# 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 #30 – Transformative Proposals in Nine Areas

Blog #30: Beyond Immediate Proposals: Some Transformative Provocations

The last blog, Blog #29 began with the puzzle that the United States faces deep-seated problems today: problems of poverty, inequality, discrimination, poor education, unemployment, unaffordable housing, unaffordable health care, social aggressiveness and exclusion, insecurities of all sorts, all in a country that claims the values and has the  resources to remedy them.  The answer suggested was that the situation was partly the result of shortfalls of democratic procedures, partly the result of inequalities of wealth and power, but that both of these rest on an ideologically and culturally blocked awareness of fundamental causes and available alternatives – a blocked consciousness that needs to be directly addressed.

That blog  argued that, in dealing with the tea party (as a stand-in for the defenders of the status quo}, it would be most effective to combat those blockages by starting with the problems that are generally acknowledged, pushing some immediate steps towards solutions, but constantly linking those steps to a critique of a frame in which they ought to be embedded, showing how logically the immediate leads to more and more radical and even utopian visions of what in the long run needs to be done.

Some examples, not presented as developed proposals for the formulation of demands or platforms, but as examples of the approach that might be taken, follow. [1]

A: Efficiency-only reforms: reforms that simply make existing programs or policies more efficient, eliminate waste, trim costs, but change neither the thrust of the program not the power relations in which it is enmeshed.

B: Liberal reforms: reforms which expand or modify a program, using market mechanisms wherever possible, and without challenging its structural causes or the power relations in which it is embedded.

C: Radical reforms: reforms which drastically modify programs and expand their aims, challenging the power relations in which they are embedded

D: Transformative Claims: claims, going beyond specific reform proposals which address their structural causes and links to systemic issues, directly challenging the power relations in which they are embedded and serve.

[These examples are suggested only as illustrative, and are thus far really only perfunctorily sketched. For each, there are groups and individuals who have gone much further in working out demands and claims, at all levels, who should be consulted on each issue.  The point here is only to suggest the kind of differences to be found on each, and in each case running along a non-exclusive spectrum from dealing merely with efficiency-only to presenting the need for full-scale transformation. More detail and other examples would be welcome.]:

        Higher education:[2]

A: Efficiency-only reforms: Standardized conditions of private loans

B: Liberal reforms: Provide a public option for loans; provide substantially increased public grants

C: Radical reforms: Limit scope of private for-profit institutions.

D: Transformative Claims: Make higher education free.

2.      Mortgage foreclosures[3]:

A: Efficiency-only reforms: Higher reserve requirements of banks; judicial review of sloppy paper work.

B: Liberal reforms: Expand opportunities for voluntary renegotiation of loans; subsidize lowering of interest rates and writ-downs of loans; regulate rents taking into account landlords’ finances.

C: Radical reforms: Require write-down of loan principals; mandate continued occupancy at reasonable rents after foreclosure; facilitate non-profit ownership; regulate rents taking into account occupants’ finances.

D: Transformative Claims: Remove housing from the speculative market through public acquisition or facilitation of conversion to private non-profit, limited equity, cooperative, or community land trust ownership, with adequate subsidies to cover maintenance and utilities at levels affordable to lower-income occupants; confiscatory taxation of speculative profits; aggressive expansion of public housing. Housing should be treated for its use value, not its exchange value.

3.      Public Space:[4]

A: Efficiency-only reforms: Administer to protect surrounding property values.

B: Liberal reforms: Provide, expand, and administer to protect surrounding property values and quality of life of neighbors; regulate use by reasonable police measures; give zoning bonuses where privately provided.

C: Radical reforms: Provide, expand, and administer taking into account needs of surrounding community; Protect use against police repression, Require private provision in connection with new construction.  Protect right of use by homeless.

D: Transformative Claims: Provide, expand, and administer adequately to satisfy the needs of the population as a whole; give priority to uses appropriate for the exercise of political democratic rights; mandate public use for these purposes of private property where necessary. Provide supportive permanent housing for homeless users.

4.      Health

A: Efficiency-only reforms: Planned decentralization/consolidation. Computerize records; permit cross-jurisdiction private insurance in a transparent marketplace.

B: Liberal reforms: Finance Medicare and Medicaid properly. Permit unified bargaining with pharmaceutical companies; subsidize insurance, providing a public option.

C: Radical reforms: Medicare for all. Buy out private hospitals and care facilities at asset, not income, values. National Health Service

D: Transformative Claims: Eliminate fee for service provision, comprehensive national health care system, without access restrictions, paid for routinely as a public service, like police and fire protection.

5.      Jobs and Labor Relations

A: Efficiency-only reforms: Full appointments to NLRB; adequate information to workers;

B: Liberal reforms: Adequate inspections and enforcement of FLSA, health and safety standards; facilitation of discrimination cases. card checks for elections; indexing minimum wage levels

C: Radical reforms: Living wage requirements for all jobs; expanded public service jobs; ceilings on management and ownership incomes and benefits

D: Transformative Claims: Requirement of worker participation in decisionmaking in ownership; public provision by public employees of all essential services.

6.      City Planning:[5]

A: Efficiency-only reforms: independent technically qualified City Planning Commission with adequate staff

B: Liberal reforms: Advisory community planning boards

C: Radical reforms:  Community Planning Boards with decision-making powers

D: Transformative Claims: Public ownership of land, city-wide Assembly of Planning Boards with decision-making power over all land use issues.

7. Homelessness

A. Efficiency-only reforms: Screen applicants for shelter eligibility; track applicants; police supervision of shelters;

B. Liberal reforms: Expand shelter system; provide social service consultations.

C. Radical reforms: Provided expanded affordable housing opportunities; staff transitional housing where needed; provide homeless persons input into policy and administration.  Policy;

D. Transformative reforms: Establish and implement a legal Right to Housing for All, including direct public provision and stringent rent controls.

8. Municipal Budgeting

A. Efficiency-only reforms: Putting the capitol budget within the jurisdiction of the City Planning commission.

B. Liberal Reforms: Giving Community Boards or Councilmanic District assemblies a decision-making role in expenditures within their districts.

C. Radical Reforms: Providing a comprehensive city-wide Participatory Budgeting process affecting both operating and capital budgets

D.Transformative Reforms: Expanding a Participatory Budgeting proeess to cover revenues/tax policies locally and adopting national legislation prohibiting tax evasion by cross-border evasion and prohibiting local-level competition in tax programs.

 9. Worker Ownership and Co-operatives

A. Efficiency-Only Reforms. Permit NLRB-supervised elections for union representation

B. Liberal Reforms. Permit Card-check Voting. Aggressively enforce rights to organize and bargain.

C. Radical Reforms. Provide for majority worker ownership, in stock or co-operative form, of individual firms.[6]

D. Transformative Reforms. Strengthen or transfer to democratically controlled public ownership entire sectors of the economy and of production and services provision. [7]

Many other examples could be given, and the above certainly need further development. The point is that, at whatever level of reform is strategically immediately attainable, the principles behind the further levels should always be on the table, including the arguments for the most transformative. They may seem utopian goals here and now, but there is no historical or material reason why any of them are not reachable. Insisting that they be acknowledged even in the midst of the more immediate objectives is at least a small step in the direction of getting there.

Blog #31 will hesitantly suggest some New Rules for New Radicals as possibilities for moving to implementation of such transformative reforms.

[1] My debt to Andre Gorz and the concept of reformist and non-reformist reforms should be clear.

[2] See Andrew Ross’ discussion, described in Dan Schneider, “Occupying Student Debt,” Dollars and Snse, Jan-Feb 2012, p. 6

[3] See further Marcuse, Peter. 2009. “A Critical Approach to the Subprime Mortgage Crisis in the United States: Rethinking the Public Sector in Housing.” City & Community, vol. 8, No. 3, September, pp. 351-357.

[4] See my blogs #3, 4, and 5.

[5] Tom Angotti, New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011, provides excellent background.

[6] Gar Alperovitch,

[7] See Alliance for a Just Society.

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 #26 – Imagine Actually Occupying Wall Street – A Proposal

Blog #26 – Imagine Actually Occupying Wall Street – A Proposal DRAFT DRAFT DRAFT

If the purpose of re-imagining the city is to stimulate understanding and appreciation of what the actual possibilities might be for a city of heart’s desire, and to move the uncommitted to join in the struggle to achieve such a city, then perhaps there is a very concrete and visible activity that might provoke action in that direction.

The concern of the Occupy Wall Street movement is specifically to foster action, and the adoption of “Occupy Wall Street” as its name indicates the movements analysis of the road-block to success: Wall Street, as symbolic of the power of financial institutions and the 1% they coordinate over the lives of the 99%. But the name is meant symbolically; at the most, the movement has occupied spaces already largely public, near the financial district but not displacing any financial activity by its presence. At best, demonstrations on Wall Street itself have been limited, short-lived, and tightly controlled by the police. And this is perhaps as far as, today, realistically, the movement can go in actually, literally, “occupying Wall Street.”

But why not spell out what actually “occupying wall street” might look like, as a way of highlighting what the alternatives to it are. Why not use imagination in fact to picture what a street like Wall Street might look like if it were actually occupied by the 99%, if what was done there was replaced by activities better serving the broad public interest? Imagine the buildings of Wall Street as they are now but devoted to advancing the goal of a city of the heart’s desire. What would they be like?

Well, why not have a design competition to answer that question? Suppose the assignment were to imagine the trading floor of the Stock Exchange as the meeting place for the General Assembly of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Imagine if the offices in the Stock Exchange were to be allocated to Occupy Wall Street’s many Working Groups and spin-offs. Imagine the lobby and accessible spaces turned over to Occupy Sandy as a storage and distribution center for food and blankets for the victims of Sandy, and kept as a an available resource for other disasters?1 Imagine the incredible high-speed computers of the stock exchange made available to civic organizations for social networking and information on present campaigns and planned actions. What would Wall Street, and the Stock Exchange building, look like when put to these different uses?

But why limit the re-imagination of existing city spaces only to Wall Street itself? Why not reimagine 1 World Trade Center, the erstwhile “Freedom Tower,” and make it truly representative of our vision of a free and just society by converting it into supportive housing for the homeless, changing it from use by the richest and most powerful members of our society to a symbol of our concern for the least well off and most powerless? Perhaps, if the homeless were all thereafter provided permanent homes elsewhere, Wall Street might serve as a publicly-supported giant hostel or family hotel for visitors to the city who cannot afford the luxury hotels abounding elsewhere in the district – reflecting the concerns we have for the strangers in our midst?

Goldman Sachs has just finished building a $2.4 billion building in Battery Park City, adjacent to the World Trade Center site, as its investment banking headquarters. What is worked on there will undoubtedly have a major impact, not only on the financial sector and the economy as a whole, but also on public policies affecting both the 1% and the 99%. Suppose the building were re-imagined to serve the purposes of participatory decision-making by all segments of the 100%? Suppose rooms and office sites were assigned to community groups, groups advocating for the poor, minorities, the powerless, as well as to business and trade groups, to think tanks for groups across the political and ideological spectrum? Suppose executive dining rooms were to be eliminated, and instead cafeterias were provided for workers from all the different offices – perhaps with tables designed to maximize meeting strangers? Perhaps a health club, similarly designed? Perhaps the Chase Manhattan tower would offer another similar opportunity, if the demand exceeded what the Goldman Sachs building could accommodate – although Goldman Sachs alone is to accommodate 11,000 workers in 43 floors? Universities are constantly struggling for space for expansion. How about a competition for turning the new Bank of America building on 42nd street over to the City University of New York, and inviting other educational institutions from around the five boroughs to share the space?

One could imagine this as a design competition, along the lines of a conventional architectural competition, with a prominent jury, a foundation-donated prize, wide-spread publicity and exhibitions and conferences on the results. If star architects are too involved with clients who might not appreciate the effort, perhaps schools of architecture and planning might be hosts to studios and projects to be entered in the competition, and the as yet unconstrained imagination of students marshaled in its execution?

And, theoretically, it could not only be a competition for physical designers, but perhaps also for economists and sociologists and planners. And not only as to the new uses imagined for the places, but also as to the impact of displacing their present uses. Economists might consider how investment decisions could be made if we didn’t have a stock exchange, political scientists how public decisions could be made absent the power of mighty lobbyists. Sociologists might explore what the resultant mixing of users might suggest and how it might be made most productive.

Such a competition, or competitions, should not be so difficult to organize. And if one is serious about wanting to bring about a better world, one of heart’s desire, why not concretely imagine what it would look like with the physical spaces that we have already built up in our cities?


1. Occupy Sandy might be asked about their space needs. They have put out a request for help:
“Occupy Sandy needs a new multi-purpose space to be used similarly to how Jacobi and 520 have been used for the past month. Please use your networks to help us expand our options. The needs are: roll-in/out capability, meeting and intake space, proximity to transit, accessibility to recovery sites, internet access or potential to install, key access, office and communications hub space, bathrooms, positive community relationships, parking/wide streets, clean, safe and healthy. Please respond immediately with any leads about spaces. Contact is: OSSpaces@gmail.com”