The Death of the Manhattan Airport Foundation Should Inspire New York City's Leaders to Be More
2020 brought with it a devastating setback for one of the most ambitious public works campaigns in the history of the country. As of early 2020, the campaign to build a regional airport on the land currently occupied by Central Park in New York City appears to have folded entirely, with the project's website no longer active.
While the Manhattan Airport Foundation's proposal was a hoax, its vision was out of the box - a dose of creative fresh air for the busiest city in the world without a convenient airport accessible by public transportation. While the city continues to propose billions for expensive public transit schemes to its two existing suburban airports, currently both a $60+ taxi ride away from Midtown, Central Park occupies land easily large enough for a small double-runway airport that could conveniently service flights to the most visited cities across the northeast. Crazy? Yes. But also mildly logical. This piece from the Daily Mail in 2009 detailed the scheme, including its supposed $130 million in fundraising commitments.
The airport proposal generated immediate pushback from those who thought it was serious. It was a successful example of sophisticated trolling before trolling became cool. But its boldness in challenging the seemingly unquestionable importance of retaining Central Park as an open space to the city's long-term planning was the scale of boundless imagination New York City seriously needs. Congested, crowded, and vulnerable to existential threats over the coming decades, the city is already proposing investing billions to addressing its long-term resiliency challenges. If building a flood wall around the city to protect it from the prospect of rising seas is a real possibility, why then shouldn't the city think as creatively and imaginatively as possible to solve other major long-term hurdles like regional transportation?
The New York City of decades past was a city that inspired the imagination. For better or for worse, from Robert Moses' vision to bring the city into the 21st century through a transformational network of new automobile transportation, to Rem Koolhaas' "Delirious New York", to the city's recent forays into the sleekest and skinniest of supertall highrises, New York City must never settle. But amid the skepticism of a skeptical age, many of the city's efforts have increasingly grown smaller: when the greatest achievement of the last 20 years was the closure of Times Square to cars and the introduction of potted plants in the streets, it's time for bigger thinking.
Today, out-of-the-box thinking about cities has largely been sidelined to the centralized whims of more centralized places: China, Saudi Arabia, and much of Southeast Asia, for instance are the test beds for applying Silicon Valley's "first principle" at the scale of cities today. With the death of the vision for the Manhattan Airport, it's time for NYC to get back in the fold.