Undoing The Man-made

by Don Friedman on December 22, 2016

I was in Yonkers a few weeks back and I walked from the train station up the hill into the center of the downtown, I noticed that the big municipal parking lot was gone since my last visit, replaced by a stream. This is, to say the least, not a common occurrence. It turns out to be a major revitalization project to return the Saw Mill River to surface use.

That the river was buried is not an accident. American urban design in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century consisted in large part of obliterating natural features of the landscape. For example, in New York City, a lot of the hills that gave Manhattan its name were cut down as the numbered street grid was built.

As late as the 1910s, were was a serious proposal to wipe out the natural islands and waterways of Jamaica Bay to create a new harbor. The word used for this kind of large-scale erasure of landscape was “improvement.”

Jamaica Bay’s proposed improvement:

I like cities and would not remove them to return the land to a state of nature. That said, there is no reason that nature and cities can’t coexist, as the return of the Saw Mill River and similar projects shows. We’re not getting Manhattan’s hills back – and personally, I’m okay with that – but Jamaica Bay is a wildlife preserve and part of a national park.

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