Recently, the New York Times launched a weekly video series called “Living City,”explaining New York City’s infrastructure. The fourth and most recent installment, “Living City: A City Shaped by Steam,” explains the steam systems beneath our streets. The 105 miles of steam pipes in New York City power about 2000 buildings, of which the largest 300 buildings are over half a million square feet. When skyscrapers were going up in the late 19th century and early 20th century, the steam system was put underground to avoid a skyline of chimneys and to reduce soot from coal-burning chimneys. Into the 21st century, Con Edison has continued to make sure that the largest steam system in the world provide a cleaner source of energy, despite a few accidents caused by steam pipes exploding. This mini-documentary calls on museums, restaurants, historians, private executives, and city officials to share their experiences with this unique system that both heats and cools the city.
Some fun facts: the city’s first steam system was built by Wallace Andrew in 1881, but the blizzard of 1888 galvanized the city to put infrastructure underground. As a result, the steam system was installed in conjunction with the electricity line, but it doesn’t go above 59th Street. Meanwhile, NYU has the largest privately run co-generation plant in the city, saving them $5 million in the first year of use, with over 30% reduction in emissions.
The “Living Cities” series has been a fantastic medium to make infrastructure more accessible to the public. By bringing in MTA and city officials, anthropologists, architects, historians, artists, writers, and regular New Yorkers, these short documentaries by Melanie Burford and Greg Moyer ofBlue Chalk are generating real interest in urban issues.
Read more about NYC’s steam system in this feature on our Cities 101 column. Read also about the Roosevelt Island Steam Plant that community activists hope to convert into New York’s version of the Tate Modern museum.