NYC Steady State

Testing the Boundaries
an investigation into urban self-sufficiency by testing boundaries and advocating for harmonising needs and resources at different scales from household to planetary, in order to understand mechanisms of self-reliance and self-sufficiency


How can we get the ecological footprint of the city to be equivalent to that of its political boundary?

Cities are continuously planned without consideration for the biophysical limits of growth dependent on resources and ecological services from distant ecosystems. This paradigm, which prioritises the continuous accumulation and economic growth, has resulted in the socio-environmental problems that we face today: violation of land, loss of biodiversity, soil degradation, and urban sprawl. The desire for infinite economic growth has increased resource extraction, production, and consumption, which has put immense pressure on the planet’s natural resources and ecosystems. Besides, the current economic model has not been able to adequately address issues of sustainability, in part due to a lack of democratic control over the processes and decisions that shape our society. As Michael Sorkin notes: “In an era of incompetent nation states and predatory transnationals, we must ratchet up local self-reliance, and the most logical increment of organisation (and resistance) is the city”.1Michael Sorkin, “NYC: Can This City-State Be Completely Self-Reliant? | Aeon Essays”<> [accessed 8 February 2023]. This idea of local self-reliance is important because it acknowledges the limitations of urban systems and the need to prioritise the long-term viability of these systems.


“New York City Steady State” started as a “thought-experiment” research project to investigate the possibility for urban self-reliance in such areas as food, energy, waste, water, air supply and quality, manufacture, employment, culture, health, and transport, which Sorkin calls “key respiratory functions”. While centred in New York, it aspires to open a comprehensive investigation into urban self-sufficiency. The study primarily outlines the borders of New York City, including only the five boroughs, and creates “an almost completely unnatural limit” to define how the city might be adapted to provide food for its 8.5 million inhabitants. The initial analysis showed that New York City’s “foodprint” is approximately 150 times the size of the city. To address this, the team of Terreform started “identifying and utilising existing underused spaces within the city such as vacant land, parking lots, community gardens, rooftops, private yards, basements, streets, utility corridors, and a variety of derelict or underused infrastructure such as rail yards and highways that might be overbuilt”.2Michael Sorkin, “New York City (Steady) State.” Architectural Design 82, no. 4 (July 2012), pp. 102-9 <> Eventually, they proposed an alternative plan for New York City showing the potential to transform unused or neglected spaces into productive and functional areas that can contribute to the overall well-being of the city and its residents. This offered multiple ways to create green infrastructure, amplifying community gardens and parks, which eventually can provide a range of environmental and social benefits, including increased biodiversity, improved air and water quality, and increased access to healthy food options. Further, the New York City Steady State plan proposes the concept of complete neighbourhoods, by dividing the city into smaller areas with access to all necessary amenities and services within walking distance where people can live, work, and play without the need for long commutes.

The key idea of New York City Steady State is to go beyond imposed top-down planning strategies and investigate autarky, a political concept which describes a completely closed system. This is also where the project’s intention as a thought experiment comes into play: the radical investigation and design is meant to test boundaries, to take on a seemingly impossible task and see what the implications are of meeting it. Such an investigation pushes the boundaries of what is possible, seeking to inspire by interrogating the possibilities of self-reliance and self-sufficiency as strategies for local development. It also explores the potential of community independence and import replacement beyond the neoliberal economic establishment examining what it takes to increase productive diversification from within the city. By focusing on local self-reliance cities can develop sustainable systems that are resilient and adaptive to change, while also reducing their dependence on distant resources and ecosystems.


External links

Resilient Cities Network—global network of cities and organisations dedicated to helping cities build resilience to physical, social, and economic challenges 

Weed project—developed by Michael Sorkin Studio as “a prototype for a small sustainable, post-industrial, post-automotive city”