New York is a city of islands, but it wouldn't be if consulting engineer Dr. T. Kennard Thomson's 1916 plan had become a reality. The incredibly ambitious proposal called for moving the East River east, creating a new river through Harlem and adding 50 square miles of land to New Jersey, Staten Island and the New York harbor. He called it "Really Greater New York."
Laying out his argument in Popular Science, Thomson based his idea on straightforward logic: New York City was growing, and it needed for room for a coming explosion. The Big Apple hasn't yet hit the 20 million residents he predicted, but it's certainly pretty crowded- enough that Columbia University's Center for Urban Real Estate has a plan for building more land in the harbor, called "Lower Lower Manhattan."
The goal of Thomson's plan was to make room for new New Yorkers, create new, valuable real estate to the benefit of the City's finances, and add space for docks to accommodate the growing shipping industry. The third part is no longer necessary as New York is no longer a port of note, but population growth is still a concern, and the City always needs money. A project of this scale is unlikely to happen today: The challenges of raising the capital, mustering the political will and avoiding disturbing the natural ecosystems are insurmountable.
But what if all that had been done in 1916? River habitats would have been annihilated. There would be more waterfront available to New Yorkers. I would live in Manhattan, not Brooklyn. New York City would likely have more money for schools, infrastructure, public transportation and other myriad other services.
Weighing the impact of a century-old plan that never happened is tricky, but there's still an important lesson here: Big change takes radical thinking, ambition and a lot of work. Thomson's goal was to create revenue through real estate, and he really went for it. For those of us who want to see cities become hubs of environmental resilience, perhaps a plan people in 2112 will chuckle at isn't such a bad idea.