Staten Island became one of five boroughs of the City of New York in 1898. But it lacked a physical, drivable connection to the rest of the city until 1964, when the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge first opened to traffic. The Verrazano was an engineering marvel: a double-decker suspension bridge longer than any other in the world. The goal was ostensibly to create a critical link in the local and regional highway system, connecting Long Island and points north to New Jersey and points south. The impact, however, was the irrevocable transformation of Staten Island itself, opening it up to speculative land development that outpaced the City’s ability to plan for the rapid growth that followed. Between 1960 and 1970, a self-sufficient community with its own industry and farmland grew by over 30% to a population of 300,000, spread out among a collection of suburban, commuter neighborhoods. Staten Island remains one of the fastest growing communities in New York State. “When you increase capacity, you increase utilization,” states local historian Thomas Matteo in the video below, paraphrasing some of the historical lessons he has drawn from reading about the life and work of Robert Moses, for whom a bridge over the Narrows was a long-held dream and one of the final great civic works projects he realized as New York’s master builder. Infrastructure, the Verrazano Bridge reminds us, is destiny. Check out the video below:
The “infra-“ in infrastructure means below, which perhaps explains why we rarely pause to consider the sewers, water supply or electrical grids that enable the basic functions of urban living. Even when critical infrastructural systems are visible and not hidden below ground — like highways, power lines or traffic lights — their ubiquity and necessity put them just out of sight and out of mind. Until, of course, they break: a pothole is the quickest reminder of the good road maintenance we generally take for granted. How often do we stop to reflect on the full scope of what well-functioning roads and bridges and tunnels make possible? The desire to provoke that kind of reflection is what the City of Systems video series is all about.
Last year, Urban Omnibus spoke with Tom Wright, executive director of the Regional Plan Association (RPA), an organization that since the 1920s has advocated strongly for “creating infrastructure and building big systems to protect landscapes and water supplies, to provide more mass-transit, to plan for the region’s growth.” Looking forward, Wright explained that future planning and advocacy efforts might be “less about creating new systems and more about getting more efficiency and productivity out of the energy supply, the water supply, community development networks. The bad news is that we’re doing a poor job of managing and operating these 19th and early 20th century systems; the good news is there’s a lot more capacity in them if we start to manage the systems better.” Digital technologies offer one mechanism to get more out of our basic urban systems, facilitating use-on-demand systems or creating responsive environments. Yet, while our new digital infrastructure will do many things, it won’t, by itself, build roads over water. It might, however, enable us to maintain our physical infrastructure better: monitoring usage to identify greater efficiencies, to alert us of potential malfunctions, or to extrapolate broader patterns in regional flows of people and goods. Imagine if the data from E-ZPass toll payments on the Verrazano were made available to support, say, a more nuanced proposal for congestion pricing.
As we go about instrumenting all of our systems in an attempt to harness the excess capacity within them, we would be wise to contemplate the implications of how those systems came into being, what the assumptions were about their eventual use, and how those assumptions have played out in the lived experience of residents and communities. Visible from places in all five of New York City’s boroughs, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge stands as an iconic reminder not only to appreciate a masterwork of civil engineering, but also to reflect on the systemic urban change that infrastructure can bring about.
This Urban Omnibus video is the second in a series called City of Systems, a suite of short videos intended to offer a poetic peek behind the scenes of some of the complex systems that enable New York City to function. This video series is made possible by IBM as part of its commitment to use technology and information to help build more sustainable and intelligent cities.
The original music in the video, “Verrazano” by Good Fruit, appears courtesy of the artist.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.