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New York's Future Is on the Water

The Whitney's debut on Gansevoort Street is a sign of something significant -- it is the consecration of New York's return as a true waterfront city.
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For many New Yorkers, the May 1 opening of the new Whitney Museum in lower Manhattan signifies really only one thing: the center of gravity of America's greatest city has dramatically and irrevocably shifted downtown. With the Whitney move, proclaim certain commentators, Chelsea and the far West Village in 2015 have become the social and economic and cultural equivalent of the Upper East Side in 1966, when Marcel Breuer's building opened its doors on Madison and 75th Street.

Yet the Whitney's debut on Gansevoort Street is a sign of something much more significant: it is the consecration of New York's return as a true waterfront city. This is much more meaningful in the long run than the fact that 'downtown' is somehow the 'it' place to be -- urban centers of gravity constantly shift over time, after all, depending on economic and real estate cycles. But returning to the water... now that's a big move. Ever since the grid system of Manhattan was laid out by far-sighted city planners in 1811, New York has done its best to turn its back on the majestic Hudson and East Rivers and the vast New York Harbor. While commerce was first made on the water, by trading the beaver skins that came from upriver, wealth sought to be inland, away from the waterfront. Robber barons built their mansions on Fifth Avenue and midtown, not on the water's edge. By the turn of the 20thcentury, the height of fashion was to look out over the green expanse of Central Park, which became a powerful magnet for orienting the city both northward and inland. Not for nothing was the Metropolitan Museum built on Fifth Avenue and the Park.

The rivers and the harbor, after all, were foul, industrial places. New York's first hospitals -- like Bellevue and the old Gouverneur Hospital were on the water's edge -- bodies and effluvia could easily be whisked away by the tides and the river currents. Though Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller would help romanticize the waterfront , the fact remains that for close to two centuries, it meant rotting piers, desolate places where mobsters could take care of their enemies, social and economic shadiness. Socially, it meant Hell's Kitchen and hookers on 11th Avenue.

Over the last ten years or so, this has been changing dramatically. In New York as in other coastal cities and ports around the world, waterfronts that were long derelict because of the transformation of the shipping industry, came to be seen as potentially valuable inner-city real estate. From Battery Park City to South Street Seaport and Hudson Park, activity on New York's extensive waterfront has now extended to the Brooklyn Bridge Park and Red Hook. The 15-acre Hudson Yards project along the Hudson River in midtown proclaims itself to be the largest private real eastate development in the United States; it is certainly the largest development in New York since Rockefeller Center was built in the Depression. Tomorrow, other projects will include the Greenpoint waterfront and the Brooklyn Navy Yards, to name only some of the most important.

What is surprising, in fact, is just how late New York has come to the global waterfront rediscovery party. London's South Bank began to be developed in the 1950's, while the massive Canary Wharf business district, which replaced the old commercial entrepots along the Thames, started rising in the late 1980's. The competition for the waterside Sydney Opera House were unveiled dats back to 1956. Shanghai's Bund began to be restored to favor following Deng Xioping's economic reforms in the mid 1970's. For cities like Miami, Tel Aviv and Rio de Janeiro in the post-war era, premium housing almost always overlooked the water. In New York, it rarely did.

But New York is in full transformation now. New York's rediscovery and redevelopment of its waterfronts are also going hand in hand with a revolution in urban lifestyles. Apart from Staten Island residents, few New Yorkers ever dreamed of setting foot on a ferry. Now they are much more frequent, plying the waterways separating Brooklyn and Manhattan, crisscrossing the Hudson and the East River. Mayor Bill de Blasio is calling for an even more massive increase in the their use. New York, says the Mayor, "is the ultimate coastal city."

Somewhat counter-intuitively, developing the water's edge is the best defense AGAINST the water. Building resilient up-to-code structures along its coasts means New York will better be able to withstand the ravages of rising sea-levels and the next Hurricane Sandy. The redevelopment and rediscovery of its waterfronts thus augur well for the health of New York in the 21st century.

To glimpse the promise of New York in the new century, take a ferry from South Street to Governors Island. As the boat plies the water, look back at Manhattan, with its gleaming new towers around Ground Zero. To the west are the soaring towers of Jersey City, then the urban archeology of Ellis Island, and finally the Statue of Liberty. To the east Brooklyn, now almost as dense and shiny and new as Manhattan. This is truly one of the greatest urban seascapes in the world, as breathtaking in its way as Venice, Hong Kong Harbour or Rio. This is the New York of the future.

John Rossant is the founder and chairman of the New Cities Foundation, a leading global non-profit institution dedicated to improving cities everywhere.

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