3 Big Ideas for a New York City of 9 Million

Designers rethink the growing metropolis.

Aerial photo of Lower Manhattan © Iwan Baan

As New York City’s population reaches a record high, SOM’s City Design Practice proposes three ideas for a livable city of the future. The ideas presented here were originally developed for an article in Crain’s New York Business.

By 2040, New York City is expected to swell to 9 million residents — adding an additional half million people to the 8.5 million today. Significantly increasing the population of an already dense city presents a number of complex challenges. Major changes in the built environment — including space for new development, transportation, the public realm, and open space — will require big ideas and innovative solutions to accommodate such growth in a safe and livable way.

Even now, New York reigns as America’s largest, densest, and most expensive city, with the longest commute times in the country. Over the next century, New York must confront these realities, and more. In particular:

  • Climate change will make the nation’s longest urban coastline even more susceptible to flooding. How will New York protect millions of existing residents who are currently at risk?
  • Compared to other great river cities like London and Paris, New York is much less connected across its waterways. How will the city embrace its waterfront?
  • Autonomous vehicles and the sharing economy will reduce the city’s demand on the roadways that comprise 25 percent of its urban footprint. How will the city take advantage of this new reality to reinvent its roadways as a tool for addressing other challenges?
  • Half a million new residents will need places to live, increasing the demand for affordable solutions. Where will the city house them?
  • The dense urbanization once unique to Manhattan is now extending into many other communities — in Brooklyn, Jersey City, and Long Island City, for example. How will the region elevate these places from satellite hubs into vibrant and livable world-class centers in their own right?
  • Today, over a million jobs are accessible to Manhattanites within a 30-minute commute — but outside Manhattan, the figures are much lower. How will the city extend access to its greatest economic asset — the broadest jobs base in the country — to the bulk of the region’s newest residents?

To answer these challenges, the city needs big and regional thinking. Here, we present three ideas that could address many citywide issues simultaneously.

1. The Waterfront: A bigger Central Park

Photo © Thomas Barrat

New York City’s history is tied to its waterfront, and there are over 600 miles of coastline here that touch an ocean, estuaries, rivers, bays, and inlets. Much of the 19th and 20th centuries saw industrial uses dominate the water’s edge, but in recent years there have been efforts to reclaim parts of the waterfront for people, particularly along the Hudson River. Yet, the experience of New York as a city of rivers and islands is still foreign for many people who live here.

What if we think bigger and more boldly about how to refocus New York around the water? We imagine the East River and its connection to New York Harbor as the Central Park of the next century — a re-centering of the city around a great natural asset, like a seam between the boroughs.

Image © SOM

Green, soft edges and new park spaces could open the river up to the 3.5 million people already living within a mile of the shore. Extensive waterfront areas could provide capacity for new development — from the Red Hook Container Terminal, to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, to Randall’s Island, and Hunts Point. The East River could also serve as an enhanced transportation link, with an extensive ferry system supplementing the existing subway and street networks, which are already at capacity.

In the future, we envision a city organized around its waterways as the civic heart of the city, from Throgs Neck south to the Narrows. The East River, Harlem River, and New York Harbor will become great urban rooms that stitch together the five boroughs. And, ultimately, this asset must serve the resiliency needs of the city as a first line of defense against flooding and storm surges.

2. The Streets: Reclaiming space from cars

The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway could be transformed into a smart roadway — generating electricity to power vehicles on its surface, while reconnecting neighborhoods and reclaiming land for new development. Image © SOM

Few things are more fundamental to New York City than the street grid. It is iconic, both as a means of moving through the city and a foundation for dense urban development. But New York’s streets are designed for cars, and public rights-of-way occupy approximately 25 percent of the city’s land area. In a way, streets are both New York City’s greatest public space asset and its greatest opportunity as “found land” for development.

What if we flipped today’s road equation and reimagined them, first and foremost, as green corridors for people and nature, and then overlaid necessary infrastructure for cars? The coming of automated vehicles could help such an idea by reducing the need for road capacity.

While the right-of-way of primary grid streets will remain, major highways that tear through historic neighborhoods could be reduced or even decommissioned, healing the fabric of communities and opening new opportunities for development. Even if just a portion of these large roadways could be reclaimed, hundreds or even thousands of acres of new land could become available for housing, parks, or transit.

The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) — one of the country’s oldest urban expressways — could be a prime example. What if we celebrated New York at 9 million by reconsidering the legacy of Robert Moses and choosing to recycle major roadways in favor of connected neighborhoods? A reimagined BQE would create an entirely new relationship between community and street. It could provide green spaces, seamless connections between neighborhoods, new areas for residential development, and accommodation for new, high-quality transit connecting through Brooklyn and Queens, and eventually extending across to Staten Island and the Bronx as well.

3. City of Cities: A downtown for every borough

Reimagining New York City’s central business district as a network of regional centers would expand possibilities for sustainable growth. Image © SOM

Midtown and Downtown Manhattan are the major job centers of the region, but they are no longer the only ones. Other boroughs in New York City and communities in New Jersey are growing at an incredible pace, with new downtown areas developing. We already see Downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City, Jersey City, Newark, and many others with their own definable skylines.

What if we imagine New York’s central business district as a network of strategically located regional centers? Identifying other places in New York City and the greater region that are transit-rich and have the potential to grow into true downtowns could help diffuse population density and stress on the city’s infrastructure. It could also begin to address the population and jobs mismatch that creates long commutes and limits accessibility.

We propose two distinct but related strategies for encouraging major new development in these outer-borough downtowns. First, identify the growth areas of the future and act now to rezone for additional density and mixes of uses. Second, expand transit access to areas that are already developing rapidly but lack critical infrastructure.

A prime example could be Central Harlem — served by multiple subway lines and Metro North, adjacent to Central Park, and with easy access to LaGuardia Airport. What if we could adjust the zoning of this area to create a true uptown business district?

Or, perhaps the future is entirely new downtowns, in locations such as Hunts Point or a redeveloped Co-op City in the Bronx. There is latent potential in every borough for one or even a series of downtowns, and the right mix of investment and city policy will open them up for growth.

What’s next?

The ideas offered here are a starting point. No doubt, the changes in the city’s physical, economic, and political realities required to accommodate a growing population are numerous and diverse. We’ve hardly scratched the surface. We will keep exploring these topics — with deeper dives into those of particular interest to us as designers and urbanists — in the months ahead. Our hope is that this becomes an ongoing and broad dialogue about the future of the city we call home.

To find out more about how SOM is rethinking urban areas across the United States, read this interview with four designers: