Outside-the-Box Ideas for Our City’s Future
It’s right there, the very first word of its name: New.
Metamorphosis is the defining characteristic of our metropolis, and imagination its engine. Consider these landmarks: Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park. In the not-too-distant past, each seemed a folly. But these icons of Gotham made real inspire us to turn from the practical, the probable, and the present to the whimsical, the improbable, and the future. Joan Didion wrote in Slouching Towards Bethlehem of a sense “so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.”
At a moment when our city is wrangling with multiple crises—some systemic, some new—that desire to envision an impossible but brighter future has never felt more critical.
Our question is: Can this proclivity to focus on the next be leveraged to solve the challenges of the now?
We asked some of our institution’s most creative minds to share a vision of New York City a quarter of a century from now. Our only guideline was this: use your imagination to make it better. Nothing is off-limits or too out there. Go big.
All of these New Yorks in 2047—some more rooted in our current reality, some unabashedly fantastical—have intriguing seeds. Perhaps a few, when planted, will yield tomorrow’s Big Apple of our collective dreams.
Increase the Population from 8.3 to 25 Million
For a young person moving to the city now who wants to do anything other than banking or real estate, the requirements are to be rich or live an hour away. We can change zoning regulations to encourage density of housing. In the middle of the last decade, my family lived in Shanghai—my wife and I were helping NYU build its school there—and it is a wonderful, effectively run city with the same population as Australia [roughly 26 million]. If New York City dismantled the restrictions that make housing scarce and unaffordable while investing in the infrastructure that would make it work better, especially transit, the city could triple in size and be a better place to live.
—Clay Shirky, Vice Provost; Associate Journalism Professor, Arts & Science; Associate Arts Professor, Tisch School of the Arts
Eliminate Street Parking . . .
This precious space was not designed for parking, and it is regressive—the free allocation of public resources to a relatively higher income group: car owners. The nearly four million parking spaces on residential streets are removed and redesigned from scratch.
—Zhan Guo, Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Transportation Policy, Wagner Graduate School of Public Service
. . . and Convert It
We make parking spaces into spaces for parks!
—Louise Harpman, Professor of Architecture, Urban Design, and Sustainability, Gallatin School of Individualized Study
Build Down, Not Up
We should build beautiful, light- and plant-filled places underground. People will still prefer their homes to have views of the outside, so most commercial real estate should be converted into residential real estate, and sidewalks should be made of glass or other transparent material, which will let light down to the new New York City underground.
—Robert Seamans, Associate Professor of Management and Organizations, Director of the Center for the Future of Management, Stern School of Business
Remove Highways from Communities of Color
The highways that are intentionally routed through communities of color—highways that destroyed those communities, entrench racial segregation, and resulted in racially disproportionate health and economic impacts—should be removed and replaced with surface roads and other economic investment that reconnect and revitalize those communities. This is coupled with investment in an expanded public transportation system including subways, electric buses, and light rail. The rebuilt New York City will be a walkable, bikeable, and more racially equitable city that unleashes economic opportunity for all.
—Deborah N. Archer, Professor of Clinical Law, Co–Faculty Director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law, Codirector of the Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program, School of Law; President of the ACLU
“The Wonder City You May Live to See,” 1925
This was the title of an article in the August issue of Popular Science Monthly. The magazine asked Harvey W. Corbett, president of the Architectural League of New York, to describe his vision of Manhattan in the year 1950. “A picture of the present-day metropolis, with its skyscrapers and subways, would have seemed scarcely more remarkable 50 years ago than his conception of future city seems today,” the article stated.
Retrofit Underutilized Buildings
To become more inclusive, democratic, equal, and decent, we need to fix the crisis of affordable housing. We declare it an official emergency and reckon with the fact that we have a massive stock of underutilized buildings—from office towers to retail space. They weren’t designed to be residential facilities, but we can retrofit them and create a new supply of affordable housing units, which is transformative. The most radical idea: the city government reclaims all the unused space in Hudson Yards, which has taken billions in tax breaks while giving New Yorkers little in return.
—Eric Klinenberg, Professor of Sociology, Professor of Social Science, Arts & Science; Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge
Develop a Different Draft
Every citizen who is physically able to is required to spend one full workweek per year (covered by a generous weekly wage, paid for by the city) to pick up trash, tend to green spaces, help the unhoused, and collect and redistribute unused food to shelters and the hungry.
—Nina Katchadourian, Clinical Professor, Gallatin School of Individualized Study; work exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA
Introduce a Land Tax
The idea of a land tax is not new: Henry George first proposed the idea of a land tax in his 1879 book Progress and Poverty. Land taxes discourage owners from holding undeveloped land and incentivize them to develop their parcels since they will owe the same taxes regardless of whether a parcel sits vacant, houses a single-family home, or holds a 30-story apartment tower. Land taxes thereby increase the supply of housing and, by doing so, enhance affordability. A land tax also advances equity by taxing away the windfall gains that landowners enjoy and promotes environmental sustainability by encouraging denser development in cities.
—Ingrid Gould Ellen, Professor of Urban Policy and Planning, Director of the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, Wagner Graduate School of Public Service
Name a Gaming Czar
The mission of this government appointee is to entice, encourage, and support the growth of the city’s game industry. For this purpose, games are broken out as their own domain, not bundled in with film and other media nor with general tech or interactivity. This person is given a substantial budget, ambitious targets, and an aggressive timeline. Three to five additional, major, triple-A game development studios relocate here, the kinds of studios that employ hundreds of developers in diverse creative and technical roles. NYC establishes itself as an important world capital of creative technology with its own distinctive approach to the intersection of media, culture, and tech.
—Frank Lantz, Founding Chair of the Game Center, Tisch School of the Arts
Get Cat Eyes
Cats see as well as we can during the day, but about seven times better than us at night. When we have better night vision through special nighttime contact lenses or eyeglasses, we can dim the lights in the city and reduce our energy consumption at night significantly. This will have a tremendous impact on the climate, especially when other major cities follow suit!
—S. Matthew Liao, Professor of Bioethics, Director of the Center for Bioethics, School of Global Public Health; Affiliated Professor of Philosophy, Arts & Science; Division of Medical Ethics, Grossman School of Medicine
City Corridor, 1967
During the late 1950s, Robert Moses’ proposed 10-lane superhighway meant to connect New Jersey and Long Island was dubbed the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX). To put it mildly, the plan was widely reviled. Enter the Ford Foundation. They commissioned former Yale School of Architecture chair Paul Rudolph to study the implications of the project. As a result, the famed architect reimagined a kinder, gentler LOMEX. Decreasing traffic, eliminating noise, and reducing exhaust: all were possible, Rudolph asserted, if only the highway was buried. His island- and river-crossing megastructure included housing, but its heart was the HUB, a group of nine-story buildings containing pedestrian walkways, parking garages, subways, the highway, and people-shuttling monorails (indicated by the two illustrations below). LOMEX 2.0 was as hated as 1.0, and the entire thing was officially declared dead in 1971. Later in life, Rudolph declared it had been the right move.
Quadruple Education Spending to $120,000 per Student Annually
Funding at this level increases salaries and attracts and mentors highly effective teachers and administrators; provides students with access to individualized instructional programs and technology tools tailored to their own strengths, needs, and interests; and extends learning time inside and outside of school buildings to eight hours per day, 220 days per year, from ages 4 through 18. This guarantees that every public school student receives 14 years of public education that ensures them of a pathway to economic security, civic engagement, and social and emotional well-being.
—James Kemple, Research Professor of Teaching and Learning, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development; Executive Director of the Research Alliance for NYC Schools
Become a Cleantech Hub
Top global talent is attracted to New York’s famous laboratory skyscrapers, where ideas are transformed into sustainable technologies that reverse climate change and improve our environment. Cleantech manufacturing sets its roots in Brooklyn, where recycled plastic is used to make sustainable textiles for the fashion industry and cement for the ever-growing construction sector. The city’s focus on sustainability will transform the East and Hudson Rivers, which will boast beautiful public beaches where dolphins will be common sightings.
—Miguel Antonio Modestino, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Director of the Sustainable Engineering Initiative, Tandon School of Engineering
Add a Sixth Borough
We should implement the NYC Seasteading Act in order to cultivate a new borough called FREEYORK, 12 nautical miles from the Rockaway Beach coastline. This micronational zone will be built from scratch, sovereign from US laws, and fully self-sufficient in the usage of materials, food, and energy. As a self-governing extraterritorial entity, the citizens will strive for radical equity and equality in all aspects of daily life. It will be located on a massive, floating, stabilized structure to be composed of hybrid synthetic biological resources on the Atlantic Ocean surface. FREEYORK will be entirely climate-resilient and the global paradigm of socioecological urbanity. Housing and commercial, educational, and civic buildings will be grown from engineered living materials. The basic necessities of life will be free to all participating citizens. Resident restrictions will apply to former criminals, existing billionaires, tax dodgers, anarchists, and various special interest groups deemed detrimental to society. NYU’s new campus for the School of Architecture and the Environment will be permanently located in FREEYORK.
—Mitchell Joachim, Associate Professor of Practice, Gallatin School of Individualized Study; Cofounder of Terreform ONE
City of New Manhattan, 1911
T. Kennard Thomson was a respected member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. So when he proposed building two four-mile-long sea walls roughly half a mile apart on either side of the Battery, pumping out the water, and filling in the channel, the idea was taken seriously. Despite capturing numerous headlines as well as the public’s imagination, Thomson’s idea didn’t move past the drawing board. A later proposal was significantly more audacious; among the changes, the East River was to be completely filled in, replaced by an artificial channel linking Flushing and Jamaica Bays. Until his death in 1952, Thomson remained perplexed as to why his plan hadn’t been adopted.
Make Cybersecurity Education Free
All community colleges should be totally tuition-free and provide living stipends for anyone who has had a city address for one year or more. This should be paid for by increasing the tax on high-rise residences, businesses, bars, etc. We need to make an investment especially in students interested in studying cybersecurity, so that we are able to bring our systems to the highest possible level of security. We need to be more than one step ahead of cyberterrorists, to outsmart them with better design and more robust protective systems in place, not just for banking but for hospitals, nuclear plants, elections . . . all critical infrastructure systems should be hardened, but we need to train a new generation of exceptionally well-prepared and qualified security technicians and analysts, in order to do this.
—Robyn Gershon, Clinical Professor of Epidemiology, School of Global Public Health
Construct the Hyperloop
This will transport passengers in New York, Boston, and Washington, DC, between cities in just one hour.
—Amy Webb, Professor of Strategic Foresight, Stern School of Business; CEO of the Future Today Institute
Increase Social Work
A 2017 report stated that the city’s Department of Education employed approximately one social worker for every 900 students. Among the solutions should be building a larger pipeline of social workers, particularly from BIPOC and low-income communities—those where the need is greatest—by removing a barrier to entry with an MSW fellows program that pays all or part of their tuition. In exchange, graduates commit to working for several years in the city’s schools and other environments where they can support the behavioral health needs of youth and their families.
—Michael A. Lindsey, Professor of Poverty Studies, Executive Director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research, and Incoming Dean, Silver School of Social Work
Harness the Sun and Wind
Mass transit should shift from underground to a network of sailboats with solar panels on their masts. The boats will remain consistently on schedule and will even contribute to the power grid. New Yorkers will also contribute to the city’s energy supply by using pay-per-use rowing stations below deck on these boats. Rowing will become a status symbol for young, upwardly mobile New Yorkers as well as a way to both maintain and exhibit fitness while commuting. Those unable to row—or unable to pay to row—will be tasked with sitting in comfortable, on-deck observation stations where they’ll maintain biodiversity observation records.
—Karen Holmberg, Research Scientist and Codirector of the Gallatin WetLab, Gallatin School of Individualized Study
Devise a Flood Plan
Stormwater and coastal floods are increasing in frequency due to climate change, and they have a large impact on public safety, infrastructure, and water quality. To mitigate and adapt to these challenges, we should implement innovative water management and flood mitigation projects designed to account for the natural environment and historic streams and marshes that were paved over as the city expanded. Even when paved over, these historic waterways don’t go away and are prone to flooding. We need comprehensive flood plans protecting neighborhoods that are developed in consultation with those communities.
—Andrea Silverman, Assistant Professor of Civil and Urban Engineering, Tandon School of Engineering
Dome Over Manhattan, 1960
Architects R. Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao conceived an aluminum and glass geodesic dome two miles in diameter. Centered at 42nd Street, it ran river to river from 29th to 62nd Streets, rising three times higher than the Empire State Building, with wires to melt snow and ice. The goal was to reduce energy consumption, which they claimed would fall by roughly 80 percent, and to conserve water. Years later, Fuller told an interviewer that “we have great thunderstorms in New York, and all the rain just goes down the storm sewers. . . . Once you put a big dome like that up, you have a beautiful guttering around and this all gets channeled off to a holding, to a great reservoir.”