East Harlem Polder: 
Re-Imagine FDR Drive as Climate Infrastructure

Year: 2023-2024

East Harlem in New York City is confronting an increasing risk of two distinct types of flooding. The first type is inland flooding, which occurs when heavy rainfall overwhelms the outdated drainage system and is exacerbated by the absence of permeable pavement. The second type is river flooding stemming from the Harlem River, a threat that is expected to intensify due to rising sea levels and the growing frequency of extreme weather events.

Drawing upon the Netherlands’ expertise in water management, this proposal envisions the transformation of East Harlem into a network of polders—low-lying areas enclosed by dikes, effectively isolating them from surrounding water bodies. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive (FDR Drive) could be elevated to serve as a protective dike, creating a robust barrier against rising sea levels and storm surges. This proposal ensures resident safety, preserves critical infrastructure and property values, and offers opportunities for the implementation of bus rapid transit (BRT) systems along the new FDR Drive. Street ditches could collect excess rainwater, and the integration of water pumps and floodgates in the elevated FDR Drive can facilitates drainage.

Mary Daly and Courtney Behrens assisted with earlier research and innitial mappings. 

Current Condition

Compounding these concerns, East Harlem houses numerous vulnerable households, including those residing in low-income housing units such as NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA) campuses. This situation highlights the pressing issue of climate justice in the area. In the infamous NYC redlining map, East Harlem was designated as “D ‘Hazardous,’” marking it as the lowest grade within the redlining system. This classification hindered the community’s ability to build resilience through resource investment, perpetuating systemic disadvantages. In the 1865 Viele Map of Manhattan, Harlem Creek flowed through East Harlem, fostering a vibrant marsh estuary ecology. However, uncritical urban development led to the creek being culverted and the marsh drained, ultimately sowing the seeds for the topographic injustices we witness today.  
Terrain map with NYCHA housing highlighted
Flood map with NYCHA housing highlighted

East Harlem in the future floodplain