Please join us for the third installment in the NYC the Future Metropolis series on the evening of May 8 where we will talk about water in New York. For more information about the event, please click here.
What is our relationship to water as NYC residents? How often do New Yorkers think about water or even remember that four of our five boroughs are located on islands? In the mindâ€™s eye of the average resident, New York is more likely to be a city of concrete canyons, not bays, rivers, and wetlands that are home to other species besides people. Perhaps that is because today we are used to seeing waterways as dividers that lie between our useful spaces, stormwater as a nuisance for the municipality, and potable water as a problem for engineers. The average New Yorker neither has an active relationship with the water bodies that surround the city nor gives much thought to how we know that the quality of our tap water is safe and secure. But when we start thinking more about water, we find that it has seeped into many seemingly unrelated aspects of our urban lives a long time ago.
On a large scale, it is no exaggeration to single out water as humanityâ€™s most precious resource. Â After all, Â it is the foundation of life itself. Water is much a part of our bodies as it is an unseen but essential component in the production of food, clothing, energy, and in the operation of industry, buildings, and transportation. In nature, it is a renewable resource thanks to the brilliant simplicity of the hydrologic cycle. In places of dense human activity, however, its lifecycle is often linear: from fresh water to wastewater, which, even when treated, never regains the purity that makes it again suitable for human use. Considering that only 1% of the Earthâ€™s water is suitable for human use, we must reconsider our relationship to water to make it more sustainable for the sake of ecological stability as well as our own security.
The City of New York has an intimate relationship with water. Water defined our cityâ€™s physical boundaries and laid the foundation for its financial prosperity. New York, like many cities before and after it, was founded on water for reasons of transportation and, therefore, trade. The City became the financial powerhouse we know today largely due to the Hudson River and the Eerie Canal. And yet today NYCâ€™s port has shrunk dramatically, prompting industry and advocates to re-envision the function of the waterfront in an innovative and sustainable way.
New Yorkâ€™s waterways still retain the polluting footprint of recent heavy industry. While water quality in the Hudson and East Rivers have improved, other waterways, like the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek have recently earned federal Superfund designations due to heavy post-industrial contamination. Government-led efforts are on the way to clean them up, andÂ community groups are teaming up with landscape designers, ecologists, and engineers to devise strategies to keep those waterways clean after the remediation is complete. Some strategies focus on limiting the volume of water that washes over our streets, into sewers, and then into water bodies when it rains while others explore how we can use water in our buildings more smartly and reuse it when possible.
The remaining piers that bristle out of the water all around Manhattan appear to most New Yorkers as the most visible vestige of a more active waterfront. Some have been reclaimed by enterprising individuals and organizations to be transformed into destinations; the Frying Pan on Pier 66 comes to mind. Nevertheless, such destinations are endpoints, often of a lengthy journey from the nearest subway. Rethinking transportation, some urban planners and designers are re-imagining these endpoints as hubs and positing that waterborne transportation can relieve NYC’s roads and subways that chocking with traffic. In that case, water can once again become a connecting medium instead of a divider, much like it had been in the days before Fultonâ€™s Ferry was made obsolete by the Brooklyn Bridge.
Our waterfront must innovate not only in the interest of health, commerce, and connectivity, but also to engage people by offering them access to water and opportunities for recreation. Destinations like the Brooklyn Bridge Park and Hudson River Park, water sports like kayaking and small boating, all serve to grant access and allow New Yorkers opportunities to learn from and relax on the water.
Water, however, is both our friend and foe. As a coastal city bounded by water, New York is especially vulnerable to sea level rise. Last yearâ€™s exhibition â€œRising Currentsâ€ at the Museum of Modern Art asked several groups of architects and landscape designers to imagine how the cityâ€™s landscape might cope with the disastrous invasion of water. If one were to take this scenario a step further, one could imagine the world transformed by an excess of water, both of the macro level of society and the micro level of individual human lives. This feat of imagination is being undertaken by artists and actors to help us glimpse one possible dystopian future, a future that, unwittingly,Â we might have helped to bring about.
We at Solar One think a lot about New Yorkâ€™s relationship water. After all, we are an organization located on the East River next to a combined sewer overflow discharge point; we manage a park of water-saving native plants; and we look forward to building a water-smart building, Solar 2. As part of our ongoing series, NYC the Future Metropolis, we invited some of our friends to share their thoughts about the importance of water to New York City on Sunday, May 8. We hope you can join us as well.
Please see the event page for more details: solar1.org/nycfm