Today, many ecologists and planners strive to lift the lines that people like Randel laid down. They do this to restore, to the fullest extent possible, the habitats of plants and animals—to put the natural curves back in canalized rivers, for instance, so the waters can flow as they once did. Planners and ecologists do this to ensure that ecosystems retain or regain some of their vibrancy, health, and well-being and that we retain and regain our connections to the natural world. They do this to try to ensure that our future is biologically diverse and sustainable, that cities become more livable. Many can do this only because Randel and surveyors like him kept meticulous, valuable records.
Randel’s beautiful maps and his careful measurements have been central to two innovative projects. Rose-Redwood used Randel’s data to discover how much the grid flattened the natural contours of the island’s hills. Landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society has used Randel’s data to create a digital version and narrative of what the island might have looked like in 1609, when Henry Hudson and the crew of the Half Moon, arrived. Sanderson’s book Mannahatta and related online project, Welikia, have catalyzed new ways of thinking about how cities evolve.
Randel was convinced he was ensuring a wonderful future for Americans and for the city of New York. By many measures, he did. There is continuity between the methods Randel used to lay down infrastructure in the nineteenth century and the emergence of the modern information infrastructure, the satellite system, which governs many aspects of modern life and of surveying. Nineteenth-century infrastructure has also become in some places its own antidote: old rail lines live as bike paths, trails through woods, or a garden wending within a cityscape. Canals live as meandering, recreational rivers. And even as the grid plan of 1811 softened the extremes of the island’s topography, smoothing some undulations, it catalyzed a different kind of elevation: buildings grew tall; people who wanted to be on the vibrant island came to live densely. That density is leading New York City to grapple with its future in ways that resonate for people everywhere, for cities and urban areas now house more than half the world’s population.
This story of the once and future city begins at a bolt on a rock in a park on the island.