Can a city become so developed, it’s grown becomes a hindrance?
Ted Steinberg, history professor at Case Western Reserve University, details urban vulnerabilities due to impressive architectural expansion.
Ted Steinberg is the Adeline Barry Davee Distinguished Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University and the author of Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York published by Simon and Schuster.
When the September 11th disaster happened in 2001 I thought: Would the concrete retaining wall around the foundation of the World Trade Center, built to the keep the Hudson River at bay, hold? It did.
I have given that wall a lot of thought. If the wall represented something invincible about New York, as some argued, it also said something about the city’s relationship with its surrounding waters: a desire to shut the door on them.
As I got into the research about the environmental history of the New York area, however, I realized that the powers that be didn’t just want to close the door on the ocean. They wanted to get right up in nature’s face, to wade out—at times recklessly—into the sea.
My research revealed that not only was the World Trade Center built on what was, in large part, open water, so were any number of buildings and streets. Indeed, Manhattan Island is some 1,700 football fields larger today than it was estimated to be back when Henry Hudson arrived.
There is nothing inevitable about all this man-made land. It was the product, I found, of a set of historical forces fixated on perpetual expansion, a growth imperative. Those in power have for some 150 years conceived of New York as an infinite proposition, a place that can grow limitlessly in size.
All this building out into the surrounding waters has made New York one of the world’s most vulnerable cities to coastal flooding, a point driven home by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Though some in real estate argued after the storm that the city could not control Mother Nature, what my research shows is that what those who rule New York can’t control is their own relentless ambition to encroach on the sea.