If the American Dream was to be materialized in a city, it would certainly be New York. Home to 380 000 millionaires, the Big Apple is the largest city in the United States and one of the main economic powerhouses worldwide.

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New York City ©ny.curbed.com

A metropolis of all nations, New York portrays the world’s most iconic landmarks and culturally diverse cities with 4 in 10 households speaking a language other than English. The city consists of five boroughs: Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, The Bronx, and Staten Island.

The Big Apple has undoubtedly made a name for itself as one of the most globalized cities internationally. However, New Yorkers are in the turmoil of a constantly rising urban threat – pollution.

Below is an analysis of the main elements causing pollution in New York City, and how architects are innovating new ways so the city that never sleeps learns at least to dim its lights.

Built/Unbuilt Ratio

Firstly, environmental issues are easily valued by studying the built-to-unbuilt ratio in cities. In New York City, the density of the urban fabric naturally differs in each borough depending on zoning regulations and other factors. However, the general aspect of its urban fabric is heavily densified. Manhattan reached its urban saturation since the early 20th century, with 40 % of its buildings today offending the current city zoning code by exploiting more than they are allowed to either in height or number of residential apartments. The result is a concrete invasion of Manhattan’s urban grid and an unstoppably rising effect of heat islands.

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Screenshot of Urban Layers: Manhattan Urban Fabric ©io.morphocode.com

Amount of Green Pockets

Since vegetation is one of the only ways to limit heat absorption in cities, green spaces become primordial in the urban fabric’s constitution. Central Park, New York’s infamous “green lungs”, provides 350 hectares of greenery and spaces for socializing and sports. However, other considerable green pockets are scattered around the city and new developments are pushing towards raising the number of green spaces that currently constitute 14% of NYC’s territory, through green roofs and vegetated facades.

Today, with the city mayor’s launching of the green roof initiative, over 700 buildings are incorporating vegetated roofs. While this only presents 0.1 % of the built-up area in NYC, the city is aiming at spreading the green movement further as the proposal would solve a huge deal of another urban pollutant – rainwater overflow.

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Central Park, NYC ©archdaily.com
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Green Roofs Initiative ©com

Sewage Runoff

One can only imagine the rain runoff problems that would occur in heavily built-up areas where absorbent surfaces (parks and soil in general) barely suffice. The depth of this problem is striking when analyzing the case of New York City. With considerable rainfall amounts and old sewage infrastructures, the city is constantly faced with uncontrolled sewer overflow and mixture with rain runoffs, ending up in waterways and rivers around the city. Below is a map on the website of the state of NY, locating the waterways to be avoided for health and safety purposes.

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Screenshot of the map locating dangerous waterways on the riverside ©ny.curbed.com

Needless to say, water pollution becomes one of the most urgent problems the city has to seasonally face.


Likewise, air pollution caused by vehicular exhaust and fuel combustion is approaching dangerous levels as revealed by the annual mean PM 2.5 concentration being the 4th highest in the U.S. Even though NYC was one of the first to establish a public transportation system, the city today still relies heavily on cars and individual commutes around the city. The reason must be the half-century-old commuter lines and subways that need to be upgraded to fit the current capacity of city dwellers. With the lack of efficiency of the metro system, it becomes normal to expect the 11 million passenger cars on the roads of New York city estimated on any given day.


Overpopulation might be the main cause of pollution and the father of all the polluting elements mentioned above. As the metropolis continues to attract tourists and migrants, the population of the grand metropolitan area reaches 20 million people. Additionally, a birth is registered every 4.4 minutes in NYC, indicating that the numbers are on an alarming rise, and city resources are being exhaustively drained with no clear solutions on the horizon.

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New York City at Night ©Pinterest

But, pollution in New York City is not necessarily a hopeless case. Architects are finding new ways to change the game through materials, public interventions, and building design.

Here are some: The Active Modular Phytoremediation System

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Modular façade system ©www.architectmagazine.com

The center for architecture science and ecology in Troy is developing an advanced vegetated façade system that helps in purifying the air by a combination of fan-assisted modules named the phytoremediation system.

A major challenge must be overcome by the architects to be adopted by the mass population. Balancing the construction cost with the efficiency of the modular system on a larger scale.

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IPier 35 Eco Park, SHoP and Ken Smith, View of the Eco Park from the city ©www.dezeen.com

A new Eco Park is created on the northern tip of the East River as a much needed public space for the city residents and tourists. Facing Brooklyn, the Park incorporates a huge perforated skin that will become vegetated with time, a series of gardens and esplanades, and eventually, a habitat for mussels. The latter will also help indicate the quality of the water in the river throughout the year.

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Dock 72, S9 Architecture, View of the project from the seaside ©www.nytimes.com

A state-of-the-art office building, dock 72 rises on the waterfront of what was once a dry dock on the East Riverside. It was designed to post- Hurricane Sandy and therefore incorporates design solutions allowing it not only to withstand stormy weather but also to operate after it. Raised on V-shaped pillars, the building is accessed from both the seaside and the city. With 14 stories in height, the working environment showcases high levels of sustainability features and optimized energy efficiency.


Creative at heart, Joelle is currently completing her Master of Architecture in Beirut. Joining curiosity with her love for wandering, she is usually drawnto philosophy and travel to find answers and expand her knowledge. She is currently intrigued by the way humans experience cities, so you might find her Instagram filling with shots of her urban explorations.