How Many People Can Manhattan Hold?
By AMY O’LEARY
Published: March 1, 2012
It could happen on a weeknight at the Union Square Trader Joe’s, when the aisles are so packed that shopping for frozen edamame morphs into a full-contact sport. Or perhaps it’s on a Saturday in SoHo when Broadway is transformed into an obstacle course of tourists and jewelry peddlers. Maybe it’s on the No. 2 subway line at rush hour, where personal space — if any — can be measured with a micrometer.
And then you pass by a new high-rise under construction, and it’s only rational to wonder: Just how many people can Manhattan actually hold?
It’s not only grousing New Yorkers who think about this. Planners at City Hall constantly weigh population projections, subway capacity and building heights. Economists and urban theorists debate what-if scenarios that would render the skyline unrecognizable.
Even though the demand for New York real estate seems insatiable, it’s possible the city could grow so crowded it would turn off the likes of Cleo Stiller-Farrell, 25, who was born in Manhattan and works on the 54th floor of a Midtown office building for a biotech hedge fund.
“You just see yourself doing things that your mother would be ashamed of,” she confessed. One example: cutting off an elderly woman on the sidewalk and thinking to herself, “Your scooter is taking too long — outta my way, lady!”
Already wishing the city could cap the number of people moving to Manhattan, Ms. Stiller-Farrell says she dreads every new building she sees — her imagination immediately launches into an apocalyptic vision of skyscrapers and darkness worthy of science fiction.
“How many years does New York have before it starts to look like ‘Blade Runner?’ ” she asked.
Some perspective: As crowded as the city feels at times, the present-day Manhattan population, 1.6 million, is nowhere near what it once was. In 1910, a staggering 2.3 million people crowded the borough, mostly in tenement buildings. It was a time before zoning, when roughly 90,000 windowless rooms were available for rent, and a recent immigrant might share a few hundred square feet with as many as 10 people. At that time, the Lower East Side was one of the most crowded places on the planet, according to demographers. Even as recently as 1950, the Manhattan of “West Side Story” was denser than today, with a population of two million.
By 1980, with the subsequent flight to suburbia, the population fell to 1.4 million. Then crime dropped, the city strengthened economically, and real estate prices started a steady climb, defying broader downturns in the economy as any dip in the market came to be viewed as a buying opportunity.
But those numbers measure Manhattan at its sleepiest, literally. Census figures count only residents, neglecting, as E. B. White famously wrote, “the New York of the commuter, the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night.”
If a whole city can be created and destroyed in a day, Manhattan comes close. During the workday, the population effectively doubles, to 3.9 million, as shown in a new report by the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management of New York University. Day-trippers, hospital patients, tourists, students and, most of all, commuters, drain the suburbs and outer boroughs, filling streets and office space with life. Wednesday, it turns out, is the most populous day of the week, and special events, like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, push the total past five million, offering a glimpse of what an even more crowded Manhattan might feel like.
So if Manhattan’s slow but steady growth continues — and there’s no sign it won’t — how many people can it handle? Answers to this seemingly simple question could fill enough pages to pack a spacious studio apartment, but a quick helicopter tour of future scenarios for Manhattan’s growth shows a tangle of towers and trade-offs.
Manhattan Circa 2030
Two hundred and fifty people work in New York’s Department of City Planning, and its Population Division, using various methodologies, tallies births and deaths, and then fine-tunes projections based on census figures, to arrive at a best guess of what the city will look like. By 2030, they expect Manhattan will have 220,000 to 290,000 new residents — roughly one new neighbor for every six current residents. They also anticipate a much grayer population, as more retirees choose to stay in the city.
All these new people will surely alter the skyline, and create demand for growth in pockets of the city that still have room to be developed. Certain neighborhoods come up repeatedly in conversations with planners and developers: Chelsea; the unnamed neighborhoodsome call “Riverside Boulevard”; the area near Columbia University; 125th Street; that stretch of parking lots on the south side of Delancey Street near the Williamsburg Bridge; and of course the West Side, where more than 18,000 new apartments are expected to be built in the huge Hudson Yards project.
Of course, in a city as seductive and glittering as New York, those projections could always turn out to be too conservative. What if a lot more people want in?
Let 1,000 Towers Bloom
These days, Ed Glaeser, a Harvard economist, inevitably comes up in conversations about how cities should grow. In his recent book, “Triumph of the City,” he makes an argument — which many consider persuasive — that dense places are uniformly better and more interesting than emptier ones, and that they should be allowed to develop unfettered, even if it means building towers where brownstones once stood.
Affordability is the first reason. If you build up, he says, housing prices will fall and more people will be able to live in their own sliver of Manhattan sky. And that’s a good thing, Mr. Glaeser adds, since the energy of all those newcomers will fuel innovation and entrepreneurship, attracting talent and growth to create a virtuous circle. From energy-efficiency to life expectancy to finding a date or something to do on a Saturday night, Mr. Glaeser argues that denser places have the edge.
He’s all for sacrificing charming stretches of the city for more residential space. He favors preserving noteworthy architecture, but suggests a cap on the number of protected buildings at any one time. If you want to protect a new building, he says, another should come off the list.
“There are certainly individual buildings that I feel sentimental about,” Mr. Glaeser said, recalling the memory of watching snow fall on the brownstones and the old Magyar church across the street from his childhood apartment on 69th Street between First and Second Avenues. “Sure, I would feel a little bit sad if that was torn down, but the upside of having thousands more people getting to enjoy New York would outweigh my personal feelings.”
Mr. Glaeser thinks restricting building height is fundamentally unfair. He has proposed scrapping the city’s permitting process in favor of “impact fees” that developers would pay to cover the infrastructure costs associated with their buildings. So if somebody wanted to build a 50-story building, he or she would simply put up the money required to support its water, sewer, power and so forth.
It’s impossible to predict how Manhattan would change in response to looser restrictions. But what if you built a Manhattan that looked more like Hong Kong? Grafting the density of Hong Kong’s most crowded neighborhoods onto Manhattan’s area would inflate the population to 2.6 million people. Our apartments might be smaller and on higher floors, but our standard of living would not be radically different.
Could New York’s infrastructure support all those people? Water is one of the last resources the city is worried about. New Yorkers have actually been using less water (both per person and as a city) every single year for the past 20 years, thanks in part to a wildly successful 1994 program that offered rebates for people who installed more efficient toilets.
Power? Choose your experts. ConEd, which carefully monitors peak power usage, going so far as to conduct an “air-conditioner census,” says it’s on it. But Kate Ascher, who teaches at Columbia University and leads Happold Consulting’s American practice, says the city’s power system is frail and in serious need of new power plants and transmission lines.
Garbage? New York already ships its trash to a handful of states, including Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio, so more New Yorkers would just add to the thousands of tons of garbage hauled away from the city every day by truck and barge.
Sewage? Already a problem. Rain often overwhelms the system, sending raw sewage into waterways from flooded treatment plants.
Transportation, however, is where the average New Yorker feels the pain of crowding most acutely, especially on the subway.
“The system is at capacity all the time, except at night,” said Sarah Kaufman, a transportation and data expert who recently left the Metropolitan Transit Authority to conduct research at N.Y.U. Unless the authority builds more train lines, all it can do is run trains closer together by installing new computer systems.
But such problems are rarely insurmountable, said Ms. Ascher, whose 2005 book “The Works” anatomized New York’s infrastructure. For example, she notes that after the Great Blizzard of 1888 snapped power lines across Manhattan amid 20-foot snowdrifts, the borough was inspired to put them underground.
“This is a city that’s made do every time there’s some kind of cataclysmic disaster,” Ms. Ascher said. Almost no urban problem has an unimagined solution, she added. Cities have turned to desalination, waste-to-power plants, bus rapid-transit, even building an airport in the middle of a harbor.
“If we really felt we needed to do it,” she said, “we would build an incinerator on an island in a second.”
Build a New Backyard
“To the naked eye, Manhattan always looks like it’s fully grown,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, the director of the Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia University.
And that’s why, he added, so many people don’t want to see changes to building heights in their neighborhoods. He has a number of practical ideas for developing the city’s skyline, and to those who say, “not in my backyard,” he has an answer: let’s build a new backyard.
At Columbia University in January, in an Italianate room lined with red velvet curtains, Mr. Chakrabarti assembled a blue-ribbon panel of planners, developers, architects and technical experts. “We have to create more Manhattan,” he told them.
His plan for doing so is called “LoLo” or “Lower-Lower Manhattan” — a brand-new neighborhood, built from landfill in the harbor connecting Lower Manhattan to Governors Island and beyond, with blocks of skyscrapers, new subway lines, and waste-to-energy and desalination plants.
If that sounds far-fetched, keep in mind that much of the waterfront in today’s Manhattan was built this way, including Battery Park City. The LoLo that Mr. Chakrabarti proposes would add one square mile to Manhattan, with enough apartments and office buildings to accommodate 94,000 residents and 370,000 commuters.
The Most Crowded City?
Once a month, about 10 city planners, infrastructure experts and academics meet after work for a bull session called “Infradrinks,” and happy hour meets urban planning theory.
Before a recent gathering in Brooklyn at their usual watering hole, fittingly called Building on Bond, The New York Times posed a question to the group: is there a limit to how many people can live in Manhattan?
“The natural limits of density? That’s a subject that we don’t really think about at City Planning,” said Thaddeus Pawlowski, an urban designer for the city. Undaunted, the group took up the question, and traded rapid-fire theories about vertical farms and banning cars in Manhattan mixed in with “Jeopardy”-worthy facts. (A city in the United States denser than New York: What is Hoboken?)
In between pints of Lagunitas IPA and toasts to a land bridge, Frank Ruchala Jr., a city planner, pulled out a notebook page covered in math. He’d been working the numbers on the train.
“So, the highest-density spot ever measured on earth was Kowloon Walled City,” he said, referring to a regulatory no-man’s-land in the heart of Hong Kong claimed by both China and Britain, but ruled by neither. Roughly the size of five football fields, the district at its peak in the 1980s housed an estimated 35,000 people in a vertical thicket of chamber pots and darkness. It was demolished in 1994.
“You guys have to see this,” Mr. Ruchala said.
“It was basically a thick waffle of density,” Mr. Ruchala said.
“So this is just renegade?” someone asked.
“Pretty renegade,” Mr. Ruchala answered, “Yeah. But awesomely renegade.”
The night’s calculations revealed that packing Manhattan as tightly as Kowloon Walled City, river to river, would mean jamming in 65 million people. That’s if every surface was built on. If the current streets and parks were left intact? About half that many, or nearly the population of California.
Clearly, nobody wants to live in a claustrophobic warren of vertical slums. But what, ultimately, do New Yorkers want? To freeze the city as is? Grow slowly? Build higher and faster? Stretch Manhattan’s boundaries with landfill?
Planners and developers can generate dozens of projections, but underneath growing population numbers are hundreds of thousands of very personal decisions, weighing questions like: How much rent can I afford? Where do my friends live? Where’s the better job? Can I tolerate another roommate? Is there room in our school’s kindergarten class? Can I sit down on the train? Do I want a yard? A dog? A car? Or killer pork buns at 3 a.m.?
As much as determining Manhattan’s maximum capacity is about the art and science of urban planning, the question is in some sense much more about psychology. Given all the tradeoffs and rewards of living in this staggeringly complex, gloriously maddening city, there is no final accounting or projection. When it makes sense for our lives, we make do with less space. Like most things that are a matter of compromise and desire, it comes down to another simple question: Just how badly do you want what you want?