The Greening of NYC, as Seen by A Designer

The Greening of NYC, as Seen by A Designer

Text from a 30 minute presentation with 100 slides for the International Union of Architects Workshop on The Future of the Cities at the NGO Forum of the Social Summit, 10 March 95, Copenhagen, Denmark (proceedings available, please contact Annette Blegved at uia.rio@pip.dknet.dk). Yes, many things have changed since this was written...


You were probably surprised to see New York City included under the heading of Sustainable Cities. Our image and our reality still has a long way to go until the Big Apple ripens into the Green Apple, but we're definitely on our way. Since I'm wearing my green eyeglasses, I won't be talking about our problems, instead, I'll tell you about some of the most positive efforts towards the City's sustainability.

NYC has always been different from the rest of the US, and those of us who live in Manhattan feel especially like we're situated on an island that's halfway between the mainland and Europe. The city's energetic, integrated culture is a mecca for newcomers, who often settle in ethnic neighborhoods. This culture influx is one of our richest resources. Today, there are about 7.5 million New Yorkers, and most of us, rich and poor, immigrant and native-born, live side-by-side in our city of neighborhoods and villages, sharing our daily life in our own curious and convivial way. Though there are bad apples among us, most of us abhor violence and hatred. We care about our home, and we're gradually learning how to take responsibility for improving it.

Environmentalists as well as designers move to the Green Apple for many reasons. We've got several great universities and design schools, United Nations headquarters, the press, national offices, museums and research centers, lots of conferences, exhibitions and seminars. Because the City has retained its role as a world center of business, buying, entertainment, art, publishing, and politics, everyone comes through town eventually. Living in the Crossroads offers many challenges for the people who work to green it. There's dozens of fascinating ecologically interesting places to visit, dedicated groups to connect with, and cutting edge projects to participate in. Many of us believe that New York is a proving ground, and strive to change the City's built environment and political climate, image and production from that of an urban jungle to a model of urban ecology that everyone wants to replicate.

Two recent events swelled our ranks. One was the big Earth Day celebration in 1990, where the role of individual acts of environmental stewardship resurfaced after the greedy years of the Me Decade had taken their toll. Secondly, when UNCED PrepCom 4 (Earth Summit planning session) took place at the UN during five weeks in the Spring of 1992, it was accompanied by numerous events around town that brought home a new understanding of the interconnectedness of all things. Although we didn't all get to go to Rio, in a way, Rio came to us. Since then, community sustainability has grown in importance, groups have networked with their counterparts in Seattle, Chattanuga, and in cities across the globe, and the learning curve has risen dramatically. Designers are well-represented among the participants, many are involved in solving big city problems as well as greening their own professional practices.

I'd like to start off the visuals with an image of NYC from outer space so you can see the shape of the land itself. Our five boroughs include 321 square miles of diverse topography, from ocean beaches to wetlands to concrete canyons, all cleft by the terminal moraine ridge formed at the end of the last ice age. That ridge is now a greenway for bicyclers. There are many new green spots, including dozens of new community gardens blooming out of old empty lots in every part of the city. Their gardeners have a developed a tight connection with the earth and one another. Some gardens are designed as a neighborhood gathering spot, others are set up so families can grow their own food and flowers. Private rooftop gardens are growing in popularity, too. There are now 20 Greenmarkets, where you buy fresh produce directly from local farmers, which is helping keep the region beyond the city limits greener, too. Waterfront parks are expanding so we can re-connect with the edge, now we have about 65 of them. New York Harbor's estuary is cleaner than it has been in 100 years, despite being surrounded with 20 million people. Fish are coming back to our waters, and birds and butterflies are being seen in increasing numbers of late.

Let's talk about garbage, which is now starting to be seen as a real resource for the City. We are among the World's top producers, tipping the scales at about 2 kilos per person per day, about twice the per capita rate for Denmark. Right now, we are recycling over 15% of our trash through residential curbside pickups and in public space recycling bins. (Slides: some of the bins being shown are prototypes created by our Pratt Institute's industrial design students.) We're making good progress toward meeting the Solid Waste Plan of 1992 which mandated recycling 40% and preventing 9% by the year 2000. Our 15% recycling rate the best achieved by any American city with a population of more than 1 million. Since December, the City has been selling our recycled paper, rather than paying to have it taken off their hands. This change coincides with the start of trading of futures in secondary materials at the Commodities Exchange in Chicago, like pork bellies or corn. Recently, all our apartment house and municipal incinerators were closed, except for one for medical waste, now, the rest of our refuse goes to what will soon be the eastern seaboard's highest mountain, the Fresh Kills landfill, NYC's last remaining dump.

Several designers and manufacturers are using our locally produced recycled resources, including Big City Forest, a Bronx-based economic development project that turns used wood shipping pallets into furniture. Last year, a local recyclables processor bought an injection molding plant where our milk jugs and other plastics are being turned into traffic equipment. The City has completely re-built Tiffany Street Pier in the Bronx out of several kinds of recycled plastic lumber in the hopes that it could find the best replacement for the tropical hardwood currently being used along our 500 miles of shoreline. There is funding from the private sector as well as the State for new technology and business developments to add value to our waste stream, and to set up programs like industrial waste exchanges. There are also some Gaia Institute bioremediation projects around old landfills in the Bronx, where the contaminated runoff is treated and cleaned naturally by wetlands plants before it seeps into the Bay. "Reuse, reduce, recycle" has become more than a catch phrase, it's become glamorous - recent exhibitions like the NY Public Library's show on the history of sanitation in the City showed us of how far we've come, and the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum showcased wonderful recycled content consumer products. The National Museum of Design hosts workshops on designing with recycled materials annually. Reuse is become more popular, and new thrift shops are opening all the time.

Our City Council is now considering a ground-breaking, citizen-group promoted Procurement Bill with a purchasing preferential for recycled content and waste-reduced products, especially those that are locally produced. Already, the City buys office paper that meets the Federal standard of 50% recycled, including 20% post-consumer waste, and much more paperwork is printed on both sides of the page as a waste reduction measure. We are one of only 3 localities in the US with at least one staff person working full time on source reduction. Last year, in an effort to get to the root causes of waste, the Department of Sanitation sponsored an ecologically sound packaging design competition for design school students. Other pilot projects include composting, repair centers, and bring your own bag campaigns. Lately, I'm sorry to report, there have been severe cuts to Sanitation's budget, and the recent progress is in jeopardy. I hope our new Mayor restores the budget before we let the resources in our refuse melt away.

There is some progress on the education front. When students start high school in NYC, they choose which school to attend, and usually, it's one outside of their own neighborhood. There are many magnet schools which focus on a particular field of interest, and one of the newest is the High School for Environmental Studies. It's housed in a renovated building which was used for television broadcasts, so it has great video and media facilities. Architect William McDonough consulted on special features with Meli-Borreli Associates, and the school has a roof garden, very efficient windows, recycled construction materials, etc. There is a high school for agricultural studies and two schools focused on marine studies, their students are pictured here with the natural habitat they've constructed in Queens with the help of the Council for the Environment of NYC, a mayoral agency. There are also many others with environmental studies, like the venerable Bronx High School of Science and the newly opened School for the Physical City. In the universities, green career programs are becoming quite common, including NYU's school of environmental management's courses for professionals who want to integrate ecological concerns into their current jobs, and projects like the industrial ecology think tank starting up at Columbia University. Design schools are, generally speaking, way behind. There is an occasional professor or a special project, like the one I put together for Parsons School of Design students to learn about the solar and electric vehicles racing at the American Tour de Sol, but I have not heard of any design program where applying ecological principles is a basic requirement. I expect that in the next couple of years this will change, driven partly by employers and governmental regulations, and partly by collaboration among the professions.

Many people are coming to believe that the internal combustion automobile is causing too many of the Green Apple's woes. To de-emphasize cars is to relieve stress and confusion, social isolation, pollution, congestion, and noise, and of course, the accompanying cost to society. It's not just the advocacy groups like Transportation Alternatives, whose members authored NYC's Bicycle Blueprint, that believe it's time to re-think our auto-centered society - lots of New Yorkers seek an environment where mobility and community are no longer in conflict. Our Department of Transportation held its first Traffic Calming Symposium in 1993, and recently, Dave Freeman, the head of our State's Power Authority, called for the closing of Broadway's busiest two miles to cars. Many residents cherish the fact that you don't need a car to live here - in fact, only 22% of Manhattan households own one. New York's always been a pedestrian oriented city, particularly Manhattan, where the density, grid and flatness are very conducive to walking or rollerblading, day and night.

We see every kind of rider and bicycle these days, including work bikes designed to haul groceries and other goods. Already, 75,000 people use bikes for transportation daily, apart from recreation. You can bring your bike onto the subway now and access has improved to bridges, including the bike-on-bus method used on one. Locking them up has always been tricky, but now there are several parking garages that have bike racks right near the attendant's booth. NYC is home to the first bike lane in the US, shown here at opening day on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. There are a few more bike lanes now, and there's funding this year for additional ones. Unfunded proposals for community-based research and development centers for human powered vehicles and pedicab stands show promise for the near future, too. Surprisingly, Central Park still isn't completely auto-free, but park lovers are keeping the pressure on to see that it happens permanently. For years, city officials have supported bike-to-work week and acknowledged the benefits. Since 1992, we've had police patrols on bikes, and when our garbage collectors find a trashed bike, they give it to a Transportation Alternatives' youth program called Recycle A Bicycle, where it's repaired and given or sold to another rider. All factors indicate the movement is growing stronger.

Other reasons to oust the private car is the fact that we have the infrastructure for subways, buses, ferries and trains already in place. The Green Apple has 40% of the mass transit of the whole United States, and we're accustomed to relying on multi-modal transport. Recent system upgrades include convenient fare cards, tax-free employee transit checks, renovation of stations, and efficient, elegant new subway cars. I look forward to the day when our roads are truly balanced and fairly calmed.

Our City has an incredible range of eco-tourism destinations, as I found out when I created the first map of NYC's ecologically interesting places, the Green Apple Map. This resource-efficient guide is printed on 100% post-consumer paper with soy ink. It has helped thousands to see the city a whole new way, and get involved with some of the places shown here. I have a few copies of the second edition I can give to people here today. The Green Apple Map has over 200 positive locations, including solar powered places, Eco Wash's two efficient, natural laundromats which are test sites for the EPA's non-chemical dry cleaning alternative, a wide range of information centers, ferry and bike routes, the biggest tree in each borough, and so on, plus the toxic hot spots.

For the remainder of today's talk, I'll focus on two clusters of green design sites, and events, like Green Design New York's annual show and lecture series on green interior design or Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility's annual Environmental Clearinghouse event. Almost anytime, there may be eco-design exhibits or events going on at the National Museum of Design, the Storefront for Art and Architecture, the Urban Center or the wonderful new National Museum of the American Indian. Get information on these events directly, get Metropolis or check the Network for a Sustainable NYC's calendar hotline (212-645-8888) which lists all kinds of eco-events. This group's current projects include a green construction manual and office self-inspection guide, which I have copies of. Actually, I have a selection of other American green design materials to share, like Sphere, In Business and Earthword magazines, so see me afterwards.

To see one of the most famous examples of eco-design, take the free Friday tour of the headquarters of the National Audubon Society. Considered to be the one of the most energy efficient and environmentally sound retrofit office building in the States, it's an inspiring place. Designed as a model with cost-effective, off-the-shelf building elements, it was completed in 1992 by the Croxton Collaborative. I'm sure Randy Croxton will be filling you in on details tomorrow. I also like their offices for Inform, a very economical green retrofit. It cost about 25% less than average, so it's an excellent model. I've recommended that the Mayor's Task Force on Green Buildings tour it. This task force includes some of the 200 architects who work for NYC, and they are considering ways to change the building codes. Last year, they removed the clause that specified "all new" materials in City construction contracts, and now, recycled content materials can be used if cost-effective. The task force has asked the local eco-design community to make presentations to them on a voluntary basis.

Soho, the well-known art district, also has several green design shops. NYC's first ecological department store, Terra Verde, has kept its standards very high, and its unique products are quite beautiful. They carry reclaimed wood furniture, luxurious natural goods and a large selection of eco-design books, some of which were penned in NYC, like Grazyna Pilatowicz's EcoInteriors, Sue Cohn's Green at Work, Jean Gardner's Urban Wilderness, or SEED's Green Pages. You can get In Business, an inspiring national magazine on environmental entrepreneuring. Much more green design is gathered in nearby shops, like J. Morgan Pruett's, which is known for its rough-hewn interior and their medieval-styled naturally dyed clothing. A well-stocked natural and organic supermarket, Whole Foods, is also on the block. Nearby is the tiny Historic Forest, where trees and plants from pre-colonial times flourish. One block west are the Aveda and Origins eco cosmetic stores and Smith & Hawkens garden supply. There's one of our green printing shops, New York Recycled Paper, and for vegetarian dining, there's close to a dozen cafes in the area. To the east, British Khaki features furniture made by hand from reclaimed teak in India. On Broadway, the Nature Company, a chain store with nature discovery goods, is right next to Kate's Paperie, which has a world class selection of recycled, renewable and tree-free paper products. Habitat Bicycle Shop and Soho Skate on Lafayette help New Yorkers make efficient use of human power.

In Soho, you won't just see new products - antique and vintage designer furniture and clothing shops are all over. On weekends, there's a flea market at Broadway and Grand, but the biggest variety of inexpensive recycled fashions, including Deja Shoes and unusual ethnic wear, are at Canal Jean. Just upstairs is Environmental Construction Outfitters, a for-the-trade showroom of terrific eco-building materials and systems that is open by appointment only. Their products come from all over the world. They sell by catalog, too, and while they have an excellent selection, they can be a bit difficult to contact.

In the evening, head south to Wetlands Preserve, the eco-saloon. It has live music and events, plus a large posting wall for action news. You may want reservations nearby at the sophisticated Nobu, a beautiful Japanese restaurant designed without paints or adhesives by the Rockwell Group.

Another major cluster of green sites is along 42nd Street, a street everybody visits, eventually. At the west end is the mighty Hudson River, where you can catch the Circle Line boat that makes a narrated tour around Manhattan Island several times a day. Nearby, there's a public participation wooden boat building project. A new 4-mile long riverside park is currently being developed, as are plans for the 42nd St. Trolley, a privately funded light rail system running from river to river.

Continuing east, you'll pass Manhattan Plaza, a 1,700 unit public housing complex with twin towers and a block long private plaza where I've been developing a comprehensive greening program since last June. The building itself has always been very energy efficient and water conserving, and the management very socially conscious. To invite the 3,500 residents' participation, I designed a friendly mobile eco-info center made of recycled and renewable materials that shows up where the people are twice a week, with new displays every month. Kids take part in the weekly Ecology Club, where they are currently building a city for the future, which includes the world's first adobe McDonald's, with solar cookers for the soy burgers. They've graded the 90 recycling rooms, charted the condition of local street-trees and gone on field trips. The Earth Day Party will have live music, bike tuneups, house plant pottings, a local community garden tour, etc. Residents and staff are conserving more resources, buying recycled products and reducing toxics. Lots of adjustments are underway throughout the complex. We have an advisory council with EPA and UN Development Program staffers, and everyone is helping the greening of Manhattan Plaza make good progress. Aspects of the program may possibly be replicated in other housing complexes around the city.

At Eighth Avenue is the Port Authority Bus Terminal, a convenient multi-modal transport hub with an updated appearance. Between it and Broadway, work has begun on the re-creation of 42nd Street as an entertainment center, minus some of the honky-tonk atmosphere that made it famous. Some of the seven theaters on the block will be transformed by new owners, probably including Disney and M-TV. Currently, a mysterious pastiche of new and old, art and commerce, porno and plastic, the 42nd Street experiment provides much food for thought.

As you continue along 42nd, you may notice the Deposit Banks™, the self-emptying recycling bins I designed for Times Square. Made of 20% post consumer recycled plastic, they invite pedestrians to donate their redeemable beverage containers to anyone who wishes to cash them in. I have also worked with on Times Square waste reduction projects, I even encouraged them to test out reusing their summer event's confetti at New Year's Eve.

At Sixth Avenue is Bryant Park, recently renovated with native flora, a lush lawn to loll about on, moveable chairs and public restrooms, which are a rarity in NYC. Like Grand Central and Times Square, Bryant Park is supported by a special Business Improvement District tax on the businesses in the vicinity. NYC now has nearly 70 of theses BIDs, who supplement City services, providing cleaner, safer streets and promotional activities. A couple blocks to the east is Grand Central Station, our most famous multi-modal station, which is looking wonderful as its original grandeur is being restored. Stop in at Con Edison's Energy Conservation Center at 42nd and Lexington, where the displays of home appliances and lighting are geared to a general audience. All the way on the east side is the United Nations, take an official tour inside this special place, and stop in at the NGO Center across the street. 1995 is the UN's 50th Anniversary and to celebrate, there are new exhibits and green events. You can see the East River from the UN's waterfront park, so relax a bit because you have just walked two miles to traverse the Island.

I hope this has given you a good impression of the Green Apple. Although I avoided mentioning our problems, I've tried to paint an accurate picture so you can perceive the changes in the way we're doing business, conducting civic affairs, teaching our children, taking out our garbage and getting from place to place. I strongly believe that NYC is making real progress toward sustainability, and I hope that when you visit, you'll be pleased.

© Wendy E. Brawer 1995

Back to Writing Projects