Case Study: New York City

The Five Thousand Pound Life: Water, Case Studies (Part 3)

February 7, 2015

In “The New York City Water Supply: Lessons for the 21st Century,” Kevin Bone and Al Appleton trace the history, development, and evolution of the city’s water infrastructure. Bone first presents the history of the design and engineering of the system, “nearly 175 years of continuous, uninterrupted building of water supply [and] water treatment infrastructure.” He cites a cholera epidemic as the “trigger event” for creating a civic water supply system, transitioning the city from a system of local wells to the gravity-fed Croton Aqueduct that carries upstate water more than 40 miles into the city. The system expanded to draw water from the Catskill and Delaware watersheds, traveling through deep-rock pressure tunnels. Bone charts the city’s increased water consumption alongside its population growth, rising from 12 gallons per person per day drawn from wells in 1820 to 191 gallons per person per day by 1990.

Appleton (27:15), who directed the city’s water system as Commissioner of the NYC Department of Environmental Protection in the first half of the 1990s, picks up the story as the City’s focus transitions from engineering the supply to managing the demand. Appleton details a comprehensive planning initiative undertaken in collaboration with the watershed’s agricultural community to ensure adequate, clean drinking water while meeting environmental obligations, avoiding costly new filtration and sewage plants while benefitting local farmers. Appleton attributes the program’s success to the right institutional framework and financial incentives and characterizes sustainability as an “economic proposition” that engenders wise use of resources.


Al Appleton is an environmental and infrastructure consultant in water resource and water utility management, infrastructure economics, public finance, land use, and landscape preservation. From 1990 to 1994, Appleton was Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and Director of the New York City Water and Sewer System.

Architect Kevin Bone is director of the Institute for Sustainable Design at The Cooper Union, where he teaches design studios and advanced courses on sustainability. He was the editor of and contributed to Water-Works: The Architecture and Engineering of the New York City Water Supply.

The Five Thousand Pound Life: Watera symposium on issues of water supply in the context of climate change, examined case studies on Los Angeles, the Great Lakes region, and New York City. The event was organized by The Architectural League and The Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design in February 2015.

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.