New York City's Underappreciated Waterways
A view from the East River. Photo by Ensie.

A view from the East River. Photo by Ensie.

“NYC: Inside Out,” subtitled quite simply, “Transportation”, aired on the Discovery Channel last Thursday, September 17th. The short, hour long documentary explores the complexity of the transportation systems that sustain the city I visited for the first time the week before. In describing the city as essentially an archipelago, the feature got me to thinking about how NYC’s waterways seem to have long served as urban growth boundaries.

Featuring interviews with longshoremen, taxi drivers, transit professionals, and others, the show quickly reveals how complex NYC’s transportation needs are. As a kind of archipelago (its boroughs are largely reflective of island boundaries,) the city relies upon a number of tunnels, bridges, ferries, ports and other types of infrastructure to daily move millions of people and goods through and across its surrounding waterways.

Looping Manhattan Island by bike one day, trekking across the Brooklyn Bridge on another, meandering along the High Line on a quiet afternoon, NYC’s waterways were perhaps more present to me than they might usually be to first time visitors. To many, especially fellow urban planning students, NYC is the archetypal city and a rare American version of such, most notable for its high rise density and active street life, characteristics seemingly more typical of European cities.

In the United States, though, a number of the few archetypal cities (having obvious high density with active, pedestrian-busy streets) seem to have all relied upon restrictive waterways in their development. San Francisco sits on a sliver of a peninsula in a fairly large bay. Chicago arose block by block out of a conquered swamp bisected by the Chicago River. My own home base of Los Angeles provides the counterpoint. What do you think?

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