The Big Apple is looking pear shaped
It is easy to base an understanding of New York wrapped in the glittering cultural utopia that American Media pumps through TV series and films. But what’s quickly discovered if you find yourself strolling down the broad superstore and hotdog highways of Manhattan is you’ll also be met with the city’s’ less glamorous face of petrol choked air, mounting waste and the loud inescapable noise from the constructions of ‘modern life’.
When trying to describe the city, the collective answer from students of Colombia University and I when staring down Fifth avenue was reduced to the simplicity of ‘big’. New York can easily feel like a city which consumes you; beyond the cities 300 square mile grid network of skyscrapers, remanence of 1970s modernity town planning, the city consumes $92 million in annual retail, churns out $1,731.9 billion in GDP, (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020) costing $60 million worth of energy (New York Profile, 2020).The everyday is simply, more.
With a population density of 38,242 people per km, New York also squeezes more people ‘skyscraper to skyscraper’ than any other American city. To emphasise this fact, over the pond, London hosts an even higher population but with less than half the density. (Colman and Colman, 2020).
The land of the free(ish)
Arguably, New York is a city driven by ‘growth for growth sake’. New York has become a poster child of the capitalist society, born out of 1930 desires of ‘modernity’, David Harvey argues the neoliberal state has become the carpet underlay of the New York everyday life – making being a shopaholic, not an obsessive habit, but a form of cultural expression and everyday life (Harvey, 2008). Essentially ‘the land of the free’, being the freedom to buy…and buy more.
However this has had heavy consequences on the environment that we live in, and the consequences are being felt by the citizens themselves in the form of heart disease, diabetes and poor respiratory heath. What this points to, is as citizens we are not independent of the city, or nature, but the city is a woven network of social, natural and political processes creating a network (Keil, 2020).
Where did nature go? It never left.
This triangular network between nature, human and the urban are elements which shape and constitute our everyday life. The Big Apple mirrors Heyens description of nature itself; ‘chaotic, wild and untamed’ (Heyen, N et. Al, 2006). We have come to view nature as something ‘out there’, only to be experienced after an hour train ride to the New Jersey hills or weekend getaway. But we cannot ignore we are bound materially and not to the ecological world (Heyen, N et. Al, 2006).
As David Harvey classically quotes ‘there is nothing unnatural about New York’; from the air we breathe, the food we consume and water drunk (most likely in the form of filter coffee), it is easy to forget how dependent we are on these networks (Heynen, Kaika and Swyngedouw, 2006). But has this complacency, come with its abuse?
Rethinking New York, for New Yorks’ sake
What constitutes and makes a city, is us. The layers of pavement and concrete are simply architecture, until trampled by the social and cultural conversations of everyday. In this sense, we cannot consider ourselves separate from our cities, but we shape and are shaped by them – a ‘New Yorker’ being a city, a bagel, and a person. However, while 20% of New York citizens are in poverty (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020), 1 in 5 suffer from hunger amongst record high air pollution (American Lung Association, 2020) and 50,000 tons of waste annually the question arises of how and who the city is designed for – while the opinion of nature needs to be heard.
American Lung Association. 2020. State Of The Air | American Lung Association. [online] Available at: <https://www.stateoftheair.org/> [Accessed 24 October 2020].
Census Bureau QuickFacts. 2020. U.S. Census Bureau Quickfacts: New York City, New York. [online] Available at: <https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/newyorkcitynewyork> [Accessed 24 October 2020].
Colman, M. and Colman, M., 2020. See How NYC’s Urban Density Stacks Up Against Other Major Cities | 6Sqft. [online] 6sqft. Available at: <https://www.6sqft.com/see-how-nycs-urban-density-stacks-up-against-other-major-cities/> [Accessed 24 October 2020].
Eia.gov. 2020. New York Profile. [online] Available at: <https://www.eia.gov/state/print.php?sid=NY> [Accessed 24 October 2020]
Harvey, D., 2008. The right to the city. The City Reader, 6(1), pp.23-40.
Heynen, N., Kaika, M. and Swyngedouw, E., 2005. In The Nature Of Cities. London: Routledge.
Heynen, N., Kaika, M. and Swyngedouw, E., 2006. In The Nature Of Cities. New York, NY: Routledge.
Keil, R., 2020. An urban political ecology for a world of cities. Urban Studies, 57(11), pp.2357-2370.