On the resilience & vulnerability of New York City

From August of 2016 to this week in June of 2018, I undertook my master’s degree, in International Development Studies. From the very start of it, I had been enthused about the idea of writing a long piece, a thesis, predominantly over the second year of the degree. Not only that, but I had already taken up two general topics to be chosen between: humans and lions, or the developed city. In the end, the closest I got to the former was an essay for a course on the interactions between humans and wildlife, and you can read that here.

And so I settled on the city.

Despite the nature of my studies, I didn’t want to research a city from the ‘developing’ world, or ‘global south’. I wanted, instead, to look at the most ‘developed’ parts of the world, and to a culture, a society, and a situation that, if it wasn’t home, then at least it was a place I knew far more well than I knew more far flung places. And it just so happened that a few months before the start of my degree, I had been wandering the right angles of the grid sketched upon the island at the centre of the world.

New York City it is, then.

The full development of my thoughts and ideas aside, my eventual focus was to take a theory born within ecology that explains complex, adaptive systems and their processes, and to look not at the forest but the city. This theory had already been developed beyond its field of origin to look at social-ecological systems, but to my mind urban resilience had been predominantly focused, in academia and in policy, on cities in ‘developing’ countries, and overwhelmingly on the climatological hazards that they are or will be facing. I wanted to take the theory and its components and apply it fully to the City of New York as it made its way through three significant disturbances of the opening decades of the new and 21st century: 9/11, the financial crisis, and Hurricane Sandy. With only one of these being climatological, and with the others being socio-political and economic, it would be an interesting test of the utility of the theory, and another useful lens with which to look back at the terrorist attacks and the neo Wall Street crash and see their unfolding and their legacy in the context of the question of New York City’s long-term resilience.

The result? See below.

First, there is a link to a PDF of my thesis, free to read and download, to cherish and to throw aside. Below that, I have put the abstract, which summarizes the entire thesis, and then a chapter list that gives a quick description of each. It is worth reading chapter 3 if you want to fully understand the later sections, as the ideas of resilience and vulnerability in this context are not necessarily in line with what comes to mind when one hears those words, and the figures used in chapter 5 are better understood when having read through chapter 3 first.

A study on the resilience and vulnerability of New York City
in the wake of 9/11, the financial crisis, and Hurricane Sandy
by William Altoft

PDF: On the resilience and vulnerability of New York City – William Altoft


Urbanisation is set to continue rapidly in the 21st century, with a further two and half billion projected to join the urban population by mid-century. Since the founding of a trading port at the tip of Manhattan, New York City has grown through self-organisation from the bottom-up, met forcefully by the top-down implementation of the 1811 grid, and has spread to the surrounding boroughs to become the urban example that led the twentieth century. In the first two decades of the 21st century, it has faced extreme tests of its resilience and vulnerability, with the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the financial crisis born of the Wall Street crash in 2007, and the climatological hazard of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The theory of social-ecological resilience was developed to explore complex, adaptive systems, and their capability to deal with shock and surprise, originally within the context of ecosystems in the natural world. Studies of cities have taken on this theory, and now talk of urban resilience, with policy by both city governments and various organisations informed by and acting upon it – yet much of this is limited to dealing with threats from the natural world, which is only one of the many hazards a city faces. The City of New York produced literature and policy purporting to rely on resilience to move forward in the wake of Sandy, and this is reviewed in order to explore what the city means by resilience, and if it has learnt from the effects of the hurricane. Models from resilience and vulnerability theory are then utilised to analyse the events before, during, and after the September 11th attacks and the financial crisis of 2007/08, to explore the city’s resilience, or lack thereof, in areas beside the climate. Though the city is adapting to the prospect of floods and storms, its financial system remains as vulnerable as before, having learnt little after being rescued from the crash of 2007. In the face of unexpected violence in the autumn of 2001, the city demonstrated remarkable resilience in disaster response, the emergency services, infrastructure, and general recovery and rebuilding. However, the New York and American psyche proved vulnerable, and the lasting effect of 9/11 was not in physical destruction, but a cultural, societal trauma. The legacy of the 1811 grid – a much more significant disturbance – is not clear, but it seems to be a fundamental limit to the city’s future options for adaptability and transformability. Despite coming through these early crises of the new century, and though its pride in its resilience has in many areas been earned, New York City has shown some important vulnerabilities in the face of what has been, and what may come.

Chapter 1

An introduction that touches on urbanisation, before going on to dance through the development of Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs from 1811 onward, as the grid is implemented. It closes by listing the research question and its sub-questions.

Chapter 2

A short methods section, describing how the study has been done, and what limitations there are to it.

Chapter 3

An explanation of the theoretical background and framework of the study: social-ecological resilience and vulnerability. This includes an explanation of the three models that are utilised in the analysis section: the adaptive cycle, the panarchy model, and the pressure and release model.

Chapter 4

A literature review, which covers briefly the academic discussion on urban resilience, before moving on to policy literature produced by various organisations on the topic. It then moves on to review and critique a document produced by the City of New York after Hurricane Sandy, on creating a more resilient city.

Chapter 5

A series of figures as analysis of New York City during and after the financial crisis and the attacks of 9/11, utilising the adaptive cycle, the panarchy model, and the pressure and release model.

Chapter 6

A discussion section that builds on the analysis in the previous chapter, and brings Sandy back into the mix to explore New York City’s resilience and vulnerability. It closes with a discussion over the issue of time horizon, and the legacy of a disturbance far greater than the three shocks of the early 21st century: the 1811 grid.

Chapter 7

A conclusion that revisits the research question and its sub-questions, and suggests areas of further research and other questions that might be raised.

Chapter 8

List of references.

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