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Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.Torchlight

Greener With Envy

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

June 30, 2006

Envy, we all know, is one of the seven deadly sins, but it's a good motivator. While it's hardly surprising that Portland, Oregon, San Francisco and Seattle get top marks for urban sustainability, the east coast is not far behind. But here's a wake up call for Gotham — although New York City has just been ranked the seventh most sustainable city in the U.S., Philadelphia's been ranked number four and Chicago number five by SustainLane.1 This means kudos for Philly and the Windy City but questions for New Yorkers. What's Philadelphia got, and Chicago too, that we don't? How can New York move up in next year's ratings?

But before answering this question, let's look at what SustainLane means by sustainability. According to its 2005 posting, "The SustainLane US City Rankings focus on healthy regional economic development, vibrant communities and quality of life measurements. Our view point of sustainable practices is weighted toward ideas borrowed from our natural systems and implemented in our cities."2 Its ranking system uses twelve categories, including city innovation and knowledge bases, as well as air pollution and open space.

In the SustainLane ranking, New York scores very high on urban density and zoning, which produces mixed-use development. New York's got great drinking water and it gets high marks on mass transit for commuters. Of course, these three factors are not new to New York, so it is hard for the city to take a bow on 21st Century innovation. But the City is also making new strides in sustainability — think of the new green building law. Mayor Bloomberg also recently announced the creation of a Sustainability Task Force and a new Division of Sustainability in the Office of Operations. The City's Energy policy and programs are cited for "showing promise". Could this be attributed to the "New York City Energy Policy" report of 2004?3 In short, it's clear that moving up in the rankings isn't out of reach.

At the same time, the SustainLane ratings point to several areas where there's big room for improvement. The City ranked a middling 22 in the number of LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) green buildings, "with only 1 certified and 21 registered LEED buildings as of April 2005."4 Austin Texas, a city of 600,000, had just as many LEED buildings. SustainLane also rated its LEED data on a per capita basis. As of early 2006, the number one city, using this method, was Atlanta, Georgia, with 57 LEED buildings; New York ranked 39. And, as of the 2005 report, "Programmatically, the city has no incentives for commercial or residential green buildings". Since buildings consume more than one third of the energy supply, increasing the stock of energy efficient green buildings, including buildings that generate and deploy renewable energy, will help deliver on the promises of it's energy policy report.

While, as of this writing, the New York has 35 LEED-registered buildings as well as a number of innovative high performance buildings where developers have not chosen to seek LEED ratings, New York should be at the cutting edge of making green building the "new normal". New York is amply endowed with extraordinarily creative architects, designers and builders. It's got private sector developers who are building world-class high performance skyscrapers and mixed income housing. It's not just envy that makes me say that New York can become #1.

And building green is worth a lot more than a #1 SustainLane rating. It's worth something else that's green — money. In June 2006, the Harvard Business Review reported on a green office building in Pittsburgh that "costs 20% less per square foot to operate" (than a comparable conventional building) and on a LEED Platinum-rated corporate headquarters in Cambridge that "used 42% less energy and 34% less water" (again, rated against a comparable building).5 A developer of a mixed income apartment building in Harlem described a design target of energy savings at 36% over the benchmark American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers' standards, but a recent data analysis shows actual energy savings of 60% over the building's first year of operation. This translates into a $1,500 a year savings per apartment.6

SustainLane's other big criticism of New York, last year, was, "A lack of innovative programs and policies driving the city's performance in areas of sustainable economic development is evident. On the macro policy level, the city has no guiding sustainability or environmental plan." Although SustainLane's harsh judgment should have been backed up by something more than a link to just one page on the City government website, it's fair to say that the Mayor's recent sustainability announcements give credence to the SustainLane's conclusion that the City does not have yet have an overall sustainable development policy.

If and when a sustainable development policy is established here, public awareness and accountability must be built in as essential elements. This means that the Mayor's Management Reports, as well as individual program annual reports, ought to include meaningful information based on metrics that matter. For instance, annual reports for Local Law 86, the City's green building statute enshrined in its City Charter, should establish a uniform reporting framework consisting of milestones that apply to all agencies and projects covered by the law. By crafting such a framework, the annual reporting system will be able to collect information in a consistent manner that allows for comparisons over time. To get the greatest benefit from all this effort, this information should be made digitally accessible to the public. Then we can hope that, this sort of systematic data reporting will help the authors of future SustainLane reports to get an even clearer picture of what's happening in New York and make other cities green with envy.

  1. “SustainLane Index ”
  2. “SustainLane New York City, NY: Summer Streets ”
  3. The New York City Energy Policy Task Force Report
  4. New York State Green Building Examples
  5. Lockwood, Charles,"Tool Kit: Building the Green Way", Harvard Business Review, June 2006, pp. 129–137
  6. “Brown, Carlton, presentation at Big City/Small Planet conference, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, June 8, 2006”

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