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04/02/2023 Edgemere, Queens

New York City, United States


In conversation with Veronica Olivotto from the New School

What happens when communities are forced to retreat out of the way of rising sea levels? 


This question lies at the heart of Veronica Olivotto’s research. She is a Ph.D. student at the Milano School of Policy, Management, and the Environment at the New School, focusing on climate adaptation policy, particularly the outcomes for communities that remain in place after managed retreat from coastlines.


"Retreat is perceived as a threat rather than a prospect for a better life," Olivotto describes the buyout programs for properties situated on floodplains of rivers and coastlines, managed by the U.S. federal government through New York State and New York City. These programs provide compensation in return for people relocating to less vulnerable land, although the funds are seldom sufficient to purchase a similar property in New York City at current housing prices.


Olivotto’s research has focused on the community of Edgemere, a predominantly black and brown neighborhood situated on the Rockaway peninsula in Queens. "Edgemere is vulnerable to coastal flooding and was devastated by Superstorm Sandy in 2012," she explains, and elaborates results of the buyout programs, "Research shows that when a lot is vacated, it mostly remains fenced off." 


A collaborative community visioning process involving Pratt Institute-based Collective for Community, Culture and the Environment (CCCE) and a local organization Rockaway Initiative for Sustainability and Equity (RISE) aimed to rejuvenate post-buyout vacant lots for high-quality uses. Olivotto describes the workshops organized by RISE, stating, "They envisioned returning the vacant lots to uses aligned with community desires," exploring temporary activities like food carts, community gardens, kayak landings, pop-up gyms, and more. However, the New York City department, owning the lots, resisted their use due to insurance liability concerns, leaving the vacated lots undeveloped, which can be disheartening for the remaining neighborhood residents.


Approaches to land use on floodplains continue to be contentious, with new housing developments in Edgemere granted construction permits despite the ongoing buyback program aiming to relocate coastal residents to safer areas. Olivotto concludes by posing the question, "Which communities benefit from the current land use strategy?"

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Arverne by the Sea on the Rockaway peninsula, 2023. 

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