The Equitable Building is a forty-one-story building, constructed in 1916. This high rise- the first of its kind, was for a period the tallest in Manhattan. On being built it cast a seven-acre shadow over a residential area of lower Manhattan, resulting in an outcry by residents who were left in darkness. This led to the 1916 zoning laws, which stipulated that buildings be stepped back from the street- and not rise straight up, to allow sufficient light and air to circulate to the streets below and avoid dark cavernous-like spaces within the city.
Light has become a commodity. Real estate agents use it as a device, touting city living spaces as “sun-drenched”, giving us a sense of how lovely it would be to curl up on our couch in the winter with a cup of coffee, the Sunday paper, and bask in the sunlight streaming through the windows. The attraction is based on an expectation of an ideal. The seller plays on our Vitamin D deficiencies - which in the Northern hemisphere are almost guaranteed to result in depression on some level. This has become an effective way to sell - and a very good reason to buy. In a city such as New York, getting a space of your own with sunlight becomes a real achievement.
Due to its rarity in metropolitan areas, light in space has become a privatized asset- a way to create wealth through real estate. An apartment with good light will fetch a higher price, making such options of ownership more difficult for more people to attain. How strange that we build structures which create further problems. New construction has only dealt with this issue on an isolated level by erecting more glass and transparent buildings. Glass has become the skin of choice - but it is still wrapped around a massive tower that casts a moving shadow. The problem persists because the ideas don’t change. What is thought to be positive often has hidden negative results.
The lack of light in city spaces is not the only issue at risk. Prior to colonization, the Island of Manhattan was a thriving forest. After the arrival of the Dutch in what became New Amsterdam, the area was quickly denuded in an effort to fuel the lifestyle of the growing city. This has continued and the result is a concrete clad city with little natural space - street trees have become a new battleground of sorts in today’s city. They too have become a selling point for real estate, with the city changing its approach to trees as a wise economic investment as opposed to a simple aesthetic addition that cost the city money.
Trees are an important infrastructure. They act as the lungs of the city, changing and processing the air we breath. This implies that the trees are an infrastructure which is public and by definition not exclusive to anyone. However, the reality of access to sunlight and trees is otherwise. It has become clear that both of these areas of public access have become areas of pure economics. They have become a commodity to be bought and sold - and this means that their availability is not all encompassing, limited only to those who can afford it.
In looking at the way in which the city deals with its natural infrastructures, Nonexclusive draws attention to a long term and subtle development of how policy and decision-making may not always be correct. A city and its public needs to determine how areas of natural infrastructure are made accessible, and how they are affected by economics. We need to interrogate how we allow our public spaces to be managed and how they can be determined by the way a city organizes itself and it’s assets and its policies. In the future there will almost certainly be other areas of withheld, censored, or compromised life that we now take for granted.
It is possible to imagine that our current idea of the city is coming to an end and that we need to begin thinking of the metropolitan space in new ways. Cities are spaces that have grown organically around culture, history, and habit. There are many reasons that we live the way we do today, but we cannot assume that it is the best and only way to inhabit such a busy space as we evolve. Consistent compromise is not the answer - but a marker of our problems. We have an opportunity to begin to look at new ways of approaching cities, buildings, and infrastructure, although we may not have all the resources we need to effectively live in such a space and may need to look for other ways to build. This can only lead to better access to natural resources and reverse the process that has made previously available assets exclusive and private. A city’s development is a reflection of the state of its society.