On March 3, the Log Lunch community gathered to hear from Paul Gallay ’81 about coastal resilience planning in New York City. Paul serves as the director of Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development’s Resilient Coastal Communities Project (RCCP), a partnership between the Columbia Climate School and the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, which seeks to implement solutions to climate change-related flood risks grounded in principles of environmental justice. Paul also serves as a lecturer at Columbia Climate School’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, and from 2004-2008, served as a Visiting Professor of Environmental Law at Williams. A self-described academic-but-activist-at-heart, Paul has experience in legal and policy leadership work with the New York State Attorney General and Department of Environmental Conservation, Hudson Riverkeeper and land conservation organizations in New York and Maine.
Coastal communities, such as New York City, are already facing several flooding-related threats that will only worsen as the effects of climate change continue to become more drastic and extreme weather events become more common. Disadvantaged communities are particularly vulnerable to such risks, due to long histories of injustice and oppression. Three of the main risks are ocean waters being blown in by high winds, as was the case with Hurricane Sandy, intense rainstorms, such as Hurricane Ida, and rising sea levels. As of now, the main policy response has been for the Army Corps to build storm surge barriers, an approach that has not been developed in dialogue with the affected communities and fails to take into account the social dimensions of climate change, often exacerbating existing inequalities. Paul emphasized that while barriers may be necessary in some cases, they should not be the default response.
Successful flood planning responses, he said, must address community character, social cohesion, and past inequalities, along with public health and safety and biodiversity. This is only achievable through collaboration and coproduction with the affected communities, a piece that is missing from the Army Corps’ current top-down approach. The RCCP’s research has found that communities often have information essential to planning projects that professional agencies lack, and many front-line community groups, though underfunded, already have sophisticated climate resilience plans. However, most communities have little access to and trust in agencies, and are frustrated at historically being pushed to the sidelines in coastal resilience planning. Paul and his colleagues see their role as connecting agencies to frontline community workers, so that they can start building trusting relationships in order to create effective partnerships.
Paul said that groups such as the Army Corps must be given resources, training, and time for this to be accomplished. Some of the most successful alternative solutions that may emerge from such collaborations include things like green infrastructure and wetland restoration, which can advance communities’ well-being along with their climate resilience. The RCCP’s work is grounded in the belief that justice can drive success.
“A lot of people think that community engagement slows the process down, and if you give a community too much of a voice, they’ll mess everything up,” Paul said. “The reality is 180 degrees the opposite. If you’re not centering communities, you’re almost guaranteeing more failure and you’re only going to be building more injustice.”
The Log Lunch cooks served a delicious meal of Cuban black bean soup, Equadorian llapingachos (cheese-stuffed potato patties), Salvadorran curtido (pickled cabbage and carrot slaw), and Venezuelan golfeados (sticky buns) for dessert.
Log Lunch is a CES program hosted every Friday at noon. During Log Lunch, a vegetarian meal prepared by Williams students is served, followed by a talk on an environmental topic. Speakers are drawn from both the student body and faculty of Williams, as well as from local, national, and international organizations. Learn more here.
BY CHARLOTTE STAUDENMAYER ’25