NYC 2021

Central Park, Manhattan

This program was cancelled due to Covid-related restrictions.

This GS combines two UC San Diego courses (8 units):  MMW14 World History 18th – 20th Century and ENVR 142 Wilderness & Human Values Abroad. The program provides an historical, environmental, and cultural exploration that is both local and comparative/global, set in one of the world’s most dynamic and culturally-rich cities which, in 2018, had more than 65 million visitors!

The program sets the urban and environmental history of New NYCYork City (population 8.7 million) in the wider, global context of “the city” in world history from the 18th – 20th century (MMW14) and then over an even more expansive chronological scale in ENVR142.  Through these courses, students examine the social, economic, and historical factors driving urban expansion and the environmental impact of this growth, viewing this from local and global perspectives, as we contrast New York with other major metropolitan centers around the world.

Since its foundation in the 17th century, the city has greatly expanded in physical size, spreading beyond Manhattan island to the existing five boroughs, incorporating the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island on January 1, 1898.   The city grew outward and upward, most spectacularly on Manhattan, which the other boroughs call “the city.”  Manhattan contains the nation’s tallest building (Onedensity World Trade Center) and eight out of the nation’s ten tallest buildings.  Manhattan also has the greatest population density (~69,000 per sq. mile) of any county in the United States and is 2nd only to Mumbai, India.[1]  Compare Manhattan’s density to San Diego (~4000 per sq. mile), Chicago (11,900) and Boston (13,300), which are in the range of  London, Tokyo, Athens, Madrid, and Ankara, or San Francisco (17,200), roughly the same as Rio de Janeiro.[2]  The city grew outward, upward and also underground, extending roots through a public transportation system that functions like arteries keeping the city alive.  The New York subway system has 27 lines with subwaymore than 800 miles of track and a ridership of 4.3 million daily (2019; the highest public transportation usage of any American city; sixth highest in the world). This is complemented by a bus service that carries 2.4 million daily (2019) and a ferry system which moved 6.3 million people (total) in 2019, plus the (free) Staten Island Ferry that moves 22 million between that borough and Manhattan.   Students will become familiar with the system through regular use (with their unlimited monthly MetroCards) and will learn about previous iterations of the system at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn, the nation’s premier museum dedicated to urban public transportation.  Examining the role of public transportation systems comparatively (or the lack of such systems) from an environmental and social perspective is an important facet of this program.    That discussion also examines how the city repurposes natural resources removed from subterranean construction and uses the material for urban projects, such as the expansion of Ellis and Governors Islands, building Battery Park in lower Manhattan and City College in upper Manhattan, filling a reservoir to create Central Park’s Great Lawn, and more.

Staten Island Ferry and Statue of Liberty

In addition to this extensive intra-city transportation system, the city is accessible from the outside through a wide-ranging train network (see Grand Central; Penn Station) andlittlerd bridge systems, starting with the historic Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883, which students will traverse, and then adding more bridges to connect to Brooklyn as well as to link Manhattan to Queens, the Bronx, and New Jersey.  The latter (the George Washington Bridge) is the site of the 1942 children’s classic, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge.

Bridging New York

Bridges also link Staten Island to New Jersey and Brooklyn, and Queens to Manhattan and the Bronx.  The city also constructed underwater tunnels, which are narrower and more expensive than bridges, but require much less precious land at entry and exit. These tunnels link New Jersey and Manhattan (Lincoln and Holland), Manhattan and Queens (Queens-Midtown), and Manhattan and Brooklyn (Brooklyn-Battery [Carey]). The city also has three international airports, two of which are located within city limits (La Guardia and JFK, both in Queens) and the third in neighboring Newark, New Jersey, 19 miles from Manhattan, about the same distance as from JFK to Manhattan.

Providing a means for people to travel to and within New York was one dimension of the city’s urban planning, providing tranquil, natural spaces for people to “step out” of the urban experience was another.  Central Park was conceived as such a space and was opened in 1864, providing a model for new urban parks from Boston to San Francisco.  This (human-designed) natural environment brought nature into the city, offering individual and public health benefits for the city’s residents. This was the same era in which the nation took its first steps toward the preservation of wilderness environments, championed by voices like Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), George Perkins Marsh (1801-82), John Burroughs (1837-1921; a New Yorker), and John Muir (1838-1917) and depicted by painters of the Hudson River School, such as Thomas Cole (1801-48), Frederic Church (1826-1900), and, with an eye on the American West, Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902).

Frederic Church, “Heart of the Andes” (1859)
New York native Eleanor Roosevelt at Riverside Park

Central Park was designed by the dean of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822- 1903) along with partner Calvert Vaux (1824-1894). Olmsted also designed the city’s Riverside Park and Morningside Park as well as Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park and Prospect Park.  Olmsted’s nation-wide influence included projects at Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove (1865) and Niagara Reservation (1887), parks in Buffalo, Chicago (1871), Detroit (Belle Isle, 1881); Mount Royal, Montreal (1877); Franklin Park, Boston (1885); Genesee Valley Park, Rochester, New York (1890); Cherokee Park, Louisville (1891); Stanford University campus (1886); US Capitol grounds and terraces (1874); the Connecticut State House (1878); and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, among others.

Jamaica Bay, Queens

In addition to the sprawling grounds of Central Park (843 acres), New York City is home to other large-scale natural havens, including Brooklyn’s Prospect Park (586 acres; an Olmsted creation), Staten Island’s Greenbelt (1,778 acres), and in the Bronx, the city’s greenest borough, Van Cortlandt Park (1,146 acres), Bronx Park (718 acres; location of the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden) and Pelham Bay Park, which at 2,765 acres is more than three times the size of Central Park; and in Queens, Flushing Meadows – Corona Park (~900 acres), Forest Park (538 acres), and the 9000-acre Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, managed by the National Park Service, which is three times larger than Pelham Bay.   In 1934, the city unified its parks under a new department (now called Parks & Recreation) led by commissioner Robert Moses, a controversial and influential ‘power broker,’ who once held a dozen government posts simultaneously, leading the New York City Parks, State Parks Council, the State Power Commission, and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, among others.  The Parks department oversees more than 30,000 acres of urban real estate (14% of the city) and manages ~2.6 million trees.  A fictionalized version of Robert Moses plays prominently (as villain) in Edward Norton’s 2019 noir film Motherless Brooklyn.  

Prospect Park, Brooklyn
Tram between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island

The city contains a host of other public refuges of tranquility, including islands like Governors and Roosevelt. In the past, the city’s small islands were viewed as ideal locations for asylums, charity hospitals, quarantine locations, and prisons (with one remaining on Rikers Island).  Today, the islands are but moments away to a dramatic new perspective on the city.

New York has an array of smaller harbors of nature in the heart of the concrete metropolis, such as Brooklyn Bridge Park or Manhattan’s Union Square Park (another Olmsted/Vaux design), Bryant Park (adjacent to the NY Public Library), Hudson River Park, and the unique High Line, an elevated 1.45mile green space converted from a decommissioned rail line, among so many other urban retreats.  It must also be noted that the location of parks and various rules (both formal and informal) for who should access them, reveals a social and economic history of inequity that will be examined.  There are also private parks, some not open to the public, like Gramercy Park, and others that are, as with the indoor gardens in the atrium of the Ford Foundation Building.

NY Botanical Garden, The Bronx

Augmenting such natural enclaves are magnificent gardens, highlighted by the New York Botanical Garden (250 acres) in the Bronx and the smaller but stunning gardens at Wave Hill, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (52 acres), Manhattan’s Central Park Conservatory and the gardens of the Cloisters, a medieval monastic setting transported from France to a hill overlooking the Hudson River at Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan.  The city also contains zoos, most notably the 265-acre Bronx Zoo, along with smaller ones in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island.  In addition, the city has beaches too, as at Brooklyn’s famed Coney Island and the Rockaways in Queens, with Staten Island offering multiple beaches, and one even in the Bronx at Orchard Beach in Pelham Bay.  As a whole, the city contains some 578 miles of waterfront!

Coney Island

The growth of New York quickly outpaced access to the most fundamental natural resource for any city:  water.   In the nineteenth century, New York began to draw water from the Croton Watershed, just to the north in Westchester County, and in NYC Waterthe twentieth century, expanded its reach by drinking water from the Catskill Mountains still further afield.  Today, the city’s water distribution system is the largest in the United States, moving more than 1 billion gallons each day.   The story of urban expansion and the consumption of rural resources, and the conflict that this causes, will be examined comparatively in a national context (cf., the Los Angeles Aqueduct which pitted LA vs. the Owens Valley; San Francisco and the O’Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park; Southern California and the Colorado and California Aqueducts, which moved water over distances far greater than anything seen in New York) as well as in a global context (cf., water tensions between US and Mexico, Egypt and Ethiopia, etc.; disruption of local communities by water projects, from Egypt’s Aswan to China’s Three Gorges Dam, and a myriad of other cases).   It is also notable that a central argument for the establishment of New York’s Adirondack State Park in the late nineteenth century, the largest state park in the U.S., was its importance for protecting the water supply of New York City and this, in turn, provided an example for park preservation in other states.

New York Hit With Earlier Summer Heat Wave
Children play in water sprayed from a fire hydrant during an early summer heat wave in the Bronx . MARIO TAMA / GETTY IMAGES

Another essential aspect of any city (and one that inhabitants regularly take for granted) is waste management.   New York produces 12,000 tons of trash and recyclables each day, the product of mass consumption, of which only 17% is salvaged for recycling.[3]  Where does the waste go?

sunset park
Recycling Center, Sunset Park, Brooklyn

The city’s Department of Sanitation (where my grandfather worked) disposes ~25% through waste-to-energy facilities and exports the rest to landfills located upstate and in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina.   An associated disposal problem requires management of human waste, for which the city has some 7,400 miles of sewer network. These are essential city services and these often-overlooked systems have a close connection to public health and to urban well-being.    The program comparatively explores the emergence and development of modern urban infrastructure in the industrial era.

Thus far, the proposal has introduced topics of urban expansion outward, upward, and downward as well as the city’s power to pull in essential resources and expel waste.    We can also consider the city’s growth in a different way:  its magnetic and global pull to attract wave after wave of diverse immigrants who helped develop the city and continue to do so today.   The National Historic Site of Ellis Island (which the program will visit), through which my grandmother entered the country, along with 12 million others between 1892 and 1954, epitomizes the immigrant experience in that period.   


My maternal family resides in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens, where I was born (my paternal family lived in East Harlem). Ridgewood was home to a predominately German immigrant population at the start of the twentieth century.  By mid-century, the neighborhood added East Europeans, especially Poles, Romanians, Serbs, and also Puerto Ricans. By century’s end, Ridgewood attracted immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Slovenia, China, and Korea.

This is just one Queen’s neighborhood example of why the borough is considered the most diverse county in the U.S.  A fitting emblem of Queens’ global diversity is the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, a monumental globe built for the 1964 World’s Fair (and commissioned by Robert Moses).  It is equally fitting that the earliest call for religious tolerance in the Americas, the Flushing Remonstrance, occurred here, where, in 1657, residents opposed Flushing-Meadows-Corona-Park-Wikimedia-Commons-Paul-VanDerWerfthe anti-Quaker policy of Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam (before the city became New York).   Reflecting on the diversity of the city, author E.B. White explained in his essay “Here is New York” (1949) that “[t]he collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world.  The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity.”

Prometheus at Rockefeller Plaza

The city’s ever-developing, globally-influential culture and history is woven into the very fabric of the city.  This can be explored from so many angles, from sports venues, like Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, and Citi Field in Queens; to Media outlets, from the New York Times to the NBC studios at “30 Rock” in Midtown Manhattan (though the TV show of the same name was filmed in Queens), music venues and theaters, like Radio City in Midtown, Lincoln Center Uptown or the Lyceum and Winter Garden Theaters on Broadway; and a myriad of art galleries; and particularly relevant for this program, through its museums. 

My kids at the Met

The challenge for any New York program is that there are simply so many outstanding museums: From the world-renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art sitting just inside Central Park on the Upper East Side to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, the very placement of those museums reflects the contrasting historical status of those neighborhoods; the American Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side; the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown; the Whitney Museum for American Art, which in 2014 moved from Upper East Side to the Meatpacking District in Lower Manhattan, reflecting a major transformation in that once- troubled neighborhood.   Then there is the Frick, the Morgan Library & Museum, Rubin Museum, Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, the Jewish Museum, El Museo del Barrio, Studio Museum in Harlem, Museum of Chinese in America, the Brooklyn Museum, the Queens Museum, and 100 more!  Selecting only a few makes for a painful process.   With respect to ‘painful’ and museum, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, which opened in 2014, will be included in the program.

Finally, the program contends with the global challenge of climate change, from which New York is particularly vulnerable.  Hurricane Sandy in 2012 ksrprovided a traumatic call to action, causing the closure of the city’s airports, bridges, tunnels, and subways, with stations and subway lines flooded, and the cessation of bus and ferry service – even the New York Stock Exchange shut down.    After Hurricane Sandy, New York improved anti-flooding measures, strengthened essential infrastructure (water and electricity), elevated some roads, as in the Rockaway Beach area, and encouraged relocation from exceptionally vulnerable areas through voluntary sale of land to the state.   Yet, such measures are not enough.   In 2017, UCSD alumnus Kim Stanley Robinson mused on the topic of climate change and the city’s future in his New York 2140, in which lower Manhattan has become submerged by rising sea levels, but even then, he imagines that New York will continue on as creatively and dynamically as ever.


Parks and Natural Spaces: Central Park, Union Square Park, Bryant Park, Hudson River Park, High Line; Ford Foundation Building Atrium (indoor garden); the Cloisters;

The Cloisters

a community garden (specific one TBD); United Nations Garden Tour; Brooklyn: Prospect Park, Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn Botanic Garden; The Bronx: Van Cortlandt Park, New York Botanical Garden; Governors and Roosevelt Islands.

National Historic Sites: Ellis Island, Liberty Island (Statue of Liberty)

One World Trade Center and 9/11 Memorial

Museums: Transit Museum, Tenement Museum, Jewish Museum, 9/11 Memorial and Museum, Museum  of Natural History. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum for American Art.

Offices and Organizations:  United Nations (‘Focus on Women tour); meetings with public agencies, including the Parks, Water, and Sanitation Departments, and NGOs on environmental issues and GS-related topics, along with a volunteer project.

Readings:  All assigned course content is available in digital format.

Suggested Readings.

  1. Robert B. Marks.  The Origins of the Modern World.  A Global and Environmental Narrative from the 15th to the 21st Century.  4th Ed.  New York:  Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.
  2. Donald Hughes. An Environmental History of the World.  Humankind’s Changing Role in the Community of Life.  2nd New York:  Routledge, 2009.
  3. Andrew Lees. The City:  A World History.  New York: Oxford UP, 2015.
  4. Excerpts from:
    1. Tyler Anbinder. City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York. New York:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.
    2. Joanne Reitano. The Restless City:  A Short History of New York from Colonial Times to the Present.  New York:  Routledge, 2018.
    3. David Soll. Empire of Water:  An Environmental and Political History of the New York City Water Supply.  Ithaca:  Cornell UP, 2013.
    4. Sonja Duempelmann. Seeing Trees:  A History of Trees in New York City and Berlin.  New Haven:  Yale UP, 2019.
    5. Martin Melosi. Fresh Kills:  A History of Consuming and Discarding in New York City.  New York: Columbia UP, 2020.

Videos, accessible remotely via UCSD Library database. 

  1. Ken Burns. (Director). (2003). American Experience: New York [Video file]. PBS.
    1. The Country and the City-1609 – 1825
    2. Order and Disorder – 1825-1865
    3. Sunshine and Shadow – 1865-1898
    4. The Power and the People – 1898 – 1918
    5. Cosmopolis – 1918-1931
    6. City of Tomorrow – 1929 – 1945
    7. The City and the World – 1945-2000
    8. The Center of the World: Part 1
    9. The Center of the World: Part 2
  2. “Central Park” (Episode 4) and “High Line” (Episode 10) in Ten Parks that Changed America (2016).


[1] Comparing Manhattan, specifically, and Mumbai; not New York City as a whole and Mumbai.