Hurricane Harvey: What does it Mean for New York City?
As I write this article, Tropical Storm Harvey, downgraded from a category 4 hurricane just a couple of days ago is pummeling south Texas with torrential rain. The residents of Houston and the surrounding area are suffering from catastrophic flooding. Other than watching the drama unfold on TV, giving money to rescue efforts, and praying for the lives and the well being of everyone affected, what can we do here in New York City? What conclusions or lessons should we draw from this tragedy?
First of all, it is important to note that the City of Houston has grown tremendously over the last 25 years or so. In a very short period of time, the city has been paved and built up in a manner that is unsustainable. Houston is surrounded by many rivers and bayous. When it rains, the water should drain into the rivers and bayous and go into the Gulf of Mexico. However, because of all the building in recent years, excess water has no place to drain and it just sits in the streets, causing flooding. Scientists predict that storms like Harvey will occur more frequently and be more devastating than ever in the coming decades.
Is New York City vulnerable to a storm like Harvey? What is NYC doing to reduce the chances that we would suffer the same kind of flooding and devastation that Houston is suffering? Fortunately, New York City is doing a lot of good things to make it less vulnerable to storms in the future. There is a massive green infrastructure program going on throughout the five boroughs of New York City. Things like green streets, bioswales, green roofs, expanded tree pits, and similar structures are being built in areas that tend to flood easily.
For more information on the NYC Green Infrastructure Program, visit www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/stormwater/using_green_infra_to_manage_stormwater.shtml
The NYC Green Infrastructure Program is not only helping to make NYC more green in a literal sense, but it is also helping to make NYC more resilient and resistant to flooding.
You are invited to the Green City Challenge Back to School Party on Monday, September 25 from 6:30 – 8:30 pm at Raymour & Flanigan, 1961 Broadway at West 66th Street in Manhattan. We are excited to introduce a revised version of the What’s the Watts Challenge and to tell people about our new initiative to bring Green City Challenge into Middle Schools in the Bronx and Manhattan.
Please make your reservation now at www.greencitychallenge.org/rsvp or send a message to email@example.com or call 718-530-5074.
In the United States, green-certified building development has become more and more common. But did you know that China is actually the world’s largest green building market? In fact, China eclipsed the United States with more than 1 billion square feet of certified green, sustainable building space.
What’s also interesting is that China did this in half the time it took the U.S. – 10 years compared to 20 in America.
This is good news, considering that China is not only the world’s largest construction market, it’s also the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. With a focus on meeting green building and other environmental standards, China has the potential to make steady progress toward meeting its Paris Climate Agreement commitments. Key to that is a big goal by the Chinese government to achieve 50% commercial green building certification by 2020. Big goals lead to big results. If met, China will represent half of the world’s green building floor space by 2020.
Building owners have been choosing wisely. In 2005, green buildings were just 2% of commercial construction in the U.S. Today, they are closer to 50%. We see a similar trend in China, with impressive adoption of the China 3-star rating system for green buildings.
More buildings will be needed to meet the massive influx of people moving into cities. In China alone, 300 million more people (equivalent to the entire U.S. population) will move to cities in the next 15 years. Since buildings consume 40% of the world’s energy, we also know that these buildings need to be green. Clearly, the future of buildings and the future of sustainability go hand in hand.
New China Focus
This week, I traveled to China to attend the 13th Annual International Conference on Green and Energy-Efficient Building. I learned about new focus areas from Dr. Qiu Baoxing, president of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies and former vice minister for the China Ministry of Housing and Urban and Rural Development.
Dr. Qiu has been one of China’s earliest and strongest visionaries for green building. He’s now calling for more vertical gardens to be designed into Chinese city buildings. Imagine building facades that incorporate plants and trees as tall as they rise. No matter if you live or work on floor 1 or floor 40, you would see nature outside in the form of natural vegetation. This type of design would be as much be eco-cool and eco-beautiful as it would be eco-functional. Vertical gardening would introduce nature into otherwise concrete urban centers. More vegetation would naturally absorb CO2 pollutants and convert them to oxygen and according to Dr. Qiu, help address the outdoor air pollution issues in China.
The “Human Spirit” in Green Buildings
Throughout the years, the China conference has been a valuable convening point for green buildings. This year, Dr. Qiu proclaimed that green buildings must embrace the “human spirit.” I couldn’t agree more, and was pleased to present to the nearly 1,000 people gathered that we have new scientific evidence from The COGfx Study* series that green buildings not only save energy and water, they also improve human performance – they improve the health and productivity of people working in those buildings. This research by Harvard is changing the global conversation in the buildings industry.
By focusing on the human performance benefits of green building, in addition to the valuable energy and water savings, we can greatly expand the value proposition of green buildings. This can help accelerate sustainable building development in China and everywhere else. [HuffPo]
Each year in Los Angeles, certified green buildings keep 319 million pounds of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere — the equivalent of not burning 155 million pounds of coal or having the entire city go vegan for two weeks.
These findings from UCLA researchers, published today in Nature Energy, are part of the first study to examine the effectiveness of green building certification programs on a large scale. Researchers analyzed 178,777 commercial buildings using data from the L.A. Energy Atlas, a UCLA project that combines utility data, census information and details about buildings — their age, size and whether they’re used for residential or commercial purposes.
“We found that with the labels there is a significant improvement in energy efficiency,” said Magali Delmas, an environmental economist and member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability who co-authored the study with institute postdoctoral researcher Omar Asensio.
The energy supplied in buildings accounts for 8.8 gigatons of carbon emissions globally and one-third of global carbon emissions, the study notes. Compared to other commercial buildings, those certified by LEED, Energy Star and the Better Buildings Challenge saw energy savings improvements ranging from 18 to 30 percent, depending on the specific program.
That’s good news for those seeking to reduce emissions and battle climate change, but, Delmas said, it comes with a major caveat: the programs had almost no impact on medium- and small-sized buildings, which account for roughly two-thirds of all commercial structures in Los Angeles.
The one-size-fits-all, engineering-heavy approach of major certification programs may not be a good fit for small building owners, said David Hodgins, executive director of the L.A. Better Buildings Challenge. A program with options that can be tailored to individual needs might work better.
Making small business owners aware of the program is another challenge. Hodgins thinks community groups, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and small business councils could play an important role in getting more to participate. “A lot of these smaller buildings are going to be family owned,” Hodgins said. “Part of the pitch should be that we’re going to make sure the building doesn’t become obsolete so it will benefit your children and grandchildren.”
Rives Taylor is a sustainable buildings expert with Gensler, an international architecture firm. He said that even among larger buildings, less than 10 percent commit to getting certified. But when they do, it makes a big difference in the results.
“There’s absolutely no question that a third-party tool makes it happen,” Taylor said. The external requirements and the reward of getting certified provide incentives for engineers and builders. Without them, important engineering details and building materials usually get sacrificed, he said.
Firms willing to invest in green buildings often see quick returns in the form of energy savings, recouping their initial investments within a couple of years, Taylor said. Building owners have also become more interested in how sustainable buildings affect employees’ health. Such benefits can be hard to translate into numbers, but they have long-term effects for quality of life.
“You would think it would have been a no brainer,” Taylor said. “But for the last 20 years, no one would believe that improving a building’s air quality, daylight or views would do much for well-being. Only in the last handful of years have we seen data that starts to sway those who spend money.”
That’s where research like this new study can make a difference. UCLA’s Delmas said having more concrete data — including information about energy use — is the first step to get more buildings to participate in green certification programs.
“We need more transparency,” Delmas said. “If you don’t know about your usage, how can you change it? If you don’t know that your building is using 10 times more energy than the one next to you, how can you make adjustments?”
The study notes that the United Nations Environment Program and energy experts argue that the buildings sector has the largest potential to deliver long-term, cost-effective reductions.
For that to happen, certification programs will need to expand — a possibility that suffered a big setback with President Donald Trump’s recent budget plan. Experts in green business and energy raised alarm that Energy Star was marked for elimination as part of the president’s proposal to slash Environmental Protection Agency funding by 24 percent. But the budget process is just getting started, and many lawmakers expect the elimination of the popular program to face resistance in Congress, even among Republicans. [UCLA]
When the urban farming startup BrightFarms first launched, it envisioned building its hydroponic greenhouses directly on grocery store roofs and on vacant city lots. Now, it says that the smartest place to grow food for cities may be just outside of them.
The company’s newest site will be in the town of Wilmington, Ohio. With a population of only 12,459, it’s not the target market. But it’s near Dayton, Columbus, and Cincinnati, which together have a population over a million people.
BrightFarms also has greenhouses in Bucks County, Pennsylvania; Culpeper County, Virginia; and Rochelle, Illinois—all also near, but not in, large cities. The new strategy lets the company avoid the costs and challenges of working on urban sites, while still providing a local version of foods like salad greens that would normally travel thousands of miles.
“Like most good strategies, it was driven by some painful experiences,” Paul Lightfoot, CEO of BrightFarms, tells Co.Exist. “Basically, we had a couple of failures. We tried to develop a giant rooftop of a building in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and we also tried to develop an environmentally soiled parcel of land in the city of Washington D.C., owned by the city.”
In both cases, the landowners were eager for BrightFarms to build, and they had strong support from the communities and city leaders. But both sites had challenges. In Brooklyn, the roof needed complex engineering work that couldn’t be completed on the startup’s timeline; in D.C., the city had to do environmental remediation that also took longer that was commercially viable.
Both cities also had complex regulations that weren’t created with urban agriculture in mind. “We found ourselves dealing with a regulatory framework that didn’t understand us, and didn’t have the ability to adapt to us,” Lightfoot says. The projects were classified as “industrial” rather than agricultural, which triggered regulations that didn’t fit.
In smaller communities, the experience was radically different. In Virginia, because it was considered an agricultural project, it was exempt from the typical permitting process. “I think we got the permit in a week,” Lightfoot says. “In D.C., we spent a year getting it.”
The company realized that even if it built outside city limits, it could still stay close enough that transportation would be negligible. BrightFarms sells its produce in 150 stores in the D.C. market, and even if its greenhouses were inside city limits, it would still require driving fairly long distances to make deliveries to all of the stores.
“Being in the city center is not logistically a benefit,” Lightfoot says. “Being 30 miles out of the city is just as good as being in the city. The extra cost of building in a city has absolutely no benefit except for maybe shallow, fake marketing, but it has a real significance in terms of capital costs, and in some cases, operation costs as well, including utilities and transportation.”
BrightFarms’ greenhouses often make use of underutilized spaces: In Rochelle, Illinois, they’ve set up on an empty lot between a distribution center and a factory that was once farmland, then an industrial park.
Even though BrightFarms sometimes establishes its greenhouses near traditional farms, the startup isn’t directly competing with the other operations because it’s focused on tomatoes and greens that typically come from California or Arizona. The greenhouses grow the food with a tiny fraction of the water, and provide it fresher to customers. Less perishable crops, such as root vegetables and corn, are left to traditional farms.
BrightFarms plans to use the same model, building outside cities, as it moves forward. After closing a $30 million equity round in September 2016, it plans to open 14 more greenhouses over the next four years. [fastcoexist]