Walking on sunshine: A crop of Berenice Abbott's "Seventh Avenue Looking North from 35th Street, December 5, 1935." Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

As the city reached for the sky, those down below had to scramble for daylight.

Ever since 19th century city commissioners laid a grid on the hilly island of Manhattan, New York City has been squeezing skyward. That’s meant natural light has always been in short supply—for some New Yorkers more than others. Access to sunshine was one of the main drivers of the first zoning laws, as a new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, Mastering the Metropolis, explores. Here are five key points along New York City’s never-ending quest to stay lit, the natural way.

1860s: The dark ages

Tenement dwellers of yore, as seen by photographer Jacob A. Riis (with Richard Hoe Lawrence and Dr. Henry G. Piffard): “Bandit’s Roost,” 1887-88. (Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis)

Finding ways to bring natural light into interior spaces has long been a crucial consideration for architects, but regulating sunlight wasn’t such a pressing question until the middle of the 19th century, when urban populations spiked. Low-wage industrial workers were often packed into damp, crowded, often windowless tenements, usually located near factories. Progressive reformers pressed city and state lawmakers to crack down on such dwellings, and in 1867, New York State passed its first Tenement House Act, requiring (among other things) that every habitable room needed a window—a law that still exists in the city’s building codes today. Subsequent laws specified what types of spaces windows had to open towards (first, dim shafts; later, brighter courtyards). Soon, other cities followed.  

1900s: Shadows and setbacks

Wurts Bros., “165 Broadway. The New Equitable Building,” c. 1910. (Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York, Wurts Bros. Collection)

As the century turned, developers battling for high returns and lofty views kept building higher. City commissioner Edward M. Bassett saw hulking behemoths like the Equitable Building (which stacked more than a million square feet of space on a single acre) as threats to the public goods of light and air.

Mixed land uses were a problem, too: “Bright business streets… invaded by factories” were causing property values to decline, he wrote, luring wealthy New Yorkers to early suburbs in Westchester and Hudson counties.

Drawing on less-sweeping laws passed in Boston and Los Angeles, Bassett helped write New York City’s landmark Zoning Resolution of 1916, the nation’s first citywide code. Fearing that courts would find building restrictions and land-use separations an overstep of municipal authority, Bassett carefully marshaled (in some cases questionable) evidence from doctors and health officials on the salutary effects of sunshine and ventilation. Zoning was thus was a matter of health, safety, morals, and general welfare—the basic tenets of U.S. Constitutional law.

Rather than cap the height of new buildings—which could stymie economic competition—Bassett’s resolution regulated the shape of skyscrapers by requiring “setbacks” above a certain height (which depended on lot size). This created the “wedding cake” skyscrapers NYC is now famous for—think the Woolworth Building, the Chrysler Building, or the Empire State Building—featuring a chunky base topped with tiers of setbacks and a soaring, delicate tower that let light reach the sidewalk.

1960s: It’s all about that base

Wurts Bross, First Avenue between East 30th Street and East 33rd Street. Kips Bay Plaza Apartments, 1966. (Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York, Wurts Bros. Collection,
Gift of Richard Wurts)

Bassett and his co-writers didn’t quite anticipate the real estate market’s Connect Four ingenuity, though. Developers pieced together multiple lots so that they could build larger and taller buildings, and in so doing kept more New Yorkers in shadow. Inspired by Mies van der Rohe and his sleek Seagram Building, which featured a large public plaza, city planners revamped the zoning code in 1961 with a new approach. Again shying away from straightforward height limits, they set floor-to-area (FAR) ratios for different zoning districts. This determined the maximum bulk for a new building on any given parcel.

A structure could essentially stretch in any direction that its lot size permitted, so long as it was proportional to its FAR. Of course, the default was still going to be up: Buildings that took up the full area of their lots had to stay relatively short—and therefore less profitable for developers. Buildings with smaller footprints, on the other hand, could stretch up to the sky (but how far, again, depended on the total lot size). Developers that turned their open lots into public plazas got a “bonus” floor—an incentive that many took advantage of. Between 1961 and 1973, more than one million square feet of new open space—and more sunshine—was created in New York City by a generation of “tower-in-a-park” designs.

1980s: Seeking sunlight, by the numbers

Makes sense, right? (New York City Zoning Resolution)

As much light and space as those light-footed monoliths introduced, their barren concrete “plazas” turned out to be not particularly conducive to healthy urban life—people rarely used them. In the early 1980s, city planners rolled out a sweeping set of zoning changes that again attacked the question of rays—this time, it was back to the building tops. The “sunlight provision” required that new constructions obstruct no more than about 75 percent of the sky surrounding them. Compliance could be a bit head-scratching, but here’s how the New York Times explained it at the time:

Under the daylight evaluation method, an architect can simply plot the building on a chart and, if the amount of sky it blocks is less than 25 percent of the sky that would exist if the lot were empty, the building passes. Under daylight compensation method, an architect can exceed traditional height and front wall setback regulations if they are balanced by equal recesses elsewhere, such as corners that do not block the sky.

Architects are still working out these footprints in the sky; sunlight provisions remain on the zoning books today (along with excellent charts like the one above).

2000s: Supertalls and underground parks

A new supertall under construction at 432 Park Avenue. (Flickr/Anthony Quintano)

Few planners apparently anticipated the engineering marvels that are New York City’s supertalls, which can climb 1,000 feet or more from Lilliputian lots. Dozens have erupted since the Bloomberg years, thanks to a lack of height limits and developers’ ability to buy “air rights” from the buildings surrounding them (another zoning incentive introduced in 1961). Some New Yorkers and nonprofits are demanding more regulations on these towers, complaining about the long afternoon shadows they cast on sidewalks and parks, as well as the highly unequal access to light and air that upper-floor residents enjoy. But so far, NYC mayors haven’t been too sympathetic. Perhaps a lack of height limits is simply too ingrained in the city’s DNA.

When some go high to find sunshine, others go low: One NYC nonprofit is turning an abandoned trolley terminal into an underground park that’s fully illuminated with natural light. A high-tech cluster of solar panels, windows, and reflective tubes will ferry the sun’s rays into the Lowline’s one-acre subterranean space. To keep sunlight a public resource for New Yorkers, perhaps down is the only way forward.

About the Author

Laura Bliss
Laura Bliss

Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab.

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