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Memo From Manhattan: On the Waterfront

By Sharon Zukin


The world’s biggest cities often spawn disaster scenarios—those end-of-the-world, escape-from-New-York exaggerations of urban dystopia.  Once limited to printed texts and paintings, visions of urban apocalypse have become ever more accessible in newspaper photographs, movies and video games.  They form a collective urban imaginary, shaping the dark side of local identity and civic pride.

New York is especially attractive as a site of imagined disaster.  Maybe it’s payback for the city’s hubris and chutzpah, or perhaps there’s something in the American character that yearns for and fears creative destruction.  If there is a general hunger for destruction stories, it is fed by the knowledge that the cities we build are vulnerable.  The terrorists’ attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 brought this point home to Americans, renewing dormant anxiety about nuclear war and environmental disaster.

But what if the city’s built environment suffers from slow erosion rather than a single cataclysm like Hurricane Katrina?  Can we visualize the slow creep of problems as well as we imagine the sudden onset of disaster and summon the will to change course?

“Rising Currents,” a recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, pitted five teams of architects, engineers and urban designers against a gradual but dramatic rise in sea level resulting from global climate change.  The challenge: to retrofit the city’s waterfront to survive and prosper after a new Flood.

Cities have a troubled history with water.  From building walls around wells in ancient deserts to colonizing rivers for the expansion of trade, human settlements have worn down maritime nature with a steady ooze of cement.  Building dams in the West of the United States,  India and China, crowding cities near the Danube River in Eastern Europe, throwing landfill into Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor as well as into New York Bay: all of these have reduced water resources to serve human needs.

Global cities, those capitals of capital, are the biggest offenders.  As one of the architectural teams engaged in the MoMA exhibition points out, two piers built for oil depots on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River are each two miles long—as long as the Twin Towers of the old World Trade Center were high.

What’s most impressive about a rising water level is the sense that nature is taking back from the human world.  And what’s most impressive about the architectural projects in “Rising Currents” is the sensibility that human survival depends on adaptation rather than pacification.

There are good ideas here.  The keywords are conservation, production and conversion:  creating a transportation network of ferry boats rather than cars and buses, developing oyster beds off the Brooklyn shore, reshaping fuel depots to use less land.  But how can a city government—one whose modest plans for renovating parkland are constantly plagued by cost overruns and delays—undertake these projects?

Privatization is not the answer.  Only a state can coordinate long-term efforts to rebuild for urban survival.  The recent rescue of the Chilean miners from their underground prison suggests to some people that a non-governmental mobilization of global resources can be successful against great odds.  In that case, though, individuals, industries and governments united around one clear goal.  To rebuild the waterfront, many conflicts of interest would have to be overcome.

The wholesale revamping of the built environment demands more than the low-level voluntary efforts that have marked environmental work so far.  School children learn to recycle, but when the current economic recession cut back imports from China, it also reduced China’s need to buy recycled cardboard from the U.S.  Painting New York rooftops white to reduce heat retention in hot weather and save energy that would be used for air conditioning—one of the biggest drains of scarce natural resources—doesn’t go far enough.

A local environmental initiative in Kansas mobilizes people in several small cities by speaking to traditional values of thrift, patriotism and the desire to be good stewards of the earth.  Boy Scout troops, religious congregations and elementary schools have been enlisted in a campaign to save energy rather than use up fossil fuels and pay higher bills.  What message can big cities take from this?  Or will they continue to take comfort in the Godzilla scenario of inevitable disaster?

Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Loft Living, Landscapes of Power (winner of the C. Wright Mills Award), The Cultures of Cities, Point of Purchase, and most recently Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places.

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