Erin Morey, Trine Stausgaard Munk, Melissa Enoch and Karen Appell at 2024 Waterfront Conference Photo by Rick Bell

The Waterfront Alliance hosted the 2024 Waterfront Conference: Designing for Tomorrow, The Multisector Approach on Tuesday, 21 May, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan. The plenaries, general sessions, networking opportunities and 20 topic-specific sessions were superb and thought-provoking. Discussions described current best practices along with pilot programs anticipating a more resilient future in New York City and worldwide. Of particular interest was the afternoon session titled “Cloudburst Solutions for Communities – What Works Where, How, and Why?” 

Moderated by Karen Appell, PE (Vice President, Climate Change Lead, AECOM NY Metro Water), the program illustrated ongoing efforts to combat flooding in four NYC ‘Hub’ neighborhoods: Corona, Kissena, Parkchester and East New York. Speakers were Melissa Enoch (Acting Assistant Commissioner, NYC Department of Environmental Protection), Erin Morey (Director, Climate Resilience Planning, Metropolitan Transportation Authority Construction & Development) and Trine Stausgaard Munk (Head of Sustainability, Ramboll Water). Karen noted that the multi-sectoral approach is part of what this conference is about.

As defined on the website of the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, “a ‘cloudburst’ is a sudden, heavy downpour where a lot of rain falls in a short amount of time.” The site’s description continues: “Cloudburst management implements a combination of methods that absorb, store, and transfer stormwater to minimize flooding from cloudburst events. Using grey infrastructure, like sewer pipes and underground storage tanks, and green infrastructure, like trees and rain gardens, cloudburst management can minimize damage to property and infrastructure by reducing strain on the sewer system.”

Melissa began the DEP presentation at the 2024 Waterfront Conference by saying her agency’s efforts were meant to change the narrative, identifying pilot areas to implement cloudburst efforts. She described DEP’s partnership with NYCHA, starting at South Jamaica Houses, using flood control measures to bring tenant-identified amenities through a lengthy community outreach program. She mentioned that in the first four Cloudburst Hubs, DEP has been describing Cloudburst initiatives at Town Hall meetings that have allowed for direct input from residents who would be using the specific features that might provide greater on-site stormwater retention, from rain gardens and floodable below-grade basketball courts that essentially welcome water into their neighborhoods.

Erin described the MTA’s Climate Resilience Roadmap. She spoke of how the New York City subway system was uniquely vulnerable to Cloudburst flooding, as compared with other MTA infrastructure. While the subway is well-prepared for everyday stormwater and groundwater, the resilience roadmap identifies measures to reduce the impact on service from major storms. She added that “our customers deserve to know what the MTA is doing about resilience” and noted that the roadmap has goals focusing on flooding and extreme heat along with design standards leading to the future.

Trine noted how Copenhagen’s efforts, brought about by severe Cloudburst-generated flooding in her city, had become a global model, and spoke of the benefits of sharing experiences and solutions, highlighting the collaboration between Copenhagen and New York City. She spoke cogently about the importance of social equity in Cloudburst planning. She said that Copenhagen’s first projects were public-private partnerships, with huge community engagement, starting before procurement of design services and construction contracts. She said, “there is no Cloudburst project without community involvement” noting that regenerative design must address not only the needs of people but consider “the bees, the flowers, and planetary justice.” Trine also noted the importance of getting youth involved, recognizing that water can be the solution to other societal challenges. 

Karen addressed the paradigm shift that Cloudburst planning represented, stating that it afforded an opportunity to think bigger about water management, surface and subsurface storage, and conveyance. She referenced current AECOM work with DEP that combines these three approaches using both streetscape changes and interventions on other public lands. Their work together involves community education and awareness about short and long-term methodologies, and how such a layered approach works, linking green infrastructure including rain gardens, Cloudburst-generated improvements such as porous paving, and other efforts at stormwater retention and conveyance. 

The speakers all addressed the importance of effective collaboration between disparate agencies and entities. Erin spoke of the MTA’s partnerships with DOT and DEP in New York City, helping the transit authority to align their capital improvements with the planned efforts of those municipal agencies. Melissa spoke of DEP’s additional partnership with both DOT and Parks, as well as addressing the large role that private property has to play. And Trine noted the success of inter-city collaboration, looking at how Copenhagen’s approaches could work in New York City.

Questions from members of the large and knowledgeable audience focused on mitigation efforts, the relation of Cloudburst to other coastal flooding measures, and strategies pertaining to new development. Speaker responses spoke of the interconnectedness of environmental measures, the need to integrate hydrologic modelling across both inland and coastal flooding, and the DEP’s design manual that addresses enhanced vegetation and on-site water management. Melissa finished by saying that DEP is proving that their green-first approach can happen here.

Karen wrapped up the session by asking the audience three simple questions on the definition of Cloudburst, on modifying DEP’s standard details based on green infrastructure, and on relating the upscaling of Cloudburst efforts to community education and engagement. Based on the clarity and specificity of the presentations, everyone in the audience got three-for-three correct.

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Cloudburst Solutions for Communities – What Works Where, How, and Why?