11 that large business and the wealthy will receive disproportionately large shares of what is available.
3. The same is true of actions needed to prevent a recurrence of the damage created by Sandy. Who will the billions being sought for remedial and preventive action most help, and who will be neglected? What would a socially just response and replanning look like? Who would be involved in its planning and decision-making?

1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-5zi50cnxA. My thanks to Dan Steinberg for these and subsequent references.
2 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/nyregion/where-fema-fell-short-occupy-sandy-was-there.html?pagewanted=2&ref=occupywallstreet&_r=0
3 Best of Enemies: Why Occupy Activists Are Working with New York City’s Government
By Jared Malsin / New York CityNov. 13, 2012.
Available at http://nation.time.com/2012/11/13/best-of-enemies-why-occupy-activists-are-working-with-new-york-citys-government/#ixzz2C9US7rXC
4 https://www.facebook.com/OccupyMutualAid/posts/242640052531802
5 From Occupy Wall Street Facebook page.
6 Occupy Sandy: Onetime protesters find new cause” By Meghan Barr | Associated Press – Sat, Nov 10, 201, available at: http://news.yahoo.com/occupy-sandy-onetime-protesters-cause-074517400.html
7 See pmarcuse@wordpress.com, Blog #21 – Sandy, Katrina, and the World Trade Center: Are There Social Justice Issues? And Marcuse, Peter. 2011. “Ignoring Justice In Disaster Planning: An Agenda For Research On 9/11, Katrina, And Social Policy,” in Merlin Chowkwanyun and Randa Serhan, eds., American Democracy and the Pursuit of Equality: Essays in Honor of Herbert J. Gans (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2011), pp. 132-161. Slightly different version available in in Urban Reinventors, November, 2009. http://www.urbanreinventors.net/paper.php?issue=3&author=marcuse
8 See pmarcuse@wordpress.com, Blog #22 – Vacant Housing and Sandy
9 An Essay on Liberation, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969, p. 10.
10 Pp. 23-24.
11 See pmarcuse@wordpress.com, Blog #21 – Sandy, Katrina, and the World Trade Center: Are There Social Justice Issues?

Blog # 22 Vacant Housing and Sandy

Vacant Housing and Sandy: a Proposal

It is an abomination to have people desperately in need of housing, both emergency after Sandy and long-term, at the same time that there is a stock of vacant, good quality, accessible housing being held off the market because its owner believes that the market will improve and he/she/it will make more money by waiting to make it available.

The City’s official Housing and Vacancy Survey , undertaken by the Bureau of the Census, lists 68,031, rental units vacant and available, and 31,000vacant units available for sale. Picture the Homeless’s count of vacant buildings in 1/3 of the city calculated that 3,551 vacant buildings in could house 71,707 people.2

At the same time, somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 families are in need of shelter because of Sandy, according to the Mayor.3 Public housing residents were particularly hard hit.4

Proposal: A city ordinance that would require any person or firm controlling the occupancy of a housing unit that has been held vacant for more than 6 months to file a report with the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development providing the address of the unit, its condition, the length of the vacancy, and the reason for the vacancy. If the Mayor declares a Housing Emergency based on a finding of substantial displacement caused by conditions affecting the housing stock, HPD would be directed to examine all vacancy filings and would be authorized to take control of, commandeer, any unit it finds for the purpose of providing emergency shelter to a household in need thereof because of the emergency, and facilitate its use for the purpose of providing emergency shelter.5

Since the use of such a unit does not cause any loss of income to its owner, being vacant when put to such emergency use, the owner would only be compensated for it use after the end of the emergency and after the displacee has found other adequate accommodations, and any additional costs to the landlord would be shared between the city and the displace, based on ability to pay.

Such an ordinance might also have the desirable side effect of discouraging the warehousing of vacant units awaiting a more profit-producing market, when there is general housing need and restricted housing availability.

The ordinance might also be framed to make mortgage foreclosed properties, if REO and held vacant by the mortgage-holder, subject to commandeering for emergency housing. This might again have the side effect of making mortgagees less prone to foreclose.

1. “In 2011, the number of vacant available rental units was 68,000, while the number of
vacant units available for sale was 31,000. At the same time, the number of vacant
units not available for sale or rent was 164,000 in 2011, the highest since 1965, when
the first HVS was conducted (Table 1).” Selected Initial Findings of the 2011 New York City
Housing and Vacancy Survey, Prepared by Dr. Moon Wha Lee
Assistant Commissioner for Housing Policy Analysis and Statistical Research
New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development
February 9, 2012, available at http://www.nyc.gov/html/hpd/downloads/pdf/HPD-2011-HVS-Selected-Findings-Tables.pdf
2. Banking on Vacancy: Homelessness and Real Estate Speculation. A Report by Picture the Homeless, p. 19. See also: Community Voices Heard, A Count of Vacant Condos in Select New York City Neighborhood, Right to the City Alliance, 2010.
3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-20199672
4. http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/brooklyn/nycha-tenants-struggle-survive-heat-water-post-sandy-article-1.1196965 Community
6. HPD would further be authorized to investigate the circumstances of any vacancy called to its attention as potentially available for purposes of the law, including information from groups such as Picture the Homeless, Community Voices Heard, public housing or other tenant organizations, and if it find that they should have been listed and are shown to be appropriate for purposes of the law, to also take control of them for those purposes.