A City’s Footprint?

Ideally, large enough for self-sufficiency, small enough for reciprocity.

ON ANY GIVEN DAY WALKING around New York City, you might come across a place where the sidewalk ends, and find a hole instead. Underneath the city’s perpetual skin of concrete and asphalt, massive ducts and pipes crawl, at once giving each other space and packed tightly below the surface. This is what the city’s insides look like.

As a kid, I was taught to read the urban landscape, mostly by my dad, a student of systems and a dedicated citizen. That metal post? It’s a gas vent. If you look under this manhole cover, there’s a stream. Right here used to be a marsh, and now, see how smoothly it curves into a hill? It must be a landfill. This is where the subway belches hot air, to compensate for the icy coolness of train cars in summer.

Every time I encountered the underbelly of New York City, from street construction to water-system maintenance work to the occasional public-infrastructure tour, I was struck by how easily one could ignore all of the things that lay underneath. City living didn’t come with a prerequisite of understanding how the place functions, how things come to and leave from it. You could just turn on your lights and faucets, fill up your car at the gas station, flush a toilet, or go to the grocery store and get anything you wanted without really having to care about where the power, water, food, and gas came from, how it was stored, or where waste went. There is little understanding that this dense, concretized landscape is part of a rich bioregion: defined not just by lines on a map but by the geographic and ecological context in which a city exists.

Today, in a globalized economy, it is standard to source a city’s needs from far away, rather than from within a bioregion. Every day, water and energy are brought into New York City, generally through aqueducts. Waste is removed, also via underground infrastructure, diesel trucks, and barges. Food rolls in on sixteen-wheelers and cargo vans. This movement of resources is often smooth, thanks to the people who keep these systems running. Until a climate disaster or a public health emergency throws a wrench in the works.

In 2012, in flew the wrench: Superstorm Sandy. Chunks of buildings from Rockaway, an inhabited barrier island on New York City’s southern coast, washed up on Coney Island, two miles away. New Yorkers learned the not-fun fact that the city has only three days’ worth of food supply at a given time. My high school cafeteria, a quarter mile from Manhattan’s manmade shoreline, was filled with raw sewage for weeks following the storm. The electrical grid shut down. Pipes burst, and whole houses collapsed. Suddenly, what lay below the city’s surface was everyone’s problem.

Downtown Manhattan, New York, after Hurricane Sandy hit the city in 2012. Photo by André-Pierre du Plessis.

​Debris and trash on Coney Island Beach in Brooklyn, New York, after Hurricane Sandy. The aftermath of the hurricane revealed how quickly the systems and supply chains that keep a city functioning can be disrupted. Photo by drpavloff/Flickr.

While those in New York’s halls of power had already conceived of climate impacts on the city, Sandy was a catalyst. Like any moment of apocalypse — literally, pulling the lid off — suddenly we all got to see how quickly the systems and supply chains that keep a city functioning can be disrupted. With this revelation came a new understanding that such tenuous connections to food, water, and energy were simply not sustainable, especially at the beginning of an age of uncertainty.

After the shock of Sandy, New York City started to plan for climate change in earnest. But it took another crisis — the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic — for the city to consider a more regionalized support system that could hold up under global stress. Community-supported agriculture, in which people buy food directly from farmers, boomed in 2020, as did mutual aid networks and neighborhood support systems. The city reached for resources where it could reliably access them: close to home.

MAJOR HUMAN SETTLEMENTS simply cannot exist without access to water, food, energy, and waste management. So, throughout history, villages and towns, and later cities, were located near water, and close enough to fertile land. The advancement of capitalism and resource extraction encouraged the violation of this sensible pattern: towns springing up around mines, cities getting fed by massive dammed rivers that starved communities downstream. Industrialization of the food system broadened this rift, providing urban dwellers with processed foods that could sit on shelves or live in freezers, regardless of the season. Even in a place like New York City, located close to freshwater and rich agricultural lands, globalizing the economy has led to the globalization of once-regional resource networks.

As long as there have been people on the archipelago that is now the five boroughs, there has been biological exchange across the region. The Lenape, the original people of the area surrounding what is now New York City, shared a dialect across almost exactly the same region that now makes up the Catskill/Delaware watershed and NYC. The island known to them as Manahatta was, in the words of landscape ecologists Eric W. Sanderson and Marianne Brown, a “mosaic” of grasslands, tidal marshes, and “magnificent, park-like forests.” Manahatta was a “culturally derived ecosystem,” where the needs and offerings of land and water directly impacted how the Lenape made decisions about where to be and what to use.

The city’s long history of regional food and water systems can serve as a valuable template for future planning.

Even when White settlers arrived on Turtle Island — building the wall that kept Lenape away, and that would someday host the NY Stock Exchange — resources from one part of this region still defined life at the other end of it. Once-robust oyster reefs and arable land in rural Brooklyn fed the growing city. Streams running under Manhattan provided drinking water and kept waste moving, until they didn’t, and the city started to build reservoirs outside urban limits. These resource flows have continuously evolved alongside changes to the fabric and populace of the New York City region; the range within which the city has sourced food, water, and energy has grown as well. The great consequences of this shift, as evidenced during crises, emphasizes the urgent need to reorient towards regional resourcing of this city of nine million.

The city’s long history of regional food and water systems can serve as a valuable template for future planning, especially alongside modern, locally driven frameworks like the Northern Manhattan Climate Action Plan (NMCA).

Drafted in the mid-2010s after a lengthy community input process, the plan focuses on Upper Manhattan and the environmental justice challenges the area faces. It sketches out a beautiful vision for how to weather the literal and figurative storm, from heat waves to the inevitably bumpy phase-down of fossil fuels to shifts in how capital becomes available. It recommends community hubs and energy democracy, cooperative housing and green infrastructure. The NMCA hands people the wheel to steer their urban ship through floodwaters by transforming energy, food, waste, and political systems to prioritize justice and sustainability. And, behind the tight focus of this high-participation, justice-oriented, and climate-smart plan is the shadow of the bioregion.

Aurash Khawarzad, urban planner and co-developer of the plan, put it this way. “The NMCA is both a hyperlocal plan and one that is connected to the bigger region. You cannot just plan for one community — the NMCA needs a regional plan to be a part of.” He acknowledged that “All planning has to be regional. Historically, that’s how all cities were planned; when you start a discussion of how we can make nyc fit for climate change, this is the discussion we need to be having. And, it’s worth asking, if you want good metrics on the livability, sustainability, and viability of the city, you have to take into account where these resource systems exist.”

Built in the late 1800s, the New Croton Dam in Westchester County, New York, feeds water to into New York City’s supply system. Photo by Jason / Flickr.

The cascading overflow of Croton Dam. Today, NYC’s massive drinking water system, which is fed by the Catskill and Delaware watersheds, is managed with an increasingly bioregional approach. Photo by Matthew and Heather/Flickr.

The plan, in Khawarzad’s words, emerged “in response to climate change, but it also looks beyond and says, we created climate change through these other systems — how we get our food, energy, and manage our waste — that caused all these problems that we’re trying to solve.” He points out that even with the community solar grids outlined in the NMCA, all the roofs in New York City cannot generate enough energy to keep the lights on. All of the community gardens cannot keep New Yorkers fed. So we’ll need a holistic system change, made possible by the farmers in the Hudson Valley, offshore wind generation, and waste management facilities outside city limits, to keep this big boat afloat.

And in order to float, we’ll need water: Even the most efficient reallocation of space and energy in a city will not make it autonomous without access to freshwater. New York City is well-positioned in this regard, thanks to a massive drinking water system fed by the Catskill and Delaware watersheds, managed with an increasingly bioregional approach.

Bioregional governance can tap into perhaps our strongest survival asset as the planet warms: community.

Since the late 1990s, following an agreement made with stakeholders in these watersheds, the nyc Department of Environmental Protection (nyc dep) has spent some $2.5 billion on what is essentially a bioregional management plan. In direct response to the feedback nyc dep received, the agreement helps farmers install safe septic systems and prevent agricultural runoff, funds upstate wastewater treatment plant operations, and manages erosion. The collaboration between upstate and downstate entities is what keeps water quality high.

This bioregional governing structure, though still rather bureaucratic and top-down, points to the potential for even higher success at keeping rural and urban residents happy and heard if governing structures are both bioregional in scope and democratic in nature.

BEYOND HELPING CITIES the physical impacts of the climate crisis, bioregional governance can tap into perhaps our strongest survival asset as the planet warms: community.

After Superstorm Sandy, community charging stations kept people in touch, and volunteers mobilized en masse to support entire neighborhoods of displaced people. Mutual aid groups fended off hunger and eviction at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic; the shared fridges they set up remain stocked and eaten from, to this day. It is this kind of relational organizing that protects many from even more severe disaster.

But participatory governance and community planning can only scale up so far. Adhering to an ecological boundary around an area that is big enough to be self-sufficient, and small enough to facilitate meaningful relationships from one edge to another, makes governance that is attentive to both people and place possible.

Just as the agreement governing the New York City water system is freer to consider climate impacts than state or federal governments are, cities and towns across the US are taking climate legislation into their own hands amid broader inaction. Relationships and participation are viable at this scale, and in these processes, engagement and approval ratings have been high. And just as communities come together to support each other after a crisis, they are also coming together to bridge gaps and build consensus as the climate crisis unfolds.

Being able to read the landscape, and to feel as though I deeply know the place I am in, are what give me the most strength to consider the lifetime of climate chaos that lies ahead. Knowing a place is not just about reading maps or city charters; it is a dedicated act of citizenship, of participation and observation and relationship building. It is about repairing the rift, returning the land to its original stewards, and addressing harms done. Truly being rooted in the bioregion where life-giving resources come from is essential if we, and the cities we live in, want to survive and thrive amid the uncertain future.

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