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News & Views Curation

August 15, 2005

Gazette's Issues Grid

Gotham Gazette While Gotham Gazette's Mayoral Issues Grid is a great public education tool for highlighting vital issues, it is remiss in overlooking urban environmental issues.

Although the term is overused, the Mayor and the people of NYC must work together to create a "sustainable city". Our spiking summer time energy demand is pushing us toward the edge of the power system's capacity, while day after day temperatures soar. We are in the midst of an unprecedented building boom, but we are not building many high performance, sustainable buildings. New Yorkers know that they need more affordable housing and Gotham Gazette should focus attention on finding the link between sustainability and affordability. Finally, a sustainable City needs to have a reliable and affordable system in place to manage its waste and increase its recycling. None of these issues is secondary. New Yorkers need to know what the Mayoral candidates are going to do.

August 09, 2005

A New Normal for NYC: Mainstreaming High Performance Buildings

City leaders are waking to the fact that workforce, economic and environmental interests need not be in conflict. Organized labor, environmentalists, environmental justice advocates, and the business community are forging common ground with each other and with lawmakers around issues of sustainability — most notably, high-performance "green" buildings that improve air and water quality, conserve fuel, and reduce solid waste. Where the conflict currently lies is how we make this vision for sustainable development real — how we mainstream high-performance buildings so that green is the new normal for NYC.

Nick Kristof wrote recently in the New York Times about how Portland, Oregon is leading the charge in sustainable development, and capturing new economic markets (and a competitive edge) in the process. "Officials in Portland insist that the campaign to cut carbon emissions has entailed no significant economic price, and on the contrary has brought the city huge benefits: less tax money spent on energy, more convenient transportation, a greener city, and expertise in energy efficiency that is helping local businesses win contracts worldwide."

Why is Kristof writing about Portland and not NYC? He isn't writing about NYC because we aren't there yet. But, with the pending passage of Intro 324A – landmark legislation that would mandate Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certified construction for municipal buildings (including public schools and hospitals) and other projects that receive city funds — we will be off to an excellent start.

Some argue that 324A is just low hanging fruit and that high performance advocates should push a more ambitious bill. What this stance ignores is that by passing 324A we are changing the frame of the debate so we have more political ground and more institutional support to set the bar higher – to advocate for higher standards, to advocate for high performance affordable housing, to mainstream NYC as a high performance city. Yes, high performance housing is crucial but passing 324A pushes us one step forward towards this soon-to-be reality. It prevents us from continuing, as a city, to walk in place while other American and foreign cities usurp our competitive edge.

High performance buildings are the centerpiece of an enlightened public policy agenda – one that will help transform existing markets and jumpstart new ones (think niche "green" manufacturing sector, renewable energy sectors, high-skilled construction markets); preserve existing affordable housing by reducing operating expenses; and ensure that the air we breath both indoors and outdoors is cleaner and healthier. As NYC Apollo has shown locally and the Apollo Alliance is showing nationally, such a forward-looking agenda can rally a broad base of supporters and change the frame of our political debate. It can also challenge the city's leading pension fund managers – most notably the city and state Comptrollers – to adopt the California model of high performance investment so that this entire process is expedited.

Passing 324A now and working to strengthen it later is crucial because this will raise the public profile of high performance buildings and shift the frame for all new development in NYC – whether for a stadium in Brooklyn or Queens, new office space on the far west side of Manhattan, or new affordable housing in the South Bronx – so that high performance is seen as the new normal rather than an afterthought or competition for limited resources. Such an important development would help drive NYC to the forefront of sustainable practices and markets that our friends in Portland and other like-minded cities have so strategically captured. As we fight for economic survival in an international marketplace and our physical survival in an increasingly polluted city, this is a distinction we must start earning now.

The writer, Jeremy Reiss, is Director of Legislation and Public Policy at the NYC Employment and Training Coalition, and Co-Founder of Urban Agenda, the research and policy organization spearheading NYC Apollo.

August 02, 2005

How Sallan Fits In

"May you live in interesting times," a venerable Chinese curse, might be a blessing for us now. What makes for interesting times is that things are unsettled and the future uncertain. The Sallan Foundation, which opened its doors in New York City in January 2005, shares with everyone the fate of living in interesting times in the opening years of the 21st Century. Its mission is to improve the urban environment by advancing useful knowledge for greener, high performance cities. Sallan situates the need for high performance building and clean, renewable energy at the top of its agenda.

Today, there is a the sense of urgency about making cities, those centers of people, power, capital and creativity, into working models for living on our crowded and contested planet. Where we live, work and amuse ourselves must be pleasant and livable places to be, or those of us who can, will leave. 21st Century buildings that employ 19th and 20th Century carbon based power and technologies to light, heat, cool and sustain our ubiquitous computer-driven lives don't make sense and we will not enhance our economy, our environment and our quality of life by pointing to a mere handful of innovations.

The economic engine of capital cities like New York has been powered by real estate development, the financial industry and the City's role as a global magnet for creativity. Evidence of this powerful engine is most abundant in Manhattan, but the other boroughs are intrinsic to making the City work. Just look where its power plants are sited or its remaining factories. Now we have arrived at a crossroad, a place where Sallan sees the potential for a sustainable and equitable metropolis.

Sallan's web site will incubate and broadcast emerging ideas and practices for creating high performance cities. Good ideas are necessary for making cities into models for how to use the natural and human resources available to us in ways that are sustainable, replicable and equitable. Good ideas provide the energy for creating urban alliances, some of them surprising. Good ideas must be popular too, because ideas are not good enough if they are never tested in practice.

The web site will focus in on Sallan's high performance building and renewable energy agenda. "Torchlight" aims to provoke discussion by looking into what is new, contested and feasible in order to formulate knowledge that is there to be used. "Snapshots", a companion website column, will offer brief, focused think pieces by guest writers who share in the sense of urgency about our interesting times. Readers' comments will be posted, of course. Sallan will have carried out its mission if it becomes a purveyor of ideas that matter because they can be put into practice, and, over time, become the "new normal".

Creating the impetus to advance toward this new normal means that individual investment and development decisions must be analyzed both in the context of new technologies and larger development strategies as well as for their pertinent political and economic contexts. It is clear that the resources to foster the new normal are missing from current planning efforts in areas like the Hudson Yards, the Atlantic Terminal and Williamsburg. Absent high performance building standards for such projects or incentives to encourage green design, there is no common baseline for making such architectural and engineering commitments, commitments that may be shunned as more costly or complex than doing things by the old rulebooks. What the City's rezoning and redevelopment plans need is a template for high performance building that would produce structures which use less heat and power while adding to their value.

Reduced building energy demand means lower operating expenses, a direct way to keep down owners' and occupants' monthly bills year after year. Reduced demand paves the way for reducing the need for new power plants and easing the peak demands on the power supply system on hot summer days. These system goals can only be met if energy efficiency becomes the new normal. In addition, clean indoor air and increased access to natural light will add value by enhancing building marketability

Put simply, only innovative public policy in concert with private sector dynamism can make sustainable practices into New York's new normal. This new normal would mean more affordable buildings and cleaner air; it would act as an incentive to the City's green design, finance and manufacturing sectors. This new normal can be the high road to durable urban sustainability. What an achievement for these interesting times.