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Reshaping a Nation

Reinventing America

May 2022


This video is part of our Kite & Key Shorts series—easy to understand...but hard to forget.


The United States is nearly 250 years old. And if you think it looks good for its age … that’s because it’s had a few facelifts. Over the years, Americans have radically reshaped their country’s landscape.

A large chunk of New York City was built through land reclamation … using piles of dirt and trash to create more land.i As a result, Manhattan is 33% bigger today than it was when the Dutch purchased the island in 1626.ii New York isn’t the only city that’s expanded this way.

Boston’s famous Back Bay neighborhood was built after the city filled over 600 acres of tidal basin with gravel.iii

And after New Orleans drained its swampland from 1896 to 1926 ... it made The Big Easy 30,000 acres larger.iv

Out on the West Coast, they didn’t need more land. They needed more water. And in California, they went to extraordinary lengths to get it. To get enough water to Los Angeles, an aqueduct was built from the Owens Valley, over 200 miles away.v

That decision wasn’t very popular in the Owens Valley … where they tried to blow the aqueduct up — 17 times.

San Francisco also struggled to find a water source. So, they took Yosemite’s picturesque Hetch Hetchy Valley … and flooded it to create a

If you find all these environmental alterations depressing, we have good news. There are still plenty of unspoiled parts of America.

First among them: Alaska. It’s estimated that only 160,000 acres of Alaska have been subject to human alteration.vii That may sound like a lot, but … it’s less than 0.0005% of the state.

There’s a reason they call it “The Last Frontier.”



  1. New York City, Boston, and New Orleans owe much of their present shape to land reclamation.
  2. Los Angeles and San Francisco both secured water supplies by dramatically altering California’s natural environment.
  3. Less than 0.0005% of Alaska has been altered by humans.


  1. "Watch Manhattan’s Boundaries Expand Over 250 Years" (Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan) – Gizmodo
  2. "Making More Manhattan" (Seth Barron) – City Journal
    "Document: The Purchase of Manhattan Island, 1626" – Thirteen 
  3. "Boston Reclamation: The 5 Most Significant Infills in the City’s History" (Tom Acitelli) – Curbed Boston
  4. "How Humans Sank New Orleans" (Richard Campanella) – The Atlantic
  5. "Los Angeles Aqueduct and Owens Valley" – Water Education Foundation 
  6. "Exploring Hetch Hetchy" – Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Board
  7. The Alaska Almanac — Nancy Gates


SOUND: Hot Summer Mess” (Lou Yoelin)

FOOTAGE: Urban Omnibus // Times-Picayune Archives // Water and Power Associates // Los Angeles Times //San Francisco Chronicle // New York City Port Authority // Iofoto (Adobe Stock)



  1. Gizmodo
    "Watch Manhattan’s Boundaries Expand Over 250 Years" (Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan)
  2. City Journal
    "Making More Manhattan" (Seth Barron)
  3. Thirteen
    "Document: The Purchase of Manhattan Island, 1626" 
  4. Curbed Boston
    "Boston Reclamation: The 5 Most Significant Infills in the City’s History" (Tom Acitelli)
  5. The Atlantic
    "How Humans Sank New Orleans" (Richard Campanella)
  6. Water Education Foundation
    "Los Angeles Aqueduct and Owens Valley" 
  7. Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Board
    "Exploring Hetch Hetchy" 
  8. The Alaska Almanac
    Book by Nancy Gates

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