Design Tour in the Green Apple

Design Tour in the Green Apple

This article on Green Design in NYC was written for visitors and eco-tourists. It was published by Australia's Design World magazine (available at large newsstands and design libraries "everywhere" or email The colorful illustrated version of this article is in Design World's Issue 30, May 1995. (Note: there are a few updates added in 1997, too.)

New York City, at first, doesn't seem like the ideal place to produce green design projects. The city's built environment and political climate seem so much in opposition to anything natural that ecologically-responsive design appears an alien concept. On the contrary - NYC's challenging condition attracts eco-designers and other environmental professionals. It's getting easier all the time to locate wonderful green projects and their producers. This article will introduce several of them and guide you to other inspiring places to visit when you're in the Green Apple.

The City's five boroughs are much more varied than most visitors to Manhattan realize. There's 321 square miles of diverse topography, from ocean beaches and virgin forest (well, a tiny one) to what will soon be the eastern seaboard's highest mountain (actually, it's the Fresh Kills landfill), rolling hills, wetlands and rookeries, cleft by the terminal moraine ridge formed at the end of the last ice age. Even though there's probably more animals in NYC's six zoos than all the rest of the city, the diversity of humans is unprecedented. New Yorkers come from everywhere on the globe, often settling in ethnic neighborhoods like the 93 different ones in Brooklyn. NYC is a magnet for Americans as well as the foreign-born, and fortunately, these human resources bring a huge amount of creative energy with them. The convergence of over seven million humans and the city's natural resources causes a dizzying variety of activity and lately, more reciprocity in the urban ecology.

Some places to experience outside Manhattan include:

Brooklyn's Coney Island, a historical amusement park by the sea. Especially in the summer, the boardwalk and beach scene is a great place to study the human race as you cross the wide sandy beach and wade in the Atlantic's surf. The Aquarium (718-265-FISH) has new, much improved habitats for the wonderful sea creatures, and the ultra-tacky amusement park is authentically scary. A mile down the boardwalk, at Brighton Beach, you can promenade and dine with a transplanted Russian community which has reclaimed a deco-influenced former summer resort as their home.

Earth General (718-398-4648) is at 72 Seventh Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn. It's one of the best places to see a wide variety of very practical American green products, including Foxfiber clothing, energy and water devices, and locally produced goods. The neighborhood is full of well-cared-for old brownstone houses and nice shops. Grab a picnic and head for Prospect Park (718-965-8900), designed by Olmstead and Vaux in 1870; or the lush, human-scaled Brooklyn Botanical Garden (718-622-4433); or the excellent Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway (718-638-5000), all within a few blocks.

As you ride back the subway back to Manhattan, you may be sitting in an efficient, elegant new train designed by Massimo Vignelli. You're in the city that has half the mass transit in the entire United States, so it's easy to get around without a car. The subway is often the fastest, but buses give you an elevated view. NYC's transport system has many exciting, inexpensive environmental experiences, like the Staten Island Ferry which gives you a sense of the vastness of underutilized New York Harbor, plus great views of Ms. Liberty and the foot of high-rise Manhattan; take the Tram back from the planned residential community of Roosevelt Island (at 61st and Second Avenue), which is terrific at night as it rises over the East Side's twinkling spires; or visit the venerable crown jewel of NYC's mass transit system, Grand Central Station (42nd Street and Park), which is being restored and looking better than ever.

Unlike most American cities, Manhattan's density, grid and flatness are very conducive to walking, day and night. The sea of pedestrians surges you through the streets and canyons. Cross through distinctive villages, neighborhoods and districts, watching out for 40,000 unpredictable taxis and the 70,000 daily bicyclists. These include colorful bike-based delivery vehicles, like EcoWash's laundry-cycle on the Upper East Side, or pedicabs shuttling passengers around downtown. Growing in popularity as both recreation and transportation, it's hard to beat the convenience and speed of a bike in the Green Apple, despite the few amenities for them. You can, however, start your bike expedition on the subway or ferry, and if you want to ride, blade or walk where there are no cars, most of the bigger parks and the Brooklyn Bridge are great.

For one of the most famous examples of eco-design, take the free Friday morning tour of the new headquarters of the National Audubon Society, 700 Broadway (979-3000). Considered to be the most energy efficient and environmentally sound retrofit office building in the States, it's a wonderful place. Designed as a model with cost-effective, off-the-shelf building elements, it was completed in 1992. It's a great place to learn about green materials and the methodology used by Kirsten Childs and Randy Croxton of the Croxton Collaborative, and for your convenience, it's all been documented the Audubon House book and videos.

Soho, the well-known art and design district, also has several green design shops. NYC's first ecological department store, Terra Verde, 120 Wooster (925-4533) has kept its standards very high, and its unique products are quite beautiful. Check out the durable pallet wood furniture made by Big City Forest, an economic development project in the Bronx, the large selection of eco-design books and luxurious global goods. By the door, there is information on local environment and design events. There are all kinds of green shops in every direction:

One block north is J. Morgan Pruett's shop, known for its rough-hewn interior and their line of medieval-styled naturally dyed clothing. (Oh...they closed in 1997, but 2 clothing stores with all organic cotton have replaced them, Patagonia with outdoor clothing at101 Wooster, and Blue Fish with hand printed clothes on Greene St. at Houston, one block east, both have wonderful interiors, too). A well-stocked natural supermarket, Whole Foods, is also on the block.

One block west are the Aveda Aromatherapy and Origins ecologically responsive cosmetic stores on West Broadway.

To the south, Spring Street's Grass Roots plant shop and Evolution, the bone store, are surrounded by purveyors of the world's indigenous cultural artifacts and healthy green cafes, too, like Souen and Spring St. Natural.

To the east, British Khaki at 62 Greene St. (343-2299) features Anglo-Indian furniture that two New York designers have made by hand from reclaimed teak in India. Further east at 423 Broome at Crosby is Planet Hemp, with several interesting product lines (including hemp textiles by the yard) and a free map to Soho's eco-shops. Check out the papermaking place, Dieu Donne on the next block (433 Broome), which is more art oriented than Kate's Paperie at 561 Broadway (941-9816), which has a world class selection of recycled, renewable and tree-free paper products.

Getting hungry? Visit Grassroots Grocery at 520 Broadway, or Dean & Deluca, the gourmet grocery on Broadway at Prince, which has the most amazing fresh produce. The bounty includes rare heirloom varieties among a stellar selection of conventionally and organically grown fruits and vegetables.

In Soho, you won't see only 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 and best variety of inexpensive recycled fashion designs, including Deja Shoes and unusual ethnic wear, are at Canal Jean, 504 Broadway (226-3663). Upstairs is Environmental Construction Outfitters, a for-the-trade showroom of terrific eco-building materials and systems. The entrance is around the block at 44 Crosby, but it's open by appointment only (334-9659).

Everything in Soho is for sale, and with so much of the best of green design gathered into such a fascinating area, it should definitely be experienced.

Further east at 224 Lafayette is Bicycle Habitat, one of the best of NYC's many, many bikeshops -- notice the bike lane out in front too. The City's Bicycle Network Development Program (part of the Transportation Division of the Dept. of City Planning) has been putting new bike paths in all over the city -- they also have a wonderful free Cycling Map with recommended routes, buike shops and safety tips, available by calling 212-442-4640.

There are other eco-buildings you can tour by appointment, including the economically-greened offices of Inform Inc., 120 Wall St. (361-2400). It was designed by Croxton Collaborative in 1994, they also did the energy-efficient Natural Resources Defense Council at 40 West 20th (727-2700) in 1991. The unique reclaimed shipping pallet wood furniture and conference room designed by Mark Seltman for Great Forest can be seen at 11 Pennsylvania Plaza (967-4757). You may want reservations at the sophisticated Nobu (219-0500), a beautiful Japanese restaurant designed without paints or adhesives by the Rockwell Group at 105 Hudson in Tribeca. No appointment's needed at Felissimo, an upscale light green shop at 10 West 56th St. (965-4438) or Con Edison's Conservation Center at 42nd and Lexington (599-3435), where the displays are geared to a general audience.

While you're on 42nd St., you may want to visit some other landmarks, all of which may be linked in the near future by the proposed 42nd St. Trolley, a privately funded light rail system running from river to river.

On the east side is the United Nations, enjoy their waterfront park or take an official tour inside this edifice. 1995 is the UN's 50th Anniversary, to celebrate, new exhibits will be opened and green events will be staged there coinciding with World Environment Day in early June, and at other times throughout the year.

At the mid-point, at Fifth Avenue, you'll find the New York Public Library, a Beaux Arts neo-classical beauty designed by Carrere & Hastings in 1911. In addition to the eclectic exhibitions and lecture series produced there, this reference library is quite useful to designers as it houses a patent and trademark division, and has current resources on business, science and technology, even a CD-ROM room.

Directly behind the Library is Bryant Park, a recently renovated city park with native flora, a lush lawn to loll about on, public restrooms (a rarity in NYC) and Manhattan's half-price ticket booth for music and dance performances. 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.

As you continue west on 42nd, you may notice the Deposit Banks™, self-emptying recycling bins designed by Modern World Design for the Times Square BID. Made of 20% recycled plastic, they invite pedestrians to donate their redeemable beverage containers to anyone who wishes to cash them in.

Between Seventh and Eighth Avenue, 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 are being transformed by new owners, 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.

At Eighth Avenue is the Port Authority Bus Terminal, a convenient multi-modal transport hub with an updated appearance and a popular bowling alley. Continuing west, you'll soon reach Pier 83 at the mighty Hudson River, where you can catch the Circle Line boat (563-3204) that makes a narrated tour around Manhattan Island several times a day.

NYC has been designated 1995's International Earth Day City, so expect lots of related activities around April 22 (686-4905). If you come in October, you may catch Green Design New York's annual show and lecture series of green interior design (779-3365) or Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility's annual Environmental Clearinghouse event (924-7893). Almost anytime, there may be eco-design exhibits or events going on at the National Museum of Design, 2 East 91st St. (860-6871); the Storefront for Art and Architecture, 97 Kenmare (431-5795) or at institutions like the American Museum of Natural History (769-5000) or the new National Museum of the American Indian (283-2420). Get information on these events directly or from Terra Verde, mentioned above, or check the Network for a Sustainable NYC's calendar hotline (645-8888) which lists all kinds of eco-events. There's a major posting wall at the eco saloon, a lively nightclub in Tribeca called Wetlands Preserve, 161 Hudson (966-5244).

There's so many other fascinating examples of green design to see. You might want to pick up a reference guide to the ecologically interesting places in NYC, the Green Apple Map™, which is produced by my company, Modern World Design. It showcases scores of great sites to visit, including eco-education centers, additional green businesses, Greenmarkets bursting with fresh, locally grown produce, community and public gardens both large and small, sixty-one waterfront parks, waste infrastructure tours you can arrange, toxic hot spots to avoid, the city's nature trails, eco-art sites, and more. The Green Apple Map is a networking tool as well, and you can get information by calling even if you can't visit each site. The third edition has a scheduled publication date of Earth Day 1995, ask for it at the green design sites in this article or check with Modern World Design (674-1631). (In 1997, you can pick up a free copy of the third edition at the Greenmarket at Union Square (at 17th & Broadway, M, W, F, Sat, at the market manager's table) or at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum (91st & 5th Ave, and you can just walk in to the gift shop for it).

If you tell your friends you're planning to take an eco-tour of NYC, they might be surprised. After all, the city's known for its mix of media, money, fashion and entertainment, rather than the greener projects described here. Even armed with this article, you may feel overwhelmed by the cacophony and frenetic pace, however, as the number and variety of sites in the Green Apple grows, they are changing the perception of NYC as the ultimate urban jungle. The designer's role is also changing, and more are collaborating with governmental agencies, schools and business groups, and otherwise participating in public life. You should see how designers are helping create this urban ecology for yourself, and of course, take the ideas home to replicate and improve upon. Look hard, ask questions, follow leads, share insights, and enjoy the Green Apple.

© Wendy E. Brawer 1994-97

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