2014-01-22

What Will New York Look Like In 2050?

Will New York be car-free and renewably powered By 2050? Take a look at this strikingly optimistic vision for the future of the city—but rest assured, all of these ideas are possible—just maybe not politically feasible.

What will New York City look like 40 years from now? Though it’s obviously difficult to predict the future decades in advance—40 years ago, few people would have guessed how the Internet would take over our lives—the engineering and design firm Arup has taken a stab at a vision of the city in 2050.

Rather than focusing on what they think is most likely to happen, the firm’s architects and other experts considered what might be an ideal scenario. "We basically said, if you could imagine a great New York in 2050, what would it look like? What kinds of solutions could be developed to address the challenges affecting the city now and in the foreseeable future?" says Sarah Wesseler, who led the project at Arup.

The team didn’t worry much about political or financial feasibility, but each of the 27 ideas they’ve suggested are either technically possible now or soon will be. To house the city’s growing population, the designers say that new modular timber-based developments could go up in the outer boroughs, with waterfront properties protected from flooding by a border of green space. Buildings could use surface coatings to capture air pollution and self-healing materials to last longer.

Everything could run on renewable power. Arup suggests that giant offshore wind farms might provide most of the city’s energy, while a smart grid could keep everything running efficiently. Half of New York’s rooftop space could house solar panels; the other half would go to community gardens, fertilized with locally composted food waste. Photovoltaic paint, energy-harvesting pavement, and other surfaces could create more power.

Since New York is already home to a major test site for energy from ocean waves, and was recently granted the first commercial license in the U.S. for tidal power, Arup thinks the city is well-positioned to eventually have the world's leading research center for that technology. Transportation could become much more sustainable as well. The designers think a network of separated bike paths should connect the whole city, and new deep subway lines could also create better connections to hubs like airports. In one of the more radical suggestions, the designers also say they think New York should get rid of cars, apart from a fleet of electric robot taxis.

"Reshaping Manhattan transport by removing private vehicles would create a more people-centered city," says Tom Wilcock, leader of Arup’s Advanced Technology & Research practice in the Americas, who was heavily involved in developing and vetting the ideas. "I think the impacts of this could be far reaching, and it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds."

Though most of the ideas focused on changes to infrastructure, the team also included a few social programs. They say digital voting, along with easier methods for informal digital feedback, could help engage more New Yorkers in the democratic process. A "New York Works Progress Administration" would give government support to artists and designers making projects to improve the city.

Arup hopes to keep exploring the ideas and pushing them forward. "We’re doing a lot of work on how to use data to help produce better projects for our clients and ultimately a better environment for people," says Wilcock. "From a technical perspective many of the ideas are good to go, some are a few years away. To flourish, we need to combine this technical potential with commercial and political support. I think we can help this happen."

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