The water works— New York


Throughout the five boroughs of New York, space is at a premium. For the city’s planners, that means making intelligent use of existing waterfronts and parks to showcase that famous skyline from a fresh perspective.

City planning, Architecture, skyline

With walls covered in colourful sketches and a central table overflowing with drawings and maps, the urban design division of New York City’s Department of City Planning feels more like an art school studio than a dreary municipal office. “When I first got here I asked people to draw what they thought things should look like and some of them responded by saying they hadn’t drawn anything in three decades,” says Amanda Burden, the city planning commissioner. “Now what we do first, before we even talk about zoning, is draw.”

Responsible for the…

Zoning explained

The best tool in the Department of City Planning’s box is zoning – the control of space. As planning permission specifies the size and use of buildings throughout the city, zoning can range from deciding if a new building will have five or 50 storeys, to allowing cafés that offer outdoor seating and encouraging grocery stores to stock fresh fruit. Zoning laws shape how the city looks and feels. Last year, to make life easier for residents, Burden’s office published The Zoning Handbook, which breaks down the topic’s complicated regulations.

  • The High Line

    One of the best examples of Burden’s goal to “create great open space”. It’s also been a catalyst for the Manhattan area, with 50 million visitors so far, triggering $2bn (€1.5bn) of investment.

  • Pier 15

    Situated on the East River Esplanade in Lower Manhattan, the precisely positioned elevation of the upper deck is a perfect viewing platform for the city.

  • Greenpoint and Williamsburg waterfront

    Fenced-off, derelict land is now becoming accessible to the public through zoning laws that allows waterfront residential building only if developers also build new public parks.

  • Higher learning

    Rooftop greenhouses are now in place in schools across the city, providing education and healthy produce, thanks to zoning relief that allowed their construction.

  • Fresh ideas

    After identifying the city’s areas where there was little fresh food available and a high number of diet-related diseases, the department developed financial and zoning incentives for fresh groceries.

  • Winds of change

    Soon we may see wind turbines in New York City’s skyline, as proposals are being discussed that would allow for structurally suitable and correctly located buildings to house clean energy-generating wind farms on their roofs.


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