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End of the World-Building

The silver-bullet fantasies of starchitects are a nightmare for the rest of us

There is an almost charming, if childlike, logic to Jason Barr’s recent op-ed for the New York Times: simply fill in New York Harbor with more land, and not only will anxieties about flooding dry up, we’ll ease the city’s crippling shortage of pieds-à-terre. Wham-bam. The elegance of the proposal to stave off the city’s Atlantean fate dazzles: 1,760 acres of land for 250,000 more New Yorkers living in 178,282 new units of housing, a “significant” number of which could be made “affordable,” every last one of them kicking more tax dollars into the city’s coffers. Barr suggests we call it New Mannahatta, in a nod to the original land theft that made all the subsequent plunder possible. 

Naysayers abound, but they simply lack the vision to see that exterminating a massive aquatic ecosystem off the island’s coast and replacing it with skyscrapers and Duane Reades will reinvigorate the city’s corroding relationship with nature. They do not have the strength nor the ingenuity to see that, as environmental crises threaten “vulnerable” places like Wall Street, retreat is not an option. We must do more than batten down the hatches; we’ve got to go big.

Barr’s op-ed may look like just another piece of clickbait trash from the Gray Lady, but he is by no means alone in his hyperbolic dreams. There is in fact a long tradition of deranged visionaries and starchitects pitching massive silver-bullet infrastructure projects to save the city from problems of its own making. And as the Big Apple becomes inundated, even the most absurd and costly plans to fortify this stronghold of capital seem to hold water for government and private investors—just as long as they propose to buoy the right borough.

These infrastructure fantasies propose replacing existing environments with a better sort of ecology, a more useful organization of life.

In 1924, Popular Science Monthly published a proposal by Dr. John A. Harriss to ease the city’s traffic congestion—by damming the East River. Where there was once a river, there would instead be a vast, subterranean traffic center for private cars, taxis, subways, and, of course, parking. On top of that, five sprawling boulevards for yet more cars and the occasional pedestrian. And what would go in the center of this Versailles of roadways? A new and imposing city hall, surrounded by a new theater district, as well as public schools and playgrounds. As idyllic as draining the toxic sludge of the East River and filling it with cars sounds, it presented the vexing problem of how to replace the economically vital shipping lane. Thankfully, Dr. Harriss’s plan foresaw the need to construct a large canal through some of the lesser boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn.

Alas, the layer cake of traffic never came to be, but the basic template endured. A decade later, Modern Mechanix reported on a comparable proposal from engineer Norman Sper, who looked at Dr. Harriss’s plan and thought that instead of damming up the East River, why not the Hudson? Sper envisioned the addition of ten square miles of urban development in order “to solve New York City’s traffic and housing problems, which are threatening to devour the city’s civilization like a Frankenstein monster.” (Apparently, in Sper’s reading of Frankenstein, the doctor might have defeated his monster by building a bigger and more expensive monster.) In Sper’s plan, the subterranean network of tunnels and roadways would do double duty as a massive fallout shelter in case of gas or nuclear attack. 

Over eighty years later, visionaries are still rehashing the same idea. In 2017, Mark Foster Gage Architects (MFGA) proposed, again, to dam the East River—but this time it would be green. “Under that flood prone pseudo-river cutting thorough our fair city,” MFGA notes, “there is a beautiful and fertile valley awaiting rescue.” Which is why it would be an act of mercy, actually, to drain it, dam it, and let fifteen thousand acres of gardens, farms, and parks bloom. Inexplicably describing the project as “infrastructure-free,” MFGA suggests that the oxymoronic East River Valley will act as a “geothermal well,” thereby improving the city’s climate resilience. All of these infrastructure fantasies propose replacing existing environments with a better sort of ecology, a more useful organization of life.

Enter: the age of “resiliency.” In urban development proposals geared toward the climate crisis, the term has often been used to separate communities into individual camps that must find their own way to endure the inevitable calamity. This form of resiliency is illustrated by another massive proposal that aims to be prototyped on the East River called Oceanix City, a delusion coproduced by Oceanix, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), and MIT, with the backing of the UN along with a selection of other green tech companies. The speculative project—dubbed “Humanity’s Next Frontier”—serves as the most on-the-nose manifestation of “lifeboat ethics” that could possibly be conceived: a seventy-five-hectare floating city for ten thousand lucky survivors. Upon moving to the refuge, islanders would reportedly participate in a zero-waste farming program to sustain the little lifeboat as New York sinks in the distance, though largely absent from renderings is the appearance of the copious dirt usually required to support an agrarian society, even in miniature. 

This myopic strain of big “green” thinking has its origins in perhaps the most famous, and perhaps most mocked, example of big green infrastructure, from the godfather of green architecture, Buckminster Fuller, and his collaborator Shoji Sadao. In 1960, the pair envisioned a two-mile wide dome over midtown Manhattan. Not only would it be the single most efficient bird killing device ever dreamed up, it would reduce heat loss substantially, requiring only 20 percent of the energy required before the dome’s construction to keep buildings under it heated. On top of that, the dome could be used to address water shortages in the city and protect those inside from the city’s smog. As Fuller said in a 1971 interview, “Once you put a big dome like that up, you have a beautiful guttering around and this all gets channeled off to a holding, to a great reservoir.” How or where such a reservoir would be constructed is left unremarked upon, which illustrates the sort of selective thinking that define these gigantic eco-projects, which plan only for a very select group of humans (and rarely any other species). This sort of exclusivity would come to define many of the city’s subsequent resiliency projects.

Some time after Fuller conceived of the would-be Thunderdome, he decided it would be impossible in Manhattan due to the NIMBY attitudes of the island’s residents, but one wonders if, after a few more hurricanes, that big bubble might not have appeared so unsightly to the high-rise class. For those who can afford resilience, it is hard to think of a more instrumental figure in the shaping of the fantasy of big green thinking than Fuller. But in his twilight years, Fuller would criticize the short-sightedness of the utopian projects he dreamed up, writing in Utopia or Oblivion, “All the attempts to establish Utopia were not only premature and misconceived, but they were also exclusive. Small groups of humanity withdrew from and forsook the welfare of the balance of humanity. Utopia must be, inherently, for all or none.” No doubt, this reflection must have been left off the syllabus for the new school of green world-builders at BIG and MFGA.

BIG and other utopian schemers have the basic sense to know their proposals are little more than ludicrous flights of fantasy. Still, the dream of continued economic growth makes them appealing. A number of cultural institutions in the city have been leveraged to support this kind of “resilient” thinking with special exhibitions like MoMA’s Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront, the BMW/Guggenheim Urban Lab, and the Whitney’s Undercurrents. Many of the projects in these exhibitions presented elaborate plans to not only to reshape the city but the living geographies and ecosystems all around it—all in the name of protecting the permanent crisis of capital. Nature, as it were, is only an obstacle to overcome. 

Poor, undocumented New Yorkers are not the ones being offered space in the lifeboat of New Mannahatta.

To prove it, the 2013 Rebuild by Design Competition sponsored by HUD and the Rockefeller Foundation called for proposals from teams of architects, planners, scientists, and engineers to rebuild and reinforce New York’s waterfront in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, taking up then-mayor Bloomberg’s war cry that “we must protect it, not retreat from it.” Hundreds of millions of dollars were promised to the winning ideas. Unsurprisingly, BIG took the top prize with its “BIG U,” a ten-mile seawall around the coast of lower Manhattan that would, in the event of a storm surge, merely displace the water to other, less-valued neighborhoods. Tellingly, BIG researched protecting poorer coastal areas of Brooklyn against flooding, but the final proposal focused only on Manhattan in order to woo investors. 

In 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a plan for the city to spend some $10 billion on a battery of anti-ocean initiatives to fortify Lower Manhattan, calling it “the only feasible way to protect these vulnerable and vital parts of the city.” These include a version of BIG’s BIG U. As for the rest of New York City’s coastlines and flood plains, as well as the hundreds of thousands who will be inundated by the end of the century, they are apparently not so vital to the city’s political economy. The dire reality of this was demonstrated this past September when Hurricane Ida hit New York, killing thirteen people in the city and dozens more in the surrounding areas. To watch the countless videos of flooded streets and subways, and to read the shocking details of the deaths, is to see plainly that none of the aforementioned proposals would have made much of a difference. Those who died were living in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, most in illegal basement dwellings—spaces often occupied by poor, undocumented New Yorkers. They are not the ones being offered space on the lifeboat of New Mannahatta. 

As more become victims of the city’s fantasies of walling itself off from the climate crisis, what is increasingly obvious is the city’s willingness to sacrifice the older and more decrepit areas—those spaces occupied by the poor and undocumented—to benefit the growth of new and more “resilient” spaces for the wealthy. From the 1924 proposal to make the East River a parking lot to New Mannahatta, big proposals like these have indeed guided New York City planning—not because they are ambitious but because they represent a shared delusion that if you keep looking upwards towards growth and development, you don’t need to worry about the cold water soaking into your socks.