Keeping a city-by-the-sea from becoming a city in it

July 21, 2014


Virtually every big rainstorm in New York now seems to be accompanied by a flash-flood alert sent to cellphones. And scientists recently reported that a vast section of Antarctica’s ice sheet, now melting, might bring on as much as a 10-foot rise in the world’s sea levels in the coming decades.

While the nation debates the appropriate response, the coastal cities threatened most by climate change — particularly New York — must somehow address the problem themselves.

New York, at least, has begun. After Hurricane Sandy’s catastrophic impact in late 2012, it became obvious that the city must be able to minimize the serious damage caused by future climate “events” and bounce back.

People take pictures of the flooded Plaza Shops under One New York Plaza in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New YorkThe first step has been to ensure that the city’s existing infrastructure can survive severe storm surges and subsequent flooding. But planning is now moving forward on a far more ambitious program, in which the city’s very shape adapts to the new realities.

The federal government recently announced it would provide more than a third of a billion dollars to fund an array of initiatives that would strengthen New York’s resilience, including a “U”-shaped necklace of landscape projects around Lower Manhattan. Tens of billions more in private and public financing would be needed for an even larger proposal — a 1.3-mile-long, mixed-use “living barrier” of housing, office space and waterfront amenities along the East River, called “SeaPort City,” to protect the Financial District.

This profound shift toward a more resilient city will almost surely mean a massive amount of construction — and with it massive disruption. It will also offer new opportunities for re-imagining the city’s future.

But in the largest sense, the move marks a striking new chapter in one of the epic urban relationships of the past 400 years — the extraordinary marriage between New York and the water, the city and the sea.

NYharborNearly every major city in the world is located adjacent to a navigable body of water. (Mexico City, a rare exception, was founded on the spot the Aztecs sighted an eagle on a cactus with a snake in its beak — taken as an auspicious sign.) But New York’s relationship with the water has long transcended the merely functional or economic. Almost from the start, water has been an essential part of its urban DNA – and of its global identity — in ways that recall two of history’s greatest maritime capitals.

On the one hand, New York is Venice — springing from the sea. “It rises like Venice,” declared Frances Trollope, the English essayist, on seeing Manhattan from the water in 1827, “and like that fairest of cities in the days of her glory, receives into its lap tribute of all the riches of the earth.”

Unlike the great capitals of Europe, New York does not sit snugly inland along a winding river. Instead it opens directly onto one of the world’s great oceans, a geographic advantage that helped propel the city to pre-eminence. Even by the 1820s, when Trollope was writing, the city’s proximity to the Atlantic had made it by far the busiest port in the nation. By the 20th century, when it was the busiest port in the world, New York’s intimate relationship with the sea gave rise not only to commercial supremacy but also to a unique urban iconography: a soaring cluster of skyscrapers — perhaps the most thrilling buildings of modern times – rising almost magically from the broad, sparkling waters of New York Bay.

normandie1936.(2)As they never could have in London or Paris, the greatest passenger ships ever built – the Queen Mary or the Normandie – entered right into the bustling heart of New York, calling forth the extraordinary imagery of thousand-foot-long vessels sliding majestically through the water in front of thousand-foot-tall towers.

The Manhattan skyline, some scholars have argued, rose as impressively as it did because its landmark towers — the Woolworth Building, Singer Building and so on — served as invaluable corporate advertisements for the tens of thousands of visitors who gazed on them, mesmerized, from the decks of ships entering and leaving the harbor.

New York’s water-edge towers symbolized a place that had risen less as the gathering point of regional energies — think Chicago — than as a global capital of commerce and culture, drawing much of its wealth and power from a vast, interconnected network of cities around the globe.

On the other hand, New York is also Amsterdam — holding back the sea. Since its founding in the early 17th century as New Amsterdam, New York has shared with its namesake the distinctive Dutch instinct to create land by reclaiming it from the sea.

No sooner had the Dutch West India Company been established on the tip of Manhattan in the 1620s than it began not only interlacing the city with water (today’s Broad Street was a working canal) but also filling in the eastern edge of the island — expanding the tiny settlement outward, block by block, at enormous expense. This choice was particularly startling, given the unsettled expanse of Manhattan available just to the north. The British continued this effort, pushing into the East River beyond Water Street. In time, Americans reshaped almost the entire shoreline of Manhattan and much of the other boroughs.

newamsterdam_mapCity builders from the 19th century well into the 20th — Robert Moses being only the most ambitious — rammed miles of new wood and steel bulkheads far out beyond the city’s existing edge, then started pumping out the water as they poured tens of millions of cubic feet of landfill, creating vast tracts of valuable urban land for parks, highways, housing and office buildings.

Between 1620 and 1981, an astonishing 45,500 acres — more than 71 square miles, or nearly a quarter of the city’s land area — was added to the five boroughs by infill.

Yet these two pillars of New York’s identity and strength could now be the source of its potential undoing. New York’s Venice-like proximity to the open sea makes it particularly vulnerable to the global rise in sea levels — and to the powerful storm surges likely to be increasingly frequent and ferocious. But no less problematic is the consequence of the city’s Dutch heritage — its propensity to create large tracts of low-lying land by borrowing from the water.

The water now wants its land back. It is startling — but in a sense should not be surprising — that the outline of the area of lower Manhattan that escaped flooding during Sandy almost perfectly traces the shape of New Amsterdam as it looked in the early 17th century, just before the Dutch began filling in.  Or that the big office buildings on the eastern side of Water Street (closer to the East River) all flooded during the Sandy, while those on the western side, away from the river, did not. Why, after all, was it named “Water Street” in the first place?

A blacked out New York City skyline is seen in New YorkThe challenge ahead is daunting. Simply repairing Sandy’s devastation has revealed profound social and political inequities.  Prosperous core districts in Manhattan and Brooklyn have been restored relatively quickly. Many poorer, less-visible outlying neighborhoods in Queens and Staten Island, however, have experienced agonizingly slow reconstruction.

But as the city begins to reshape itself, larger issues await. Even with federal help, rebuilding New York’s infrastructure will far outstrip the city’s limited fiscal capacity. It will not only strain the pocketbooks of New Yorkers, but force the city to shift much of the burden to the private sector — through large-scale redevelopment proposals that require immense public-private cooperation. (These projects must also run a formidable gauntlet of environmental and community approvals, which can stretch out design and construction schedules to a decade or more.)

In the end, it will be up to New Yorkers themselves, public and professionals alike, to redefine the city’s remarkable relationship with the sea. To invent new and imaginative ways to transform the historic intimacy that has shaped so much of the city’s distinctive character and identity — but that now seems to place its future in doubt.


PHOTO (TOP): New York City harbor and skyline in 1908, REUTERS/Courtesy of Library of Congress

PHOTO (INSERT 1): People take pictures of the flooded Plaza Shops under One New York Plaza in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York, October 30, 2012. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

PHOTO (INSERT 2): New York harbor. REUTERS/Courtesy of Library of Congress

PHOTO (INSERT 3): SS Normandie arriving in New York harbor on its maiden voyage in 1936. REUTERS/Courtesy of Library of Congress

PHOTO (INSERT 4): New Amsterdam map. REUTERS/Courtesy of Library of Congress

PHOTO (INSERT 5): A blacked out New York City skyline is seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York, October 29, 2012. REUTERS/Gary He



We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

An interesting read for historical perspective but totally lacking on any new ideas. Is everyone afraid to say the obvious, our “shoreline communities are in real trouble?” When we talk about spending millions and billions to hold-back nature, does anyone ever stop to ask about that raising the bridge or lowering the water thing? What about moving back away from the water? SAY WHAT! Move back away from the water. Oops! You mean all of that expensive ocean-front property is no longer valuable? Isn’t that the right idea? We know the water level is rising. We know the land will be under water. We know today that tomorrow’s value is questionable so why is the value left to question? Call reality in and state that property damaged will not be repaired. Damage property must be removed. No flood insurance and no homeowner insurance beyond a certain date. All investments have risk. An expensive home or upper class community at risk should be removed, not reinforced, if you want to beat nature don’t start a fight you can’t win.

Posted by noideashere | Report as abusive

Excellent summary of New York City’s watery past and, alas, possible future. (The Venetian similarity is not encouraging. Will future tourists come to Manhattan to enjoy a gondola ride along Wall Street?)

“The experts are right, he thought. Venice is sinking. The whole city is slowly dying. One day the tourists will travel here by boat to peer down into the waters, and they will see pillars and columns and marble far, far beneath them, slime and mud uncovering for brief moments a lost underworld of stone.” — Daphne Du Maurier. (“Don’t Look Now” — Echoes From The Macabre.)

Posted by MossyMorse1118 | Report as abusive

We should simply use zoning laws to slowly migrate the people out of flood zones. This is just common sense. If you are in flood zone you’re on your own as far as insurance is concerned and no government subsidies of any type. Perhaps tax breaks for those who move out of those zones. This should be nation wide, not just for certain areas. The zoning should also not allow any new development in flood zones.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive