NYU Alumni Magazine Fall 2007

The Green Apple

With looming climate change, a swelling population, and crumbling infrastructure, the concrete jungle aims for a sustainable makeover

by Sharon Tregaskis

When the time came for Jonah “Cecil” Scheib to leave Dancing Rabbit, the 280-acre Missouri eco-village he co-founded in 1997, one destination rose immediately to the top of his relocation list: New York City. A self-described “ecological activist” and civil engineer, Scheib had installed solar energy systems on six homes in his decade on the land before becoming NYU’s first director of energy and sustainability in late April.

“New York offered the possibility to have a low impact,” he says, “because of the shared walls, the tall buildings, the dense population, and access to locally and organically grown food through the city’s farmer’s markets.”

The Big Apple may boast more green credibility than most urban centers in the United States, thanks to its high density and extensive mass-transit system, but with a million new residents expected to call New York City home by 2030, it also faces a stark imperative to avert the dangerous synergy of rapid population growth, soaring energy consumption, and an aging infrastructure already operating at near-peak capacity. Stir in concerns about global climate change and the capacity of unpredictable weather patterns to transform the city's low-lying areas into wetlands, and the mandate for action becomes crystal clear. "We need a cultural change on the part of our infrastructure and planning agencies," warns Rae Zimmerman, professor of planning and public administration in the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. Without such an overhaul, she's "not optimistic about our ability to respond to some of the projected consequences of global climate change."

While not yet an overhaul, change appears on the horizon. Last fall, Mayor Michael Bloomberg created an Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability to tackle precisely such issues, and on Earth Day, April 22, 2007, announced PlaNYC 2030, which aims to, among other things: reduce the city's global warming emissions by more than 30 percent over two decades; repair the city's outdated water and electrical systems; ensure that all New Yorkers live within a 10-minute walk of a park; and implement a controversial pricing scheme to reduce vehicle traffic and emissions in Manhattan. The estimated $32 billion, 127-point plan—which even puts invertebrates to work, with mussels serving as river-cleaning bio filters—is slated to receive funds from a mix of city, state, and federal sources over the next two decades. "I don't think any [city] has attempted to deal with [sustainability] in as comprehensive a fashion as this," says Daniel Doctoroff, deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding.

But PlaNYC isn't the only green game in town. In May 2007, the Clinton Climate Initiative, a project of former president Bill Clinton, engineered a several- billion-dollar loan fund to finance green retrofits of existing buildings in 16 cities, including New York, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer recently launched Go Green East Harlem, an initiative aimed to make the neighborhood a model green community.

Not that New York had much choice. Brownfields cover 7,600 acres of New York City, about nine times the size of Central Park, and in central Harlem, one in four kids has asthma, one of the highest rates ever documented for a neighborhood in the United States. Throughout the city, levels of asthma-causing soot currently exceed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits. And then there's the infrastructure: By 2030, 70 percent of the city's power plants will have passed the half-century mark and much of the city's water and subway systems—only about 40 percent of which are considered in good repair—will turn 100. "Even in the shape NYC transit is in, it's still better than places where it doesn't exist," says assistant research professor Allison L. C. de Cerreño, director of the NYU-Wagner Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management. "But if you don't put in the appropriate investment to maintain good repair, then in the long term it can't be sustainable." That logic became startlingly clear this summer when a steam pipe dating to 1924 burst under a Midtown Manhattan street, sending a geyser of water, asbestos, and asphalt into the air. A few weeks later, much of the transit system was paralyzed following a brief, but violent rain storm.

Perhaps the most critical change, however, must come in design and construction, because buildings generate close to 80 percent of the city's carbon output and, by 2030, the city will need 265,000 more housing units. Manhattan boasts a skyrocketing green building industry, including such efforts as 7 World Trade Center and the Hearst Tower, both awarded gold certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. But the tallest, greenest of them all will be the Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park, slated to open in 2008 with USGBC's top honor, a platinum certification, for its high energy efficiency, extensive use of natural daylight, storm water runoff controls, and use of local materials for construction. "We need to look at buildings that create no new CO2, that are using materials that are renewable resources," says Bank of America Tower architect Robert Fox, a member of the mayor's sustainability advisory board and the founding chairman of USGBC's New York chapter.

The Green Apple

NYU faces many of the same challenges confronting the city—from aging infrastructure to a projected student body growth of 13 percent by 2032—and over the past year, its approach to tackling them has gone from piecemeal to high priority. In October 2006, the university launched a Green Action Plan with the formation of a 40-plus-member Sustainability Task Force of faculty, students, and administrators to inventory the university's ecological impact and suggest improvements. Other features of the plan include a $400,000 purchase of wind energy credits to mitigate the energy purchases the university makes from Con Edison—garnering kudos from the EPA as the largest bulk-wind-power buyer in higher education and in New York City—and a new state-of-the-art co-generation plant, which will significantly reduce pollutants and emissions in the area and will allow NYU to take an additional 23 buildings, for a total of 30, off of the overtaxed Manhattan power grid. The university also launched an environmental studies major this fall that offers classes taught by experts from various NYU schools.

"The sleeping giant is waking," says Jeremy Friedman (GAL '07), who as a senior co-authored the 115-page report "Greening the Urban Campus, A Sustainability Assessment of New York University," and now serves as project administrator for the Task Force. Friedman helped select the winners of 15 grants for NYU's $250,000 Sustainability Fund, which subsidizes projects including a feasibility study of wind and solar installations on campus, a bicycle salvage effort, and promotion of the green renovation of the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, which will feature recycled furniture and special heating and cooling systems. Among the most visible changes will be NYU gardener George Reis's transformation of a 3,000-square-foot plot behind the Coles Sports Center into a chemical-free display bed planted with native species and maintained using organic principles. Says Reis: "My intention is to make NYU number one in the U.S. for sustainable gardening in an urban campus."

The moves all mark a national trend in higher education as leaders respond to the environmental pleas that many student activists have been making for years. In March, NYU President John Sexton signed on to the ambitious American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, a pledge by campus heads to go carbon neutral—completely eliminating their greenhouse gas emissions—and to bolster teaching and research on sustainability. Already, more than 300 college and university presidents have joined the effort, toward a goal of 1,000 signatories by December 2008.

Building on this collaborative spirit, last June, NYU became a PlaNYC Challenge Partner along with eight other campuses, each of which pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent within the next decade—13 years ahead of PlaNYC's 2030 target. "We have a long way to go," says Executive Vice President Michael C. Alfano, who formed the Sustainability Task Force. "But my hope is that 10 years out, we're acknowledged as a leader, not only in talking and planning, but in implementation."

Transforming an institution the size of NYU won't come cheap, though many of the green initiatives already under way promise significant long-term financial benefits. Sustainable gardening turns out to save money—on water, maintenance, hauling fees for leaves that can instead be used as mulch. Other efforts will have high up-front costs—for longer-lasting, more efficient building systems, or data collection to guide future strategy. Over the long term, NYU's decentralized administrative structure will both help and hinder the process. Smaller units can easily pilot projects, but comprehensive efforts will take more political will. "We'll need policies that apply to the whole university," says Lindsay Robbins (GAL '03, WAG '07), who serves on the Sustainability Task Force and works in NYU's strategic planning office.

As NYU trims its own ecological footprint and its academics investigate strategies for urban greening, the university aims to launch a host of demonstration projects that promise insights and ideas valuable not only in New York City, but worldwide. "That's only the beginning," Scheib says. "What's going to keep this a live topic for decades to come is thinking about what will make NYU and New York a great place to live."

TOP PHOTO © Dan Page; Photo © John Lei/The New York Times/Redux

With a million new residents expected to call New York City home by 2030, the Big Apple faces a stark imperative to avert the dangerous synergy of rapid population growth, soaring energy consumption, and an aging infrastructure already operating at near-peak capacity.

Perhaps the most critical change must come in design and construction because buildings generate close to 80 percent of the city’s carbon output.