What if retreat was not an option? Every opportunity for retreat is inexorably tethered to the enterprise of boundary making, an action that separates regions regarded as secure from those that are considered vulnerable. The frontiers of “managed retreat,” promising stability and an escape from peril, preserve cycles of evacuation and migration from areas deemed “unsafe” and perpetuates the redrawing of the perimeters of threat. This desire, to “retreat to safety” or “retreat from danger,” will continue to reinforce the false coupling of vulnerability and weakness and can only result in spatial solutions of defense or feelings of defeat. This thesis speculates the liberation of vulnerability from its negative connotations by utilizing speculative storytelling about New York City’s coastal territories to imagine alternative urban futures established in holding rather than draining.
Flood control, through drainage and other conveyance systems, is a conceptualization of obedient water. While rigid infrastructure provides the benefit of predictability—coercing water into curated stages of residency (deliver, detain, and drain)—unanticipated water events can result in “disaster.” Therefore, the resulting reality is dependent on reducing risk and eliminating vulnerability. As populations around the world become increasingly affected by water-related events, both risk and resilience must be critically revisioned. Risk (a function of vulnerability, hazards, and exposure)1 and disaster resilience (a perpetual cycle of rescue, recovery, and reconstruction) are antiquated terms motivated by expectation and nostalgia, respectively. They assume that we live on borrowed time, but that is not true—we live on borrowed ground.
1 Michael Oppenheimer et al., “Emergent Risks and Key Vulnerabilities,” in Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ed. Christopher B. Field et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 1,046.