New York

29 August 2012 — Something special is happening in New York City. As the end of Michael Bloomberg’s third and final term as Mayor draws near, a green renaissance is in full swing.

Downtown, the 9/11 Memorial park is now open and the new green skyscrapers replacing the World Trade Centre are topping out. Midtown, the Empire State Building is becoming 38 per cent more energy efficient and a new national and global flagship for the greening of existing buildings. Across the whole town, public space is growing and rejuvenating, yellow cabs are increasingly hybrid, the NYPD is getting into EVs, electric vehicles, and businesses, government and communities are working to prepare the city to be healthy and resilient as environmental conditions change.

Much of this is being guided by Bloomberg’s PlaNYC vision and I had the opportunity in June to meet with two of his PlaNYC program managers as well as view many of the projects taking shape around Manhattan.

PlaNYC was created under Bloomberg in 2007 and revised in 2011. It is an ambitious and largely environmentally-orientated vision and is something the Mayor himself passionately champions.

The vision’s headline is “A Greener, Greater New York” and beneath this sits 10 goals – from accommodating 1 million more residents, to cleaning up all contaminated land, to achieving the best air-quality of large US cities – supported with 132 different initiatives.

In Bloomberg’s office there is a clock counting down the number of days left in his term. For the PlaNYC team their mission is to embed all of the Plan’s program into the city before the end of his term, such that they cannot be revoked by subsequent administrations. While now capital constrained in the GFC, the progress to date is impressive. Highlights for me include:

Photo: Simon Carter

Fronting up to climate change
A key element of the vision is a strategic approach to climate resilience, complementing a solid mitigation strategy. This may be prompted by the city’s near-miss experience with Hurricane Irene last year, when they were preparing for the flooding of the subway and shut-down of Wall St, or rising concern about the heat island affect.

NYC has a climate resilience program manager and the following eleven initiatives to prepare the city for climate change impacts:

  1. Regularly assess climate change projections.
  2. Partner with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to update Flood Insurance Rate Maps.
  3. Develop assessment tools to assess the city’s current and future climate risk.
  4. Update building regulations to increase the resilience of buildings such as (we don’t say eg .. say for example and what is freeboard??? Might delete? freeboard
  5. Work with the insurance industry to develop strategies to encourage the use of flood protections in buildings.
  6. Protect New York City’s critical infrastructure (with the New York City Climate Change Adaptation Task Force).
  7. Identify and evaluate citywide coastal protective measures.
  8. Mitigate the urban heat island effect.
  9. Enhance our understanding of the impacts of climate change on public health
  10. Integrate climate change projections into emergency management and preparedness.
  11. Work with communities to increase their climate resilience.

It is great to see NYC publishing projections for climate change impacts (see table]) and interesting to see this response to climate change only really happened in Bloomberg’s second term after he had quit the Republican party to run as an independent.

Predicted climate change impacts in NYC, from PlaNYC. Click on the image to see a larger version of this table

Expanding public space
The goal is to ensure all New Yorkers live within 10 minutes’ walk of a park and initiatives include one-off projects such as the famous High Line, the conversion of a raised rail line into a public park snaking through the Lower West Side; to converting intersections such as Time Square into pedestrian areas; to turning school yards into playgrounds.

The Schoolyards to Playgrounds program involves taking schoolyards, which are otherwise locked off outside of school hours, tidying them up, providing some lighting and security and leaving them open as playgrounds. To date under PlaNYC, about 180 sites have been converted and this is expected to reach 230 in 2013.

As we strolled around Manhattan we found many intersections or sections of street closed off and operating as parks. One former car park on a traffic island in the Lower West Side was playing stage for a terrific salsa night for a Latin American community – and anyone else who was passing by.

Greener and cooler
PlaNYC’s climate resilience program manager noted it has been estimated that the city can be cooled by about 1 degree F with a series of measures including the planting of trees and painting of roofs white. To date, the City’s Million Trees Program has planted more than 430,000 trees in the city and by the end of 2013 this number is expected to be about 650,000.

The NYC Cool Roofs program has already resulted in 1 million square feet of roofs being painted white, mainly by volunteers, and another 2 million square feet is expected to be done by 2013. The City is also looking to regulate for all new flat roofs to have a cool coating.

The Empire State flies the flag
NYC’s most famous landmark, the Empire State Building, is coming to the end of its famous energy efficiency upgrade. Interestingly, the ESB earns more revenue as a broadcasting tower than as an office building. Similarly, the significance of this $13 million project is much greater than the 38 per cent energy reduction and $4.4 million annual savings. Malkin Property, owner of the ESB, has a clear mission to influence the property sector in NYC, across the US and beyond and so this project is a broadcast of what is possible with existing building stock.

As visitors to the ESB, of which there are about 4 million each year, queue to head up to the observation deck they are presented with a stunning exhibition on the upgrade project including the case for it, the technology used and the results it is generating.

Not an easy upgrade, the team of the Clinton Climate Initiative, Jones Lang LaSalle, Johnston Controls and the Rocky Mountain Institute had to innovate some interesting new solutions. Most notable was the onsite refurbishment of the building’s 6514 windows. They didn’t want to waste such an enormous volume of windows and so each was taken out, upgraded with plant established in the building and re-installed. The refurbishment process included the addition of suspended film and a gas filed layer, increasing the window’s efficiency four-fold. Ninety-six per centof the ESB’s original window glass was reused.

A final footnote on the ESB; as well as being designed to be a broadcasting tower, an observation deck and an office building, the ESB was once also to be a tethering point for giant zeplins. How technologies and transportation fuels-of-choice move on…

These are just a sample of the exciting programs and projects emerging in NYC and PlaNYC is just one of a number of city sustainability visions emerging around the world; from Vancouver to Tokyo to Sydney. These are well worth following as they are great interfaces between the property sector and the public, bringing both together to prepare our cities for a challenging but hopefully prosperous future.

Simon Carter is director of consultancy Morphosis