The yellow skys of New York

In June 2023 massive wildfires in Canada caused air pollution in New York to a scale not known to New Yorkers. Besides the serious health issues the smoke-filled air causes, it also tinted the whole city in a curious sepia like color. The remarkable images, the New Yorker chose to accompany this article, show that the editors clearly recognized the aesthetic qualities. For a day or more all contemporary images of New York appeared like paintings from the romantic period of the 19. Century. All photographs are by Clark Hodgin for The New Yorker.

Tides (2021)

Tides” (alternative title “The Colony”) is a sci-fi movie from 2021 about a post-apocalyptic world at the moment the first human communities are about to re-settle again. The only territory suitable is a coastal strip that is covered by tides twice a day. The area is a tidal zone, not quite land and not quite sea, with little to no vegetation and natural shelter for the people to build a more permanent habitat.

The landscape and weather in the story are the same as on the location, the movie was filmed. “Tides” was largely filmed outdoors on the small island Neuwerk in the German Tidelands, situated between the estuaries of the rivers Weser and Elbe.

Neuwerk during low tide

Director Tim Fehlbaum explained in an interview how this landscape inspired the movie plot in the first place:

“For the outdoor scenes we went to the German Tidelands, which was where the idea for the film started. I’m a very visual director and my ideas often have a visual trigger. I had never been to the Tidelands and having grown up in the Swiss mountains being at the low point of Germany was eye-opening. Looking out at this expanse of water was so interesting because in an hour or so, everything you just saw becomes covered in water. The floods in the film are real, and they come in twice a day. Shooting there was exceedingly difficult because we could never shoot much longer than two or three hours, and I always wanted to keep shooting, but it becomes a question of minutes before the water is at your knees and suddenly up to your chest.”

You could say, the movie is really an exploration of this landscape and the living conditions and the atmosphere in tidal zones. That human renewal after the partial retreat and ecological meltdown takes place in such a tidal zone is interesting as it references this landscape as a realm of opportunity, transition and change – a liminal space full of potential rather than decay.

I find this inspirational in regard to our current situation of ecological and social transformation. Author Kim Stanley Robbinson made a similar reference to the “intertidal” as a space of opportunity and renewal when sketching his “Super Venice” in the post-apocalyptic novel “New York 2140” four years earlier. It is striking how both works are set in tidal zones, how both interpret them as spaces of renewal, and yet how radically different they paint this landscape. You can read my post on Robbinson’s book here.

The last 400.000 years

This is from the New York times in 1959.

thanks to Janet Grau for the lead!

The intertidal zone: New York 2140

What happens to cities when they become half or seasonally flooded? Kim Stanley Robinson draws a picture of an intertidal New York of the future, where New Yorkers still live in high rises and move across the city on boats and bridges. But there is also a jurisdical aspect to the intertidal zone. Here is one of many sections of his book New York 2140 that discuss the politics and philosophy of living in an intertidal zone:

That said, the intertidal zone was turning out to be harder to deal with than the completely submerged zone, counterintuitive though that might seem to people from Denver, who might presume that the deeper you are drowned the deader you are. Not so. The intertidal, being neither fish nor fowl, alternating twice a day from wet to dry, created health and safety problems that were very often disastrous, even lethal. Worse yet, there were legal issues.

Well-established law, going back to Roman law, to the Justinian Code in fact, turned out to be weirdly clear on the status of the intertidal. It’s crazy to read, like Roman futurology:

The things which are naturally everybody’s are: air, flowing water, the sea, and the sea-shore. So nobody can be stopped from going on to the sea-shore. The sea-shore extends as far as the highest winter tide. The law of all peoples gives the public a right to use the sea-shore, and the sea itself. Anyone is free to put up a hut there to shelter himself. The right view is that ownership of these shores is vested in no one at all. Their legal position is the same as that of the sea and the land or sand under the sea.

Most of Europe and the Americas still followed Roman law in this regard, and some early decisions in the wake of the First Pulse had ruled that the new intertidal zone was now public land. And by public they meant not government land exactly, but land belonging to “the unorganized public,” whatever that meant. As if the public is ever organized, but whatever, redundant or not, the intertidal was ruled to be owned (or un-owned) by the unorganized public. Lawyers immediately set to arguing about that, charging by the hour of course, and this vestige of Roman law in the modern world had ever since been mangling the affairs of everyone interested in working in—by which I mean investing in—the intertidal. Who owns it? No one! Or everyone! It was neither private property nor government property, and therefore, some legal theorists ventured, it was perhaps some kind of return of the commons. About which Roman law also had a lot to say, adding greatly to the hourly burden of legal opinionizing. But ultimately the commons was historically a matter of common law, as seemed appropriate, meaning mainly practice and habit, and that made it very ambiguous legally, so that the analogy of the intertidal to a commons was of little help to anyone interested in clarity, in particular financial clarity.

You can read the full book here.

Very Large Floating Structures

To answer the never-tiring desire for more space for residential buildings along the coasts – nearly 50% of the industrialized world now lives within a kilometer of the coast – floating structures are repeatedly discussed in urbanization discourse. So called VLFS, very large floating structures, are a fashionable topic in architectural discourse – see for example the “Mega-Float” by Japanese architects M. Fujikubo and H. Suzuki from 2015 -, but so far no city has actually built one to house it’s residents. There are as far as I know only parking lots built on floating strutures in New York or Goetborg for example.

This image is from a brochure about the Floating Parking Garage in Goetborg

And there are of course accomodation units for employees working on off shore oil platforms. (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accommodation_platform )

As always – the idea of floating habitats is not a new one. The oldest source is – as almost always – Homer’s Odysee. There the hero sails to the island Aeolia, which is floating on open sea in the western Mediteranean. The island and the city on it are home to the god of Winds, Aeolus, thus the name of the island. Today a group of islands near Sicilly is refered to as Aeolian Islands.

Homer does not give away alot about his floating island and how and why it floats. This is the main passage from verse 10 of the text:

“Then to the Aeolian isle we came, where dwelt Aeolus, son of Hippotas, dear to the immortal gods, in a floating island, and all around it is a wall of unbreakable bronze, and the cliff runs up sheer. […] And the house, filled with the savour of feasting, resounds all about even in the outer court by day, and by night again they sleep beside their chaste wives on blankets and on corded bedsteads. To their city, then, and fair palace did we come…”

source: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0136%3Abook%3D10

New York 2140

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel “New York 2140” the flooded New York has all the big city charm and dazzle and fascination it ever had: “From here, the flooded Lower Manhatten lies at their feet like a Super-Venice, awe-inspiring, water-glistening, grand. Their city.”

It’ all there: the skyscrapers, the business people, the bars, but everything is seaside. And sea level rise is the big bet at the stock market.

Iconic Image from “Planet of the Apes”

Thanks to Stephan Wagner for the reminder.

USA; 20. Century; Christian; film; City: New York