New York City in 2050 (Twenty-Seven Predictions)

  • 06 Dec 2013
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As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Arup’s New York office, we’ve spent the past few months talking with people inside the firm and beyond about the future of the city. We asked them to come up with blue-sky ideas about the New York of 2050 without worrying too much about financial or political feasibility. Circumstances can change a great deal over almost four decades, after all, and tomorrow’s constraints might look very different than today’s. We then worked with graphic designerJosh Levi to synthesize and visualize the results — view the large version here. Our main goal: to spark conversations about long-term priorities for the city and possible ways to achieve them.

What would you add to the list? How would you change it?

Read all 27 predictions, after the break…

1. Nature, nurtured
Nature’s dramatic ecological, social, and public health benefits make it a top priority for the local government and design community.

“People are starting to realize that as cities develop, green infrastructure isn’t just something nice to have — it’s absolutely essential,” said Tom Armour, landscape architecture leader in our London office. “If our cities are going to be resilient to population growth and climate change, working in partnership with nature and ecosystems is a key consideration. Nature allows us to create environmentally better, more livable, and healthier places.”

Designers and governments are increasingly embracing the need for green infrastructure to cope with issues such as climate change and stormwater management. Critical as this is, however, the benefits of nature extend far beyond engineering — a point that must be made loudly and often, Armour asserts. People have to be convinced that people need nature in cities, and at a scale that will respond effectively to the challenges ahead.

A growing body of evidence supports this claim. Researchers have demonstrated a wide variety of social and economic benefits of urban nature: faster hospital recoveries, better workplace productivity, improved social cohesion, reduced crime, improved public health, reduced obesity, improved childhood development, better air quality, better urban microclimates, and more.

2. Green borders 
Raised green waterfronts mitigate flooding and sea-level rise.

Earlier this year, the city released projections that local sea levels would rise between four and eleven inches by the 2020s. As a result, by 2050 “there may be a band of green space wherever the most vulnerable flood zones are,” said Arup civil engineer Vincent Lee. “Waterfront parks and wetlands will give back the land to Mother Nature. It’s a tough challenge, because we are regenerating our waterfront to meet the housing demands we have in NYC. In the future, any buildings and infrastructure within the most vulnerable areas will need to be resilient to live with water. But the majority of the waterfront can be reimagined and raised to provide multiple uses, restore the ecology, and be a means for flood protection.”

In the worst-case scenario, some parts of the city may empty naturally as residents tire of extreme weather events and sea-level rise.

Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm. Image Courtesy of

3. Free-range roofs
Community gardens cover half of the city’s flat roofs; the rest are devoted to solar energy generation.

New York has over 30 square miles of roof space. It is also home to over 1,000 community gardens, 80% of which produce food. What if the city could figure out a way to turn 50% of all flat roof surfaces into community gardens then cover the rest with solar technologies to generate energy? In addition to generating energy, this scheme would bring fresh, homegrown food to every neighborhood, a significant achievement from a public health perspective. It would also provide a broad spectrum of benefits associated with green roofs: cooling the atmosphere, reducing stormwater runoff, and absorbing air pollution — not to mention giving New Yorkers more opportunities to connect to nature. A skyline full of this? Yes, please.

“With green roofs, there’s great biodiversity value, social value, community value,” said New York-based Arup sustainability consultant Cameron Thomson. “It’s somewhere where you can go and feel a bit more human.”

4. Table to (rooftop) farm
The city’s compostable waste helps rooftop gardens thrive.

New York sends 1.2 million tons of food waste to landfills each year, paying nearly $80 per ton and contributing to the production of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This year, the Bloomberg administration has announced plans to collect compost from across the city, following the successful rollout of pilot programs to test public willingness to save food scraps.

If rooftop farms were to cover the city, however, using each building’s compostable waste on its own or nearby roofs would eliminate most hauling costs and support the growth of truly local produce.

5. One man’s trash
All sewage and non-compostable organic waste is converted to biogas.

Waste in all its forms poses challenges for New York. “You only have to walk around Manhattan at night to smell and see the piles of garbage and recycling deposited every evening,” said Tom Wilcock, who leads our New York advanced technology and research practice.

Converting non-compostable organic waste and sewage to biogas would go a long way toward addressing these issues and provide a significant new source of energy to replace natural gas. Several years ago, the government announced plans to partner with National Grid to produce enough biogas to heat 2,500 homes. The New York Times recently reported that the city intended to seek proposals for a food-to-biogas plant in the near future.

Incorporating pneumatic garbage collection technologies that move waste more efficiently and smart trash cans that use sensors to help separate garbage and optimize collection could further improve New York’s waste outlook.

Swimming in Copenhagen. Image Courtesy of Arup Connect

6. Flourishing fish
Clean waterways support popular beaches and a flourishing aquatic ecosystem.

New York has invested substantially in improving the quality of its waterways in recent years, putting over $10B into improving harbor water quality since 2000. These efforts have paid off: the harbor is now healthier than it has been in a century. However, issues such as combined sewage overflows and contaminated sediments continue to pose major challenges.

Cities like Copenhagen serve as inspiration to keep pushing ahead. Over the past two decades, the Danish capital turned its sewage- and industrial pollutant-contaminated harbor into a favorite recreational destination. “Fish, web-footed birds and benthic vegetation have returned, and the people of Copenhagen have taken over the port for bathing, yachting, limited sports fishing, cafés and parks,” according to the Danish Ministry for the Environment.

7. (Re)freshwater
All water is recycled, preparing the city for unknown effects of climate change and eliminating the need for costly upstate infrastructure projects.

New York prides itself on its tap water. One of only five US cities whose surface drinking water supply is of a high enough quality to make filtration unnecessary, it draws around a billion gallons of drinking water each day from a network of reservoirs and lakes stretching 125 miles to the north and west. While the system meets current needs well, the picture may look different in a few decades. A recent study found that New York is one of the US cities most at risk for water scarcity due to climate change.

To address this and other challenges, “there’s no reason why a city like New York couldn’t recycle all its water,” said Cameron Thomson. Successful projects in Singapore, El Paso, and other cities have demonstrated the feasibility of recycling water on a large scale. Closer to home, the Bank of America Tower is often cited as a a successful example of a local building-scale water recycling project.

8. Tidal test bed
Researchers come from around the world to work at New York’s test site for sea-based renewable energy.

Sea power holds the potential to supply a significant amount of the US’ energy needs. The industry is still relatively young, however. “If you look across the spectrum of energy generation technologies, there’s still a long way to go on wave power and tidal power,” said Tom Wilcock. “It’s not too late for New York to become a major player on that front.”

New York is already home to one of the most significant tidal power research projects in the United States, the Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy (RITE) Project. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently granted the project the United States’ first commercial license for tidal power. The city could build on this effort to create the world’s premier testing center for sea-based renewable energy, developing new technologies that could help reduce fossil fuel dependence both locally and globally.

9. Living lab
Residents of the Living Lab Coop help researchers test new ideas about building design and social and economic models of housing.

New Yorkers tolerate housing that many Americans consider ridiculously overpriced, unworkably small, or simply crazy. What if we took advantage of this flexibility to test ideas that could improve living conditions for all of the city’s residents?

There’s no shortage of theories about ways to make housing healthier, greener, and more affordable, but finding a way to apply them in the real world is a different story. Having a development dedicated to evaluating new ideas within a rigorous framework, populated with a diverse group of residents who have opted into the giant research project, could spark multidisciplinary innovation and improve public understanding of the physical, technological, and social factors that go into making great urban environments.

Construction of Earth Systems Sciences Building, University of British Columbia. Image Courtesy of Arup Connect

10. Timber!
Large, modular, timber-based transit oriented developments in the outer boroughs house many New Yorkers.

To deal with the projected million-person increase in population over the next few PlaNYC, Mayor Bloomberg’s long-term sustainability and resilience strategy, spells out the city’s intent to encourage the development of new affordable housing in areas served by mass transit.

Affordability is key. According to the city comptroller, housing costs have risen sharply over the past decade. “While it is not altogether surprising that City tenants have been burdened with significantly higher housing costs than the rest of the nation, recent data points to a continued decrease in affordability. This raises questions about long-term growth prospects in the City.” If New York is to retain its celebrated diversity and vitality over the coming decades, it must help low- and middle-income people find and retain high-quality, conveniently located housing at a reasonable price.

One way to make it easier to build below-market-rate housing is to lower initial costs by building modular and using cross-laminated timber. This new structural wood product allows for fast, relatively inexpensive construction (in addition to numerous other benefits), and has been successfully employed on midrise developments around the world.

11. A+ buildings
The city government rates restaurants; why not buildings? Low scorers get design help and loans to improve performance and resilience.

Since 2010, the city has required restaurants to undergo cleanliness evaluations and prominently display the resulting grades. What if we developed a similar program for building performance and resilience, addressing issues such as energy, waste, and water? Buildings receiving less than ideal grades could receive free consulting services and loans to improve.

New York’s Greener, Greater Buildings Plan currently provides some of this functionality. Signed into law in 2009, the plan requires all buildings larger than 50,000 square feet to periodically undergo energy audits and retro-commissioning. Audit results are published on the city’s website. Because buildings currently account for three quarters of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, programs such as this have enormous implications for New York’s future.

12. Abracadabra
Self-healing materials reduce maintenance and prolong lifespans of buildings and infrastructure.

Self-healing materials have been a hot topic over the past few years, with breakthroughs in the development of concreteplastics, and metals capable of repairing their own cracks. These and other innovations hold the possibility of revolutionizing the building industry in the coming decades by keeping buildings and infrastructure in better shape longer.

13. Surface value
City surfaces like photovoltaic paint and energy-harvesting pavement generate power.

An installation of power-harvesting street tiles near the finish line of the Paris marathon earlier this year harvested enough energy to power a laptop for two days. As this and other technologies mature, new applications may turn many of New York’s sidewalks, streets, walls, and more into multifunctional power plants.

14. Air-scrubbing surfaces
Building materials capture pollution to improve air quality.

Air pollution plays a role in about 6% of the deaths occurring in each year and leads to thousands of hospital admissions. Children, the elderly, and residents of low-income residents suffer disproportionately from its effects.

Getting internal combustion engines off the streets and halting the burning of fossil fuels for electricity and heating purposes would significantly reduce the problem. Installing pollution-absorbing surfaces throughout the city could also help. One material that has earned a significant amount of interest in this arena, titanium dioxide, has already been used in projects around the world.

15. Digital democracy

User-friendly digital voting, polling, and feedback systems contribute to high levels of political participation.

“Facilitating digital voting is aimed at getting people more involved with the formal elements of the city, and, in doing so, diluting the influence of minority power groups within the democratic system,” said Tom Wilcock.

New Yorkers vote less than their counterparts in other large American cities. Turnout has been falling for decades, reaching a historical low during the November 2013 mayoral election. Improving the city’s built environment and making it more responsive to citizen needs will require more and better political engagement. As digital literacy becomes ubiquitous and the Internet becomes more deeply entwined with every aspect of our lives (and bodies?), digital voting and other kinds of computationally mediated government–citizen exchanges will seem increasingly natural.

Courtesy of Arup Connect

16. NYC WPA
Government-supported artists and designers bring together different communities to work on city improvement projects.

New York is home to more professional artists than any other US city. Its status as one of the world’s great cultural capitals brings countless benefits to its residents, from social vibrancy to cash; the Alliance for the Arts estimates that $3.8B cycle through the city’s nonprofit arts organizations alone each year.

As rents rise ever higher, however, questions about whether artists can still make it in New York seem to be growing. The city government currently provides substantial support to the arts. What if it went further, however, creating a local version of the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal-era program that hired people directly to create projects for the public good — everything from bridges tophotographs? Project directives could be loose enough to provide creative freedom but specific enough to target city priorities.

One particularly interesting area to explore through such a program is data visualization, a topic of increasing interest in the engineering community. Revealing the impact of a particular behavior in real time, the theory runs, can help change habits for the better. One of the biggest hurdles to realizing these benefits on a mass scale, however, may be psychological, not technical. Getting people to pay attention to these tools will require creativity, craft, and the ability to engage imaginations — resources that artists have spent their careers developing.

17. A model city
A publicly editable digital model of the city gives New Yorkers access to dynamic data from train schedules to neighborhood demographics.

The young field of smart city design relies on ubiquitous sensors to optimize traffic flow and energy use, provide data that allow government agencies to operate more efficiency, and much more. The model city idea, however, focuses on making citizens themselves smarter. A highly visual, user-friendly, publicly editable digital model that both collects and displays multidimensional information about every aspect of the city that people care to know about could empower average New Yorkers to make better decisions about both their own lives and the larger community.

New York after Sandy. Image Courtesy of Arup Connect

18. Crisis communiqués
Disaster-proof communications networks keep citizens informed during emergencies.

Disaster preparedness requires a strong focus on both soft and hard infrastructure. Keeping people informed, in particular, is one of the most important services the city can provide. By 2050, the city should ensure that all citizens can access the information they need at any point before, during, or after an emergency.

19. Smart power
A smart grid with multiple microgrids saves money and increases resilience and efficiency.

New York’s electricity is currently distributed via a vast and aging electricity network that provides little flexibility and is prone to occasional failure. In the future, power delivery will be regulated by smart grids that provide two-way communication between utilities and loads. They will automatically isolate areas experiencing power failures and redirect electricity (renewably generated, of course) where it is needed. The grid could be segmented into microgrids that can operate independently of the larger network during emergencies for added resilience.

Smart grids can also save money by providing demand response when the grid is overloaded. Instead of ramping up expensive and inefficient standby generation during times of peak demand, smart grids can signal buildings to automatically reduce loads.

20. No gas, no oil
No more fossil fuels — all buildings run on renewably generated electricity.

A recent study published in the journal Energy Policy determined that it would be theoretically possible to power New York State solely with renewable energy by 2030. (By contrast, 24% of the state’s energy came from renewables in 2011.)

New York City and State are both moving to wean themselves off fossil fuels — and, for the sake of the planet, must continue to do so. A promising recent step: Mayor Bloomberg’s announcement of the development of the city’s largest solar energy project, projected to increase its renewable energy capacity by 50%.

Courtesy of Arup Connect

21. Big wind
Vast offshore wind farms provide most of the city’s energy.

Wind power, which currently supplies about 2% of New York State’s energy, is increasing in popularityaround the world. Several recent studies indicate that wind could be used to meet most of New York’s energy needs. The aforementioned Energy Policy paper called wind the most likely candidate to provide the majority of the state’s renewable power in the future. The Urban Green Council estimated that New York City could run primarily on wind turbines occupying 35 to 40 square miles offshore or upstate.

The city has been exploring a plan to lease federal offshore territory outside Lower New York Bay for wind generation; an application was submitted to the US Department of Interior in 2011.

Importing wind and other renewables from places with ample spare capacity could also help the city move beyond fossil fuels. A proposed transmission line carrying wind and hydroelectric power from Quebec is now under review.

22. (Auto)nomous only
Autonomous electric taxis provide clean, efficient transportation throughout the city; private passenger vehicles are banned.

Autonomous electric vehicles hold the potential to dramatically reshape car travel. Substituting artificial for human intelligence should keep people safer; “Human error is behind almost 100% of car crashes,” as researcher Dr. Ralf Herrtwich told the Wall Street Journal. The cars could be significantly cheaper to operate due to the elimination of labor (i.e., driver), fuel, and maintenance costs (electric motors require far less upkeep than their internal combustion counterparts). Emissions would disappear, improving public health. Children, the elderly, and the disabled would have greater mobility. Traffic congestion would fall due to the vehicles’ ability to travel close together and find the most efficient routes.

Can all this come to pass by 2050? Arup transport planner William Baumgardner thinks so. “There’s a lot of debate about when we’ll reach what’s called full level-4 autonomy, which is when the human is no longer the backup system. Twenty-five to thirty-five years out is pretty much the back end of that range. So I think it’s safe to say that vehicles will be able to operate fully autonomously by then.”

In dense environments like New York, a logical next step might be to allow only shared autonomous vehicles on the streets. “A regular car sits idle 85 to 90% of the time,” said Gary Hsueh, also a transportation planner with Arup. “That’s a really strong incentive to use vehicles more efficiently. And that’s how taxicabs are used — they drive hundreds of thousands of miles, but they carry people all the time. So some people envision a future where the taxi fleet is autonomous and they just circulate all day. But because they’re smarter they’re instantaneously matching supply with demand, so you also could have fewer taxis.”

Stormwater management in Vancouver. Image Courtesy of Arup Connect

23. Plant parking
Stormwater green streets replace much of the space formerly devoted to street parking.

The pipes that carry New York City’s sewage also take in anything that flows into street drains. During storms, the aging system can’t handle the volume, and untreated human waste and polluted stormwater are emptied directly into the nearest body of water. The system sends 30 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater into New York’s waters each year.

If private cars disappear, a great deal of parking space will be freed up on New York City’s 6,000 miles of streets. It could be replaced with planted areas that accept and filter stormwater runoff from the street, reducing stress on the city’s water infrastructure while providing numerous other amenities.

Although stormwater green streets are being implemented now in some parts of the city, says civil engineer Vincent Lee, they are limited by existing infrastructure and the need for parking. “If there’s an opportunity to replace parking, then we can put them in the street. If there’s a radical shift in transportation and the way people move, it opens up the street for other opportunities to clean our waterways.”

New deep Second Avenue Subway tunnel. Image Courtesy of Arup Connect

24. The five-borough express 
New deep subway lines simplify travel in all five boroughs and link directly to airports.

With New York’s population predicted to grow by a million over the coming decades, the government expects growing demand for transit, as well as increasingly complex travel paths and times driven by changes in employment patterns and locations.

Meeting these targets will be a challenge. Much of the current subway infrastructure was cobbled together from separate, privately operated lines that opened more than a century ago, making comprehensive upgrades difficult. Many lines are already at capacity. Climate change impacts such as frequent storms and sea level rise pose serious threats to the system.

What if the city created a new deep-ring subway line that could provide express service between the boroughs and local connections within them? The new system would allow for the development of dense transit-oriented developments relatively deep in the boroughs and provide convenient connections to the city’s three airports. It could also provide opportunities for moving goods.

Engineering advances made since the majority of existing lines were created make it possible to create tunnels and stations far beneath the ground. Going deep would minimize disturbance to the streets above during construction and allow the tunnel boring machines to drill through solid rock rather than more challenging sediment while passing under the rivers.

25. Best commute ever 
Live music, art installations, socializing, scenic views — just a normal trip on an NYC ferry.

Traveling by boat is arguably the most pleasant way to get around the city. What if you could combine great ferry views with New York’s incredible cultural offerings by means of a turbocharged, ferry-specific Arts for Transit program? Rotating art installations, live performances, fun classes, and more could turn commuting into the best part of the day for travelers headed to terminals scattered around five boroughs, New Jersey, and beyond. In a city where many people don’t know their immediate neighbors, let alone strike up conversations with strangers on the subway, the program might even encourage people to get to know one another better.

Courtesy of Arup Connect

26. Bike autobahn 
Cyclists zip safely around the city on separated, uninterrupted bike paths.

New York has made tremendous advances in cycling in recent years, installing of over 300 miles of bike lanes and the launching the shared CitiBike program. However, many people — particularly groups that don’t typically travel by bike, such as women and people with children — are still nervous about riding directly next to traffic.

By 2050, however, we will have had time to follow the example set by the Netherlands, which has spent decades fostering both a culture and an infrastructure that make cycling simply a normal way for all kinds of people to get around. As a BBC journalist put it, “Cycling is so common that I have been rebuked for asking people whether they are cyclists or not. “We aren’t cyclists, we’re just Dutch,” comes the response.”

By educating New Yorkers about cycling and reshaping our streets so that grandparents, businesspeople, and schoolchildren alike feel comfortable biking, we can achieve similar results. The city should strive to create fully protected routes, connecting the outer boroughs and regional areas to key public transportation nodes, business districts, and recreational hubs. (A similar initiative is underway in London.) The environmental, economic, and public health benefits will be well worth it.

27. Footbridge fun
A network of pedestrian and bicycle bridges connects Manhattan to New Jersey and the boroughs.

Cycling may be on the rise in New York, but the city is already the nation’s most walkable, according to WalkScore. We could further encourage both modes of transit — the healthiest, most environmentally friendly, and least expensive available — by building dedicated bicycle and pedestrian bridges over the city’s rivers. Demand for people-powered bridge crossings clearly exists; according to the Department of Transportation, more than 4,000 pedestrians and 3,100 cyclists cross the Brooklyn Bridge each day. Increased infrastructure would encourage even more people to walk and bike between boroughs, to New Jersey, and to other islands.

“Melbourne can be looked to as a model for active transportation river crossings,” said Vincent Riscica, an Arup transportation planner. In addition to improved connectivity, the construction of pedestrian and bike bridges in that city provided opportunities to protect the natural and recreational environment along the banks of the Yarra River, bring people closer to the city’s waters, revitalize blighted areas, and expand culturally and artistically significant spaces.

This article comes courtesy of Arup Connect, the online magazine of Arup in the Americas, each week exploring the people and ideas shaping the built environment throughout North and South America.

Cite: Arup Connect. "New York City in 2050 (Twenty-Seven Predictions)" 06 Dec 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 20 Oct 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=455271>
  • Daniel Borodin

    Too optimistic. Americans are not creative or hardworking enough to achieve such results in such a short period of time.