Something bizarre happened overnight: New York City's population grew to the size of Shanghai's, swelling from 8 million people to 24 million. It's like a natural disaster, but this tidal surge is made of human needs. Here's how we'll rebuild the city to make room for them all.
Illustration by Imperial Boy
Though the rapid change is fantastical, the transformation isn't: New York's population is likely to grow by almost this much by the end of the century. All over the world, cities are making the transition from large cities to megacities of over 15 million people. So our thought experiment isn't about wanting to escape to the city planet Coruscant from Star Wars. It offers a glimpse of what the largest city in North America might actually look like in 2114.
New York City is already one of the most densely-packed urban spaces in the world, with 10,724 people on average per square kilometer. To triple the living spaces here, we'll need to build up — but we'll also need to build between. The city could no longer afford to devote so much street space to the products of an already-shaky auto industry, and the city's grid would change immeasurably. So would the laws that govern it.
For efficiency's sake, Manhattan would have to retain a couple of the major avenues like Fifth, which cuts through the center of the island. But it would be reserved for trucks delivering food — or taking garbage out. Other streets would be for licensed taxis and services like Uber, while cars belonging to individuals might be routed to the edges of island, or to other boroughs entirely. Getting around in Manhattan would mean taking public transit, or paying dearly to get an Uber.
At the same time, there would be a flowering of pedestrian walkways like Sixth and a Half Avenue, which tunnels through the skyscrapers of midtown in between Sixth and Seventh Aves. As more skyscrapers grew, walkways would also take to the skies in bridges between buildings. To keep the ground-level streets less congested, pedestrians would be invited to walk Broadway from the air, hustling from building to building via a growing network of architectural tissues that would nourish a new sidewalk culture fifteen stories off the ground.
Shape-shifting elevated sidewalk concept, by sanzpont
Some of these elevated sidewalks would be classic New York, complete with tar-gummed concrete and jagged nubs of rusted rebar poking out at odd angles. But others would look like high-tech works of art. Architectural futurist Geoff Manaugh, proprietor of BLDG BLOG, describes megacity New York like this:
A world of Judge Dredd-like megastructures, land bridges across rivers, and pedestrianized super-corridors extending through the labyrinthine hearts of financial complexes ... carving new routes through the deep interiors of buildings, without a car in sight.
It would no longer be enough to tell someone to meet you at the deli on the corner of 55th St. and Seventh Ave. You'd have to give a three-dimensional destination, specifying whether this would be the corner on the 7th story or the 15th.
Colonizing the Northeast Corridor
Boswash map created by Bill Rankin
If we want to keep our population of 24 million inside the current metropolitan area, however, we're looking at an absolute catastrophe. Shanghai's density is roughly 3,809 people per square kilometer, so it may have a huge population but it also occupies an enormous land area. If we crank up New York's current density to three times its current state, the only cities we can compare it to are ones like Dhaka, in Bangladesh, which are riddled with shantytowns.
City planner and architect Mark Hogan says that even if we were willing to house New York's additional population outside the city limits, it would still take up 10% of Connecticut's current land area at its current density.
So we're going to have to build New York out, way out, after we've stretched the outer boroughs to the breaking point. The city's tentacles would reach out along transit corridors that already exist. As you can see in the map of "Boswash" above, there is already an enormous amount of urban density along the Northwest Corridor train line that connects Boston to Washington, DC. Now, imagine 16 million more people in that fat ribbon of urban development.
Columbia professor of urban development Kate Ascher (author of The Works) thinks the megacity of New York would have to spread into transit corridors, with construction booming (and prices skyrocketing) near train stations that can take commuters into the city center. Many of these new nodes would also be high-density areas with little area for automobiles and elevated sidewalks shuttling commuters through their vertical towers.
When you look at New York's future population from the perspective urban planning, there are really only two scenarios: disaster or expansion. Hogan said:
If it happened overnight, I think it would be a disaster. I think you would end up with millions living in third-world conditions. A better solution would be to distribute the extra population over the Northeast Corridor, so less dense places like Philadelphia and Connecticut can help pick up the growth. Lower-rise housing could be built at high densities throughout the corridor so you end up with a huge Paris instead of another Dhaka or Kolkata.
What would we call this new megapolis? Would it remain New York City, or would it become Boswash, or New Conndelphia? If we look to China for inspiration, we already have one possible answer. The nation has just designated a new urban zone called a "city cluster" in the Pearl River Delta.
That region is already home to a handful of enormous cities, including Shenzhen (pop. 10.3 million) and Guangzhou (pop. 12.7 million). The plan to make one economic center out of the Delta involves linking the city clusters to each other with high-speed rail and putting money into development for less affluent cities.
All That Garbage
Even if we can create our own version of Pearl River Delta's city clusters along the eastern seaboard, we may still be looking at an urban disaster. New York City produces about 37,000 tons of waste per day, all of which has to be trucked out of the city, often for hundreds of miles, before finding its final resting stop in landfill. Certainly the city might begin recycling more if the population boomed, but we'd still be looking at about three times the amount of waste — so, we can assume that our 24 million New Yorkers will be pumping out 111,000 tons of garbage every day.
The problem wouldn't be the garbage piles, but the infrastructure needed to move them around. So says Robin Nagle, author of Picking Up, and the anthropologist-in-residence for the New York City Department of Sanitation.
Nagle says that we'd notice a lot of small differences as the city grew. First of all, garbage trucks would have to be bigger. Even the street sweepers known as mechanical brooms would have to change. Currently they scour the streets, swirling up everything from used needles to Blue Bottle coffee cups, depositing them into a hopper that holds roughly a ton of litter. In the New York megacity, we'd need much bigger hoppers, bigger garbage trucks, and a veritable army of sanitation workers to run them. A lot New York's remaining major streets would be filled with garbage trucks.
Ultimately those trucks might be the biggest problem. Hauling garbage to distant "final deposition" sites would stress highway infrastructure and air quality, along with landfill capacities. In our efforts to rid the city of garbage, we'd just be creating an even bigger pollution problem. It's an ugly scenario.
To find a new home for the landfill, the the city might rejuvenate a 1934 plan for expansion, which would have topped up the Hudson River with landfill. At the same time, the city might also explore radical new methods for garbage disposal, including converting it into an energy source or biochar for fertilizer . The edges of the city might be ringed with enormous biochar plants that heat up all the waste until it's converted into a coal-like substance whose byproducts include carbon neutral fuels.