Steinberg’s fascinating and encyclopedic Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York covers 300 years of one of the world’s most important estuaries. We spoke to him about why this matters, even to those of us far outside the five boroughs.
What led you to focus on New York City’s ecology as an object of study?
New York is one of the most engineered environments on the face of the Earth. It’s a great laboratory for trying to understand the relations between humans and the natural environment. Plus, I love New York, having been born and raised there, and I don’t want to see it get washed into the sea. But this isn’t just a New York story. Almost 75% of the 25 largest cities are located in estuaries, where fresh and salt water come together, precisely the environment we have in New York City. So understanding the ecological history of New York is important for people all across the planet because it’s a model for where the world is headed.
If we could remake one decision that affected the ecological systems around New York, which would you choose?
Probably the most ecologically significant development in New York occurred in the 1840s, when for the first time, New York went off the island of Manhattan for its water supply. That underwrote the enormous population growth of the city, but also completely transformed the waters surrounding New York, putting too many nutrients in, robbing the water of oxygen, and compromising marine life. If I could change one thing, maybe that would be it. But then it wouldn’t be New York, with the dense population that we have today, and the vibrant street life. That just couldn’t have taken place without all this outside water.
Many of the names of places in New York show evidence of their ecological history. What are some of your favorites?
People drive by Flushing Meadows, and they see the tennis center and Citi Field. But it was really a meadow once, a giant marshland. Coney Island was really an island. And the Meadowlands: people think of football and harness racing, but it started out as 42 square miles of marsh grass and avian life.
Do you think knowing the ecological history of the city could help New York make better decisions for the future?
The discussion of what to do with the million people who are being projected to move into New York in the next 20 years or so—in a world of rising seas—has taken place without any real consideration of ecological history, and that’s problematic. History isn’t the only tool that planners need to consider, but it’s got to be on the table. New York is being held up by many as an ecological role model, with tremendous natural resource efficiencies, especially in terms of global warming. But global warming isn’t the only problem. New York needs to make more of an effort to create open space that’s less fragmented.