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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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  • Dina

    Hi Nate,
    Just wanted to comment on Discovery Channel’s Inside Out: Transportation program. It was a real eye-opener for me since I’m not from NYC (we visited recently to drop our daughter off at NYU. She’s a freshman). We’re from Californis and Las Vegas and I marvelled at how seamlessly everything works on the surface but was even more impressed with all the behind-the-scenes efforts of the professionals that make it happen. I was also impressed how the transportation efforts affects the entire food industry in the city and how the food seemed so fresh despite the fact that the city is water locked. BTW what was the organic farm or farmers market in Queens called? The one that provides organic food to the city’s chefs? My daughter and I would like to visit if we can. We plan on visiting NYC a lot in the future and I will keep up with your articles and this website.
    Thank you.

  • Thanks for the comment David. Certainly waterways are important to many great cities. There is something unique, though, I think, about being waterway-locked (as opposed to landlocked) in the specific manner that NYC is, and what that has done for the city’s specific status as a hub for people, commerce, and ideas.

  • david

    Most of the world’s major cities, including those in the U.S. are built around waterways — London, Paris, New York, Chicago, even Los Angeles includes a major port. Being a hub for people, ideas, commerce, not having tall buildings is what makes them great cities.