Comments by the Center for Post Carbon Logistics on the NYC Comprehensive Waterfront Plan: Working Waterfront and Transportation of Goods.

The New York Port in 2050

“Moving goods and people from place to place in a carbon constrained future will be dependent on sailing vessels, hybrid/fossil free electric ships, and people/electric, powered transport for first and last mile logistics. “

New York’s Working Waterfront has long been a key contributor to the region’s financial wellbeing and our nation’s economy. But, in a carbon constrained future, how will goods and people be moved from place to place, and what role will The City’s Waterfront play in this vision? How should we meet the looming challenges of climate change, rising sea level, aging infrastructure, changes to global shipping patterns, threats to food security, and the risks these changes bring to New York’s financial sector?

The biggest question of all: How do we address this daunting multitude of challenges and turn them into opportunities for transforming the waterfront and Port in order to effectively and efficiently serve our regional and national economy far into the future?

“Life at the water’s edge is rapidly changing. The impacts of new technology, patterns of urban development, and globalization are redefining global logistics, and while some waterfront cities will thrive as ports and grow under these new conditions, others will need to evolve in order to survive and succeed…. How will New York re-invent its waterfront?”

If present trends continue, New York Harbor will need to be transformed into a hub of the spokes for “short sea shipping” (any movement of freight by water that doesn’t cross oceans such as freight ferries, short-haul barges and various other marine vessels). rather than serving as an unsustainable container cargo port. The good news: the New York metro region has an extensive network of waterways, and so is very well suited for the short sea shipping mode of freight transport. Moreover, public agencies and private companies are investigating the potential economic and environmental benefits of transferring more cargo from road to sea.

As New York moves forward to the working waterfront of tomorrow, the constraints, and in some cases the advantages, of smaller and (s)lower tech modes of transport must be considered; allowing for the integration of slow tech transport into harbor infrastructure to support these imminent changes.

If the New York port is to thrive, 19th, 20th, and 21st Century technology must meld seamlessly into new, mid-century methods of transport, also with an emphasis on what might seem like bygone, but productive, methodologies in order to become more self-sufficient and sustainable.

To offer just one example, ships of all sorts will need to be built (and rebuilt) locally, from locally sourced or recycled materials, and be crewed by locally trained seafarers, in order to adjust to declines in these resources globally, declines brought on by the climate crisis and social upheaval abroad.  These new vessels will likely be very different than the ones built today

As fossil fuels become more expensive and are restricted by climate change policy, port infrastructure will need to be part of a carbon neutral trading network that links us to the region and the world. The good news: our port is well positioned to become a laboratory for maritime innovation, offering competitive freight rates on 18th and 19th Century shipping routes enhanced by 21st Century technology.

A Port Facing the Greatest Challenges in Its History

Our world is now convulsed by converging crises of a magnitude never seen by humanity: climate change and sea level rise, global economic instability, and peak everything. Add to these threats the risk of wars over natural resources, climate migration, failure of aging and over stressed infrastructure, unstable economies, and the erosion of community values. Each of these crises presents particularly thorny problems for New York City, its Port, and the region. Challenges which also offer opportunities.

New York City owes its very existence to its location on one of the greatest ice-free harbors on earth; in turn, that great urban powerhouse was built on its Harbor and shipping industry. But as new threats loom, our aging Port has devolved into a dangerously tenuous lifeline to the world overseas.

Mid-west drought

Today, the far-flung international trade network that once pumped vibrant economic life into New York City and our region is threatened with collapse as imported natural resources grow more expensive, carbon pollution from shipping grows much worse, and the fossil fuels needed to transport goods become increasingly scarce and costly. Spiralling petroleum costs, and turmoil in nations upon which we rely for imported goods could snap our international lifeline at any time. 

The present system is unsustainable, so we must prepare to transform it, and we must move quickly

It’s important to understand that all of the many crises we face are intimately linked to each other, and magnify each other, impacting our port’s future. Just a few troubling examples:

  • A severe long-term drought in the American Midwest, could cut off our region’s supply of wheat, corn and soy, causing food shortages and a financial calamity.
  • Peak oil requires that we drill for fossil fuels in increasingly extreme landscapes, like the deep-water Gulf of Mexico, prone to more and more powerful hurricanes, or by using hydraulic fracturing that will likely contaminate groundwater in the heart of our regional foodshed, and the grain belt. Sudden price surges would impact shipping and our Port.
  • Our sprawling global oil pipeline stretches around the globe, making us vulnerable and dependent on volatile states prone to war, revolution, and migratory upheaval. Again, such conflicts could seriously impact global commerce and our Port.
  • An economic crash or a financially-sapping resource war abroad, could wreck our balance of trade and shatter our tax base, then making it fiscally impossible to adapt our infrastructure to accommodate climate change impacts, which would lead to more unpreparedness and economic hardship.
  • Meanwhile, poor harbor planning, and inappropriate non-water-dependent development along New York City’s flood prone waterfront could seriously hamper adaptation to these many crises. 

The accumulation and interaction of such shocks could be catastrophic if we do not prepare

Despite its present dominance, the New York Port and its current maritime logistics system remains fragile. It is reliant upon carbon-based fuels, driving internal combustion engines. This local fossil fuel-dependent system is interwoven into long-distance, globalized trade and is designed for Just-In-Time delivery. Importantly, it also depends upon a financial accounting system that avoids paying for negative environmental and social externalities such as global warming, environmental pollution, and sea level rise. But the bill for these negative externalities is coming due now and will be paid by our Port, our city, and our regional economy for decades to come if we don’t prepare to prevent that from happening.

Here is a stark reality that we must deal with if we are to thrive as a 21st Century Port: The World Economic Forum determined in 2018 that if shipping were a country, it would be the world’s sixth-biggest greenhouse gas emitter. Those maritime emissions must be slashed, and soon. That being true, there are grave doubts that our current shipping system can easily adapt to the policy and technological shifts needed to successfully curb climate change. But failure to adapt will be catastrophic for our Port: sea level rise alone could make sure of that. So we have no choice: we must adapt.

The NY/NJ Port, New York City’s working waterfront, and the greater region are at a crossroads, a turning point. Looking forward rationally at all the indicators, our “business as usual” carbon model, dependent on globe-trotting fossil fuel powered container ships is putting us on course for systemic failure, marked by cataclysmic energy shortages and infrastructure collapse, inundation from sea level rise, financial meltdown and its attendant social disarray.

For those who think otherwise, our climate change future and its inevitable impacts were foreshadowed when Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New York City in October 2010, bringing with it a destructive wall of water that flooded subway tunnels and neighborhoods, cut off power to lower Manhattan, washed away century-old structures, cost the city millions, and left it forever changed. Sandy “was a turning point, that’s true not just for anticipating future Sandy-like storms, but also for predicting overall sea-level rise and such climate-change impacts as more frequent heat waves, which the New York City Panel on Climate Change projects will triple by the 2050s.”

Despite widespread agreement upon these future climate change-driven inevitabilities, the Port Authority — because it has invested so heavily in large container port infrastructure — continues to write “resiliency” reports, even as large container ships becomes increasingly obsolete — outdated dinosaurs  at the end of a fossil fuel era.

It is also expected that Port Authority will continue to pour millions of dollars into incremental “port improvements,” while failing to address the inexorable rise of the sea and the eventual destruction of most of its expensive industrial port infrastructure. Likewise, the Corps of Engineers, despite some attempts at “greenwashing” remains in denial, as are the City of New York, and the States of New York and New Jersey. Bold initiatives proposed after Hurricane Sandy collect dust on agency bookshelves.  Attempts at “pilot” projects related to climate change protection and adaptation have so far been way too feeble, too small and too late.

Meeting Challenges of a 21st Century Port

If the Port (and the City and Region it serves) survives into the second half of this century it will be significantly smaller, more sustainable, and resilient with an emphasis on adaptation, and realistic outcomes for the continuation of the transport of goods and people.

The contemporary Port of NY/NJ is the largest port on the East Coast and the third largest in the US. For the freight offloaded at its facilities, our Port is just one stop in an extensive intermodal distribution chain.

But here’s another important fact: we drastically underutilize an invaluable regional transportation resource: our local waterways. In New York City’s metro region, 80% of freight transport today is carried by truck, a practice that congests our highways, increases air pollution, and is entirely dependent on fossil fuels. In the context of a working waterfront of the second third of the 21st century, (electric) trucks and rail may continue to have relevance in city-to-city transport, but all large trucks will likely have necessarily disappeared from the urban core.  Congestion, pollution, and quality of life issues make this inevitable. And Just in Time delivery will be replaced by Warehouse in Transit Logistics (WIT or Warehouse –in- transit” is the successor to JIT or just-in-time which is now selectively outdated. Many cargoes that speed along highways to spend days in a warehouse could as easily and more economically / beneficially move by water).

In the 18th, and 19th and early 20th centuries, the Hudson River, the New York Harbor, and the NY/NJ Harbor Estuary and its river tributaries served as a bustling network of marine highways linking even the smallest communities to a web of regularly scheduled commercial routes. Boats of all sizes met local cargo and passenger needs: schooners, sloops, barges, and steamboats connected river town inhabitants. Farmers, merchants, and oystermen relied on this vibrant and diverse fleet of vessels to bring in supplies and deliver goods to market. The NY/NJ Harbor Estuary and its tributaries — and the ships and boats sailing them — were vital and integral to those who worked and lived along our inland waters.

Historically, thousands of vessels plied these marine highways, sailing to and from The City’s Harbor to the farming communities of New Jersey and the Hudson Valley, delivering fresh local farm produce, fish, shellfish, and passengers to ports along the way.

Today, those marine  highways still exist, but thanks to the boom in highway construction in the mid-20th Century, have fallen into deep neglect. They now need to be reinvigorated. Injecting new life into these regional maritime trade routes is far more than just a celebration of tradition. In a carbon constrained future, sustainable water transport will be a necessity.  As the climate crisis deepens, water-based low-or-no carbon transportation routes could link communities throughout the region.

The rivers, bays, canals, and coasts of the Hudson Valley, NY Harbor, and Mid-Atlantic region continue to be a marine highway today, but one that is limited to deeply dredged channels leading to container ports and fossil fuel and chemical tank farms.

In a carbon constrained future, we will need to return to our region’s nautical roots and advocate for the maritime, and for the “first and last mile technology” necessary for moving goods and people from place to place minimizing carbon pollution, opting for existing and emerging low carbon shipping and post carbon transportation businesses and organizations.

Question: How can we rapidly develop a new approach to waterway transportation logistics that is attentive to, and resilient to the climate emergency? And under fast-evolving environmental and social conditions, how can we alter our Port to sustain a vibrant economy and standard of living for ourselves and future generations — one that is also equitable and inclusive?

Vision for a Working Waterfront and NY Port in the Second Third of the 21st Century

Oddly enough, a vision for an efficient, economically vibrant, post carbon working waterfront in the 2030s, ‘40s and ‘50s will likely resemble the New York Harbor of the late 19th century, rather than what we see today. The Harbor of the near future will need to link not only to roadways and railways, but to our region’s marine highways, which will carry massive amounts of cargo and people.

Shoreline infrastructure will have to scale down and increase in capacity, and be nimble in its response to rising sea levels and more violent storms. It will have to be accessible to smaller, more numerous vessels on a preserved and restored Working Waterfront that is socially and culturally integral to the communities and our ‘sense of place” and include:

  • Charging stations for electric and electric hybrid vessels, flood-proof storage and production facilities for biofuels like methane (from sewage treatment plants), biodiesel (from used fryer fat), and hydrogen (created from seawater while sailing vessels are underway).
  • Waterfront and flood proofed warehouses and trading houses, business that specializes in facilitating  transactions between a home country and foreign countries. (A trading house is an exporter, importer and also a trader that purchases and sells products for other businesses. Trading houses provide a service for businesses that want international trade experts to receive or deliver goods or services).
  • Local ship and boat building and repair facilities to support a local fleet,
  • More accessible customs clearance areas,
  • More traditional break bulk cranes for bulk, palletized, and bagged cargo,
  • Cross-docking facilities for transfer of goods from larger ocean-going ships to smaller short sea shipping vessels, and for transfer to first and last mile providers, i.e. small sailing, rowing, hybrid vessels as well as people/electric powered small commercial trikes and wagons.
  • Access for docking of “historic” ships to enable the “new” traders and seafarer models for “preserving the tools and skills of the past to serve the future.”

To bring these infrastructure changes about, we will need to immediately establish:

  • A new binding agreement with the region’s farmers and farm advocacy organizations in our “foodshed,”(that includes a food security plan for the New York City Bioregion). This agreement could be modeled on New York City’s agreement with farmers in the drinking water Watershed.
  • An inter-port agreements with small and mid-sized ports within a 100 mile radius of the Harbor.
  • Small ship access to flood proofed regional produce and fish markets.
  • A new agreement with transport unions to allow ships to load and unload with their own equipment. Working with the Unions to hire and train more people for post carbon longshore work.
  • A partnership with the region’s Maritime Academies and the Harbor School to retrain mariners and for logistics careers for the new post carbon working waterfront; creating a maritime education center where professional practitioners and apprentices can participate in practical workshops to relearn maritime and Port skills of the past to serve the future.
  • An endowment for a new “sailor’s snug harbor for the “aged, decrepit and worn-out sailors”
  • An endowment for the preservation and utilization of traditional maritime skills and tools, and a traditional knowledge database, library, and pre/post carbon tool, technology, and machinery collection. This activity serves to preserve, restore and promote the re-use of traditional skills.
  • Establish a Sustainable Working Waterfront Toolkit—enumerating the historical and current uses and economics of New York’s waterfront. The toolkit must include legal, policy, and financing tools which river ports, blue highways and estuarine communities can use to preserve and enhance local and regional port facilities.
  • Create maritime mixed-use zones where public parks, walkways and bikeways are built in flood zones and are adjacent to and part of a working waterfront.
  • Establish a strong working relationship with NOAA’s National Sea Grant Program for working waterfronts.
  • Advocate for a reduced, less intrusive regulatory role for the US Army Corps of Engineers. Instead, encourage funding to the Corps for partnerships with other agencies, non-profit organizations, and an engaged public for developing, and redeveloping, a sustainable NY Port in a carbon constrained future, including but not limited to working with NY/NJ Baykeeper, the billion oyster project, and the Hudson River Foundation to build oyster reefs for habitat improvement and shoreline protection.

The New Working Waterfront will also:

  • Create jobs in seafaring, logistics, ship building, harbor maintenance and more.
  • Revitalize waterfront communities by preserving the working waterfront and commercial enterprises, while providing more public access and recreation.
  • Improve regional food production and distribution, linking producers to buyers.

Imagining our Working Waterfront, circa 2050

Put simply, the shift from road, rail, and fossil fuel dependence, to dependence on our region’s extensive network of marine highways in a low-or-no carbon era, is a “breeze.”

Water-based transportation is just about the only form of transportation other than the bicycle that requires little or no roadway maintenance. There are no surfaces to grade or pave, no tracks, no bridges or trestles to care for. Of course, canals need to be restored and preserved; navigation channels need to be marked with buoys; locks and lighthouses need to be manned and maintained. But unlike motorway or railroad maintenance, these activities don’t require a large industrial base, and are far less energy-intensive than alternatives.

The 363-mile-long Erie Canal system, linking the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes, for example, has been continuously operational and profitable since 1825. The cost of keeping it running is tiny compared to the cost of equivalent highway mileage and with winters expected to be more mild the canal may be open year round.

The Hudson, Long Island Sound, the Bays of New York Harbor, and a significant number of natural and artificial waterways in the US and Canada comprise the greatest set of transportation assets in the world. Those marine highways will only see their status grow in a post carbon world — and the NY/NJ Harbor area is especially blessed with such waterways.

Let’s imagine: It is a hot, humid, late autumn day in 2050. From a high floor in one of lower Manhattan’s surviving skyscrapers, a trading house ship spotter, sees the topmasts of a tall ship entering the Lower Bay. The watcher signals the pilot schooner on post off of what was once Sandy Hook, and waiting Tug Augustin Mouchot a solar powered tug are dispatched to tow the engineless sea-going square rigger to a berth in the new port in the recently completed Gowanus Bay and Erie Basin Harbor with its oyster encrusted seawall created by repurposing concrete and stone from  waterfront buildings and piers inundated by rising seas over the last 30 years. 

Clipper Ship

The ship, the Jorne Langelaan, named after the builder of the first of the post carbon Eco-Clippers, has its crew aloft putting a harbor furl on the hemp cloth sails. She carries a mixed cargo of Caribbean fair trade coffee and cocoa beans bound for the region’s roasters and chocolatiers as well as preserved tropical fruits and rum. The Langelaan is looking a little “worse for wear” having skirted the 5th named Atlantic storm of the season. But her New York trained crew of young men and women is in good spirits, looking forward to spending time ashore, and to a few drinks of brew, cider, and spirits locally made and delivered by sloop and schooner from around the region, and to a good meal at a cafe serving up dishes harvested from the Harbor’s new artisan fishery and from oyster beds in shallows created by submerged piers and streets.   

A long shore crew, warehouse workers, drovers and their electric assist people-powered tricycles and wagons converge at the waterfront’s new storm-proofed floating dock — which rises and falls with surging tides. Cargo surveyors assist with the loading of schooners. Crews on solar electric canal barges and sloops make ready to transfer cargo from the Langelaan to their holds, and to carry that cargo to ports up and down the Hudson River, to the newly opened Delaware and Raritan, and Delaware and Hudson Canals, coastal New Jersey, Long Island, and New England. 

The Pilot Schooner comes alongside the Langelaan and the pilot goes up the ladder to the helm to direct the square rigger to its destination. Customs agents sail from Staten Island to clear the cargo. 

A huge tarred manila hemp hawser is passed to the ship from the tug and the last few miles to port pass under the clipper’s hull. The docking pilot skillfully moves the ship to the dock while the Clipper’s crew readies the ship’s gear, opening hatches, and starting up a steam winch that will do most of the lifting. There are also floating cargo cranes that can be used for cargo heavier or bulkier than can be handled by the ship’s gear. 

This (s)low tech port makes the best use of tried and true 19th century technology, supported with 21st century solar and battery electric gear and vehicles. More people are at work on the waterfront than any time since the 1920s; there are more warehouses and trading houses, ship building, repair facilities, and docking facilities than at any time in New York’s nautical history.

Just behind the waterfront are sail and rope makers utilizing New York hemp; forges and foundries using concentrated solar heat to form steel and bronze fittings. Riggers are hard at work in rope walks making running rigging and dock lines for the numerous sailing ships. Dry docks and shipyards look out on bikeways and walkways circumscribing the tidal flats from which hundreds of locals and tourists watch the port activity — safe in the knowledge that food and goods continue to come into the city, not “just in time,” but perhaps just enough. 

This narrative offers a positive look forward at the New York Port at mid-century. But that optimistic future totally depends on the will to make it so. Should we pursue politics and policy as usual, we may face a grimmer New York waterfront in 2050: Abandoned, flooded, mouldering buildings and piers; failing, low-lying sewage treatment plants and electric utilities; climate change and rising sea-driven New York City migrants crowding upstate communities seeking food and shelter; a polluted, fish empty estuary as oil and chemical plants go underwater. Food and fuel become too expensive except for the very wealthy; Crime and violence escalating, as are protests and riots bordering on insurrection, hard for law enforcement to contain; The City becomes more and more ungovernable, and faces a dark future bounded by economic gloom and rising water. 

The choice is ours. The path to a bright, sustainable future starts with this process of city-wide community engagement, and a research gathering effort that seeks input on a Working Waterfront. A good first step is being taken to better inform the waterfront planning process.

NY Port 2040

The next step will be even more critical: to take all of the information gathered, and to commit to honestly confronting challenges, while also boldly embracing opportunities and possibilities. We must move forward quickly and vigorously, and we need to do more than just convene. We must inspire individuals, communities, local leaders, city and state governments to commit to creating a thriving, post carbon Working Waterfront. We must also commit to the creation of a network of sustainable blue waterways in a region that advocates for a post carbon transition that people will embrace as a collective adventure, as a common journey, as something positive, and above all, as a future full of Hope. 

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1 Comment

  1. Nice colorful presentation on the future of our region. Schooner Apollonia is excited to begin the work of re-establishing these trade routes in 2020. Hope to see more vessels out on the water soon!

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