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A Changing Ecological Landscape

By Carolyn Guerrero

In order to implement the grid, the environmental landscape of Manhattan was changed. Many trees were cut down, leveling the land and eradicating any irregular protrusions from the ground, flattening New York City and it's skyline. Hills were leveled, leaving little indentations or grooves upon the Earth. Wetlands and streams across the landscape were drained and filled, leaving new, level lots open where fresh construction could, and would, take place, adding a slew of new buildings to the Manhattan skyline where before there were none. A considerable number of older buildings were demolished, again leaving space for the new. All of these things were done to create and enhance the grid.
According to James Reuel Smith, before the grid was implemented upon the Manhattan landscape, it displayed “all the wilderness of a place far out in the country,” with many areas of vegetation and bubbling springs.[1]
But then, the wilderness was “obliterated” to make way for the grid and industrialization – the “stone and metal hives of humanity.”[2]

Koolhaas even goes so far as to state that Manhattan's purpose is “to exist in a world totally fabricated by man.”[3] If this is to be accepted as true, then the grid, a landscape organizational method fabricated by man, serves its purpose well, as it allows for even more man-made fabrications to be created. The transition from wilderness to industrialization is reflected in the Manhattan skyline. In the two images above, the differences in what the skyline looked like can be clearly seen. In the first image, the view of Manhattan is almost entirely dominated with scenes of nature, whereas in the second image, there are hardly any traces of nature remaining.

Koolhaas calls the grid a “collective experiment in which the entire city became a factory of manmade experience.”[4] While this criticism of the grid may be harsh, it does ring true on some level. Along with the implementation of the grid came industrialization, urbanization, and deforestation.[5] The grid was placed directly over the natural landscape and was designed in such a manner that the obliteration of natural areas was inevitable.[6]

In this early detail of the 1811 Commissioner's Plan, which would later become the grid plan, the direct placement of the grid on top of nature can be witnessed. In this detail, no regard is given to nature, as the lines and rectangles of the grid are placed directly over the curvilinear patches of nature that were already present in Manhattan.

When looking at present-day Manhattan, it is difficult to see any areas of untouched nature. Manhattan was once an “island of many hills,” with a “previously rich ecology.”[7] The British Headquarters Map of 1782 shows the biological and ecological diversity that previously inhabited the island of Manhattan.[8]

Manhattan was once home to many hills, valleys, streams, wetlands, beaches, and estuaries - all of which are shown on the British Headquarters Map.[9] Nowadays, it is hard to imagine things such as wetlands and beaches occupying space on an island that has become consumed by buildings and concrete, just as it is difficult to imagine Manhattan's skyline not being dominated by buildings.[10]

Before the grid was implemented, nature provided many things for the inhabitants of Manhattan, such as a continuous supply of drinking water, abundant local foods, local building materials, and luxurious plant growth.[11] Since the natural landscape provided immediate access to so many trees, many buildings were constructed out of wood.

The land itself “was divided into large green estates, and someone describing the environment of Manhattan as a whole would have been more likely to use the word bucolic than congested.”[12] This was what New York City was like; the land exhibited aspects like those of the countryside because the land was, for the most part, a countryside landscape.
As seen in the 1763 Thomas Howdell engraving, A South East View of the City of New York in North America, the land has a very pastoral quality.[13]  If not for the caption identifying the engraving as one of New York, a viewer might guess that the engraving was of a countryside landscape. In this particular engraving, there are a few buildings, but the majority of the landscape is rural and dominated by trees, shrubbery, and grass, just as the skyline was once dominated by these things. For many years, the only things visible on the skyline were scenes of nature. After the implementation of the grid, however, this changed.
Less than a hundred years later, the rural landscape is gone, having been replaced with buildings and paved streets. In this 1850 sketch of New York City, nature has already been relegated to only a small area by the waterfront.[14]

The rest of the city is dominated by buildings. No longer can Manhattan be described as bucolic; it is now congested. Concrete has replaced grass and streams. This change is essential to the creation of the current Manhattan skyline.[15]

[1] Thos. Jefferys, “A south west view of the city of New York in North America,” Library of Congress, 1768.

[2] James Reuel Smith. Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx: New York City at the End of the Nineteenth Century. (New York: New-York Historical Society, xiii, 1938), 98, 144.

“Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn,” Library of Congress, cc. 19Th, LC-B22- 309-13

[3] Rem Koolhaas, “Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan,” New York: Monacelli Press, 1978, 10.

[4] Ibid, 9.

[5] “Brooklyn Bridge during construction,” The Charnel House, 1877.

[6] John Randel, Jr., “The Commissioner's Plan of 1811,” New York City Municipal Archives, 1811.

[7] Eric Sanderson, “Nature and the City,” The Architectural League of New York, 2014.

[8] Tracie Hunt, “British Headquarters Map,” The Bicentennial of the Manhattan Street Grid, 1782.

[9] Eric Sanderson, “Nature and the City”

[10] Besides having different geographical features before the grid was implemented, Manhattan was also home to various animals and fishes that are no longer present today.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Eric Jaffe, “A Visual History of Manhattan's Grid,” CityLab, November 21, 2011.

[13] Thomas Howdell, “A South East View of the City of New York in North America,” Museum of the City of New York, 1763.

[14] “New York City,” Library of Congress, 1850.

[15] Eric Sanderson, “Nature and the City”