Nature and the City

The Five Thousand Pound Life: Land was a symposium on rethinking land and its value in light of climate change organized by The Architectural League and co-sponsored by The Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design in September 2014.

The Nature and the City panel brought together two experts in ecological history to present New York City’s natural history and development and debate how we value — or don’t value — nature today.


5KL: Land | Nature and the City | Eric Sanderson | Recorded September 26, 2014

Eric Sanderson details the previously rich ecology of Manhattan or Mannahatta, “land of many hills,” and the disruption of natural systems following European settlement in the 17th century. He warns that the modern economy has treated nature as a free good: “Every time we build a building or a road, we are taking from the ecological commons, the commons of nature, and we are appropriating something to our private good.” He calls for increased visibility of the role of natural resources in our economy, and the need to implement tax policy that reflects the costs of environmental degradation.


5KL: Land | Nature and the City | Ted Steinberg | Recorded September 26, 2014

Ted Steinberg attributes the development of New York City to the 300-year-old view of the city as a “limitless proposition” driven by the “growth imperative.” He cites the origins of the growth imperative as the British settlers’ aggressive approach to creating more valuable waterfront property by selling infilled “water lots,” creating an attitude that land is not a fixed resource but rather “more can be made.” In the 19th century, the plan for the Manhattan street grid allowed for increased urban expansion and density while during an extended period of “storm quiescence” the real estate industry was modernized, thus institutionalizing the practice of selling property. Steinberg cautions against the growth imperative, and the recent characterization of hyperdensity as an environmental strategy, which will lead to increased habitat loss, nutrient pollution, and coastal flooding.


5KL: Land | Nature and the City | A Conversation on Nature and the City | Recorded September 26, 2014

In conversation with Rosalie Genevro, Executive Director of The Architectural League, Sanderson and Steinberg discuss the role of politics and economics in the transformation of the natural environment, debating how to take ecological decisions out of the hands of class interests and into the public realm. Concerned about the lack of creative ecological thinking and the outsized role of the real estate industry in determining the shape of the city, Sanderson seeks to reform the regulatory and tax measures that govern development while Steinberg focuses on the danger of sea level rise and the sizable amount of development within hurricane evacuation zones.


Eric Sanderson is an expert in the ecology of New York City, a Senior Conservation Ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and the best-selling author of Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City (2009) and Terra Nova: The New World After Oil, Cars, and Suburbs (2013).

Ted Steinberg is Professor of History and Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University. His new book Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York (2014) examines the ecological changes that have resulted in the reality of present-day New York City.


The Five Thousand Pound Life (5KL) is an initiative of The Architectural League on new ways of thinking, talking, and acting on architecture, climate change, and our economic future.