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The need to maintain physical distance highlights how hemmed in we are in New York City: on the sidewalk, in the supermarket aisle, and out in the park. One place people have been flocking to for some breathing room is the roof. A series of photographs by Jeremy Cohen recently struck a chord. From the perch of his own Bushwick rooftop, he captured neighbors practicing the cello or their tennis serve, painting, and dancing salsa on theirs. In an inversion of the panoramic skyline view, the point is not what you can see from the roof, but seeing what you can do up there. Generally, roofs are a spatial blind spot, commanding relatively little attention in the urban scheme of things. This changed last year when the New York City Council set its sights on high in planning for and mitigating the effects of a heating climate. Mandated by new legislation, many more green roofs are coming — along with solar panels and possibly wind turbines — to lower heat, absorb stormwater, and produce clean energy. But they’ll join a greater range of existing and possible adaptations and appropriations of the city’s roughly 40,000 acres of “bonus space.” Below, Sebastian Bernardy and Vincent Meyer Madaus, who work together as Eventually Made, look backwards and forwards to depict what the future might hold for New York City’s rooftops. As we put scarce space to use, they ask, whose ends will it serve? Below, you can scroll through their 2040 roofscape, an elaborate collage inspired by more familiar depictions of very busy cities.
The verticality of New York City dictates a specific viewing range. We know there are streets and stores (eye level), apartments and offices (above), and subways (below), but anything on top of the clearly visible does not play a large role in the city’s collective spatial thinking. What happens on our roofs is mostly off limits, neglected space, or even daunting (the heights, low parapets, a healthy dose of vertigo). Therefore, when we find roofs that house anything beyond water towers and mechanical units, it is a moment of revelation, a discovery of a secret, alternate place. Rooftops are often quieter than we would expect, and the lack of street noise and crowds — the metropolitan soundtrack — nurtures the idea of a hidden refuge underneath the sky: a breathing space that is pure potential and yet, to a lamentable degree, untapped.
From an environmental perspective, the city’s roofs are a primary barrier to the impact of storms and sun, and therefore a critical component in plans for weathering a warming climate. Since 2009, the NYC Cool Roofs initiative has provided financial support to help cover over 9 million square feet of rooftops in white, reflective paint. White roofs lower the heat gain of buildings, resulting in air conditioning energy savings and a lower ambient temperature. In 2011, the city launched a grant program to promote the use of a new technology to counter sewage spilling into city waterways: Blue roofs effectively function as water retention systems that filter and channel stormwater into a monitored, slow release so as to not overpower the city’s drainage system. In 2019, the New York City Council passed the Climate Mobilization Act (CMA), which requires that all roof projects install a green roof, solar panels, or wind turbines. While most new construction projects will feature one of these three types, exempted (e.g., churches, nonprofit organizations) and existing roofs will not. How might the New York City roofscape develop in the next 20 years? What layers will be added to the existing menu of roof uses?
New Yorkers are offsetting the city’s density and resulting shortage of backyards and courtyards by finding creative solutions to expand their domains. In addition to the mandated sustainable options, we believe the city’s new climate legislation will spark alternate rooftop uses. Building owners are motivated to activate their rooftops with a return on their investment, and tenants will be inspired to make use of barren roofs. There are many curious examples of roof uses in the city’s history: The Ansonia Hotel famously raised chicken, ducks, and goats on its roof before being shut down by the Department of Health in 1907; the city’s iconic pigeon men have cared for their birds over generations; and more recently, impromptu rooftop concerts, screenings, and camping excursions appear and disappear within a day. Imagining what our city’s crowns might look like 20 years from now, we look backwards and forwards, categorizing what happens on roofs and to what purpose. Can we rethink the roofscape as an elevated public space?
Current roof adaptations can be categorized in terms of who benefits from their use. Sustainability-driven solutions lower carbon emissions and lessen the reliance on fossil fuels. Recreational roofs come in many forms and can overlap with sustainable options such as gardening, beekeeping, and lot-sized parks in the air. An important question for New Yorkers is the accessibility of these roofs: Is it a private terrace connected to a luxury residence, or can I access the hidden community garden above? Will my package arrive at the drone hub next door or still on the street? Beyond roof height and accessibility, the structural load-bearing capacity on the roof is the principal determinant of use. In the metropolis, any roof needs to be considered in relation to its block. Will my neighbors overshadow my roof and therefore cancel any gardening ambitions, or am I too exposed to their eyes to sunbathe? If roofs are a building-wide bonus space, what opportunities do short-term residents or long-term institutional tenants have to shape the spaces to their needs?
If the historical drive towards even more density in the metropolis continues to accelerate, we have reason to predict that no stones will be left unturned to maximize use of any surface. Using the roof therefore means filling up a layer of the city that is still surprisingly overlooked. Ziplines and live animal farms on penthouses are both figments of the imagination and glimpses of the past. These predictions are therefore an overlaying of possible pasts and plausible futures, because New York, as we know it, is a constant expansion to new territories, even if we know this new one already. It was just hidden above.
Notes on the visual: Textures, geometries, and programs are reshuffled in an effort to de-locate specifics and build a representative slice of the city that serves as a background for a vertical image teeming with details to be discovered as a continuous scroll. The scenario depicts an overpopulated roof landscape: a speculation of transplanting typologies through a series of productive encounters.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.