Civic News

What if poor neighborhoods could sell their air rights?

A new exhibit at MoMA features ideas for dealing with the pressures of increased population in NYC and five other megacities.

Visualizing the sale of air rights in New York City.

(Image courtesy of SITU)

What if neighborhoods could sell off their unused air rights and spend it on improving the neighborhood? That’s the gist of a proposal for New York City presented by Dumbo’s SITU Studio at a new exhibition, “Uneven Growth,” running at the Museum of Modern Art now through May 10.

We got in touch with the Brooklyn Digital Foundry, the animation studio that helped visualize the proposal in a video for the exhibit. See it here:

SITU explains the concept of the Community Growth Corporation in more detail on its blog. Before arriving at the policy proposal, SITU’s Bradley Samuels researched how low-income people are living in New York. He found they are primarily living in neighborhoods like Sunset Park, that appear to be fairly low density but are actually full of illegal conversions. In other words, homes meant to provide space for one family become homes for two or three.

Pedro Gadanho, a curator in MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, paired twelve teams of architects and designers into six teams, each investigating ways to address exceptional growth and its pressure on the lowest income people in six megacities around the world. SITU was chosen to work on ideas for New York City with Rotterdam’s Cohabitation Strategies.

The crux of SITU’s idea was to allow neighborhoods to sell air rights one neighborhood over as a way to finance shared amenities. In New York, every building has the right to build up to a certain height. Most buildings don’t use their full height, but there’s nothing you can do with the unused space right now, unless the next building over wants to buy it.


SITU’s proposal envisions allowing a neighborhood to make a bank of those rights and sell them to the immediately adjoining neighborhood. So, for example, Greenpoint might sell to Williamsburg, in order to go big on the waterfront. Brooklyn Digital Foundry was brought in when SITU realized they wanted to show it dynamically. The firms work in the same building in Dumbo.

John Szot, a partner at the Foundry, explained that his team believed that good policy tends to be easily explained and visualized. “The concept behind the moving chunks was to make something conceptual (legislation and regulations) tangible.” Szot wrote in an email. “This was a highlight for us since it was one of those places where ideas and visuals were in very close orbit.”

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