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Five ways to make New York City's (street) grid greener

Five ways to make New York City's (street) grid greener

Posting in Cities

Author Alec Appelbaum writes that New York's city planners have been fighting nature for too long -- with awful results. Here are his five solutions.

The street grid of Manhattan, New York City's central borough, turns 200 years old this year. For anyone who has ever visited the city, it is a boon to pedestrian transportation: predictable, repetitive, almost ruthlessly efficient.

That's not how the once-wild island of Manhattan used to be, of course. But ever since the inception of the "Commissioners' Plan" in 1811, NYC's grid has dominated the city's identity.

What you may not know is that the grid -- despite lacking the gentle curves of nature's design -- is actually based upon the island's natural resources, author Alec Appelbaum writes in the New York Times.

And if mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to make the city more resilient to climate change -- a pressing issue for any coastal metro area, much less the nation's most populous -- Appelbaum says he ought to rekindle the "genius" of the original plan.

He writes:

Early 19th-century planners who created the grid knew how to make the most of these attributes. They laid out the grid so that the sun sets precisely in line with east-west streets several times a year. The short north-south blocks mean more streets lead to the rivers, allowing floodwaters to recede easily and drawing people to the waterfront. The plan guided raucous commerce along the route of an old canal and enticed future developers with the promise of sites on hills with enviable views north.

But modern city planners failed to embrace nature as part of the urban equation, and actively fought against these systems. The problem? Nature always wins, and when infrastructure starts to fail -- Appelbaum cites the over-development of ground and, in heavy downpours, the unintended mix of rainwater and sewage -- it causes more severe problems than if planners had just worked with nature from the beginning.

These issues are apparent to Bloomberg, whose $1.5 billion "green infrastructure" plan intends to replace aging public works with nature-centered projects. (Think rainwater barrels, bioswales or basic "build on high ground" logic.)

But it's not enough. Appelbaum makes five suggestions for the city that doesn't sleep:

  1. Tap into the Welikia Project, an effort to map the whole city as it existed in 1609. The idea? Provide data about how much solar power and water absorption a site would have if you left it alone -- then offer financial incentives to developers who take advantage of those assets.
  2. Extend waterfront development into the water. Incorporate marshland into riverside parks.
  3. Reopen long-buried streams that remain flooding hazards to this day. If it's good enough for San Francisco, it's good enough for NYC.
  4. Require new developments to use green roofs and plantings, rather than pipes, to absorb stormwater. Even better: give bonuses to owners who use microbes to handle wastewater.
  5. Rezone the city into "eco-districts." The city shouldn't be divided by census data; rather, it should be organized by topography, microclimates, soil and species. Why: because it lends insight into what kinds of solutions are most appropriate -- and effective -- for which areas.

If nothing more, Appelbaum is asking the Bloomberg administration for foresight. Simply: plan well in advance of doing.

The question: can a politician on a four-year term achieve this kind of stability?

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure