How Do You Fit 1 Million More People in NYC?

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On Wednesday night, I attended a discussion at the Museum of the City of New York titled "How Should New York Grow?" Based on the conservative estimate that by 2035, the city will be home to 9.2 million people (one million more than today), how can we possibly adapt our infrastructure and prepare for the long term?

The panelists were Department of City Planning commissioner Anna Hayes Levin and Holliday Professor and Director, the Center for Urban Real Estate, Columbia University Vishaan Chakrabarti. Historian Andrew Alpern moderated.

Here are some highlights from the ninety minute talk:

The Perils of Jeffersonian Madness

Chakrabarti strongly supports the growth of the city, pointing out that the average New Yorker uses one third less energy than the average American, and that cities are better equipped than suburbs or rural areas to meet economic, social equity and environmental demands. His concern is stopping city dwellers from moving to the suburbs once they have children and are drawn by having more space and better schools available.

Part of the problem, Chakrabarti says, is that the costs of living without nearby neighbors and developing sprawling infrastructure are subsidized by government spending (much like gas prices), whereas providing resources like water and gas to city centers is much less expensive.

Neighborhoods vs. Development

Anna Hayes Levin stresses the importance of community based thinking: seeing "New York on the ground." Rather than having city bureaus micromanage change in vast swathes of the city, she wants them to set a template for growth (like the establishment of the Manhattan grid did in the early 1800s), and "see how people color in the lines."

While Hayes Levin argues that neighborhood character is what defines a city, Chakrabati cautioned against overuse of the term. Rather, he says, we should balance the needs of the existing community against its future self, and consider the rights of the New Yorkers who haven't arrived yet.

Is Zoning the Key?

In Chakrabati's view, it's high time New York City was rezoned: the last major rezoning resolution was passed in 1961. Manhattan's West Side is set to have the equivalent of downtown Minneapolis added to it in the next few decades, while less dense outer boroughs are still populated by one family homes and three story apartment buildings.

Of course, the entire city doesn't have to be built up, but the growth should be spread logically to where it can be sustained. The problem is building infrastructure: public transportation, schools, police stations, etc., in areas that are yet to be developed. Andrew Alpern calls it the "chicken and the egg" problem: no one will move to an area without those services, and they won't be built where no one lives.

The Threat of Rising Seas

The level of sea rise in NYC has outpaced the rest of the world by nearly 50% in the last century, and it's only going to get worse. Hayes Levin notes that the City is working on a plan to adapt to the threat of bigger storms and lost waterfront.

Chakrabati says the answer isn't pulling back from waterfront development, but is sure that physical intervention in New York Harbor will be necessary in the next 50 years, and the threat to the subways would have to be dealt with.

Nonetheless, he says, the challenge isn't surmountable. Low lying cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam have managed, after all. He didn't mention the people of the Maldives, who are moving because their nation is being steadily flooded.

The Takeaway

Like other big cities around the world, New York will grow, and there's no stopping it even if you wanted to. Setting the stage for the discussion was the exhibit on display upstairs in the Museum: The Greatest Grid, the story of how a three man planning team decided to build Manhattan's streets in a grid.

It was no simple task, and took decades, but it set a template for the explosive growth of the city. In 2012, it's time to come up with a new grid, and follow through.

Tags: Cities | New York City | Urban Planning

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