A slaughterhouse. An oil refinery. A gas works. None sound like particularly good neighbors, but prior to 1916, regulations did not exist to protect residential areas from an increasingly industrial landscape. In New York City, that changed with the passing of the country’s first zoning resolution which, among other things, helped establish the familiar land use patterns we see across the United States with residential zones separated from industrial uses.
A contemporary population map of New York reveals the impact this ordinance had on the patterns of how people settled in the city. Residential areas are solidly populated and growing denser putting an increasing stress on infrastructure already at capacity. Areas zoned for manufacturing operate as virtual population and transit deserts, often located within an earshot of the densest parts of town.
And while the City has experienced population ups and down (and even greater ups!) over the last 100 years, the preeminence of industry in the economy has declined more regularly. Existing residential neighborhoods (and their supporting infrastructure) are taxed disproportionately to the share of land they are afforded. While industrial and manufacturing zones serve a still-important role in the city’s economy, they are generally in need of significant environmental remediation, increased connectivity and more flexible zoning. Manufacturing spaces need to be preserved and fostered to adapt to changing industrial and technological advancements. This environmental, economic, and geographic reality is set against the backdrop of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to provide nearly 200,000 affordable housing units within the five boroughs, including 80,000 created from new construction. With numbers like that, one has to start imagining bigger picture solutions that tackle a few of the City’s problems at once. How can we create a long-term, holistic approach that addresses affordability, a changing city economy, and large-scale environmental concerns?
We were recently asked by Crain’s to imagine how New York can handle its as it swells to nearly 9 million over the next two decades. Our proposal for a new urban paradigm to address these issues focused on one of these areas that could realistically absorb an increase in population and push forward an agenda of preserving manufacturing, supporting new manufacturing/commercial development, and addressing affordable housing and environmental remediation with a large scale capital project. Newtown Creek is re-envisioned as a mixed-use ‘makerhood’ that would result in the creation of 25,000 housing units, 30-40% of which would be affordable. This proposal offers the creation of up to 10,000 affordable housing units on improved industrial sites. Considering the number of ‘population deserts’ where similar plans can be activated, we begin making real strides towards creating a more inclusive, connected and environmentally just city.
Getting to that place will be a challenge, of course. A revision to the city’s already antiquated zoning code would need to be made in order to allow residential uses within these manufacturing zones. While it is no longer all oil refineries and tanneries, manufacturing is essential to New York and its economy. Our New Town proposal controls for this by requiring the preservation and inclusion of innovative manufacturing, industrial, and TAMI companies to co-locate with existing industry thin its boundaries. You only need to look to Sunset Park’s Industry City or the Brooklyn Navy Yard to understand how modern manufacturing can be an attraction to surrounding communities.
The demands upon a city like New York require us to envision comprehensive solutions that serve dual (or triple, or quadruple) purposes. An inclusive, mixed-use neighborhood within New York’s centrally located population deserts is one way to start imagining a sustainable way for the city to develop for years to come.