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How the Battle for Sunlight Shaped New York City

As the city reached for the sky, those down below had to scramble for daylight.
Museum of the City of New York/Citylab

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 Metropolisexplores. Here are five key points along New York City’s never-ending quest to stay lit, the natural way.

1860s: The dark ages

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

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.