January 20 2012

Barriers to Green Building in New York City, New York

Hearst Tower

NYC's Hearst Tower, which is LEED certified Gold.

Considering New York City, New York (NYC) contains 5.2 billion ft2 of built space parceled out among a million buildings, and that the building sector emits 79% of the city’s greenhouse gases, the importance of sustainability in its built environment is paramount. The Bloomberg administration’s 2007 PlaNYC effort, a comprehensive plan for the City’s largest issues to 2030, is arguably the most environmentally progressive city plan of recent years. While NYC has worked hard to establish itself as a “green” leader, it is unfortunately not immune to the issues that beleaguer sustainability efforts elsewhere. Some of the biggest contemporary barriers to sustainable development in NYC may include:

  • Social and psychological misconceptions about the benefits of green building. The obstacles faced by the green building movement are no longer technological and economic – green technologies are abundant, and their prices are falling all the time. A bigger problem is people’s common inability to calculate future paybacks on present investments. Also, many people see economic competitiveness and environmental consideration as mutually exclusive, which is often a false dichotomy;
  • An attitude in American private development that favors short-term profit over long-term planning. In short, capitalism and neoliberalism dominate;
  • A lack of coordination between NYC’s multiple levels of governance. While NYC is committed to making sustainable changes, they are bound by the laws and funding of the state and federal governments. For example, New York State did not approve the City’s controversial proposal to introduce congestion pricing in Manhattan, which the Mayor claimed was a keystone of PlaNYC;
  • The City’s inability to mandate high-efficiency materials and products. It’s illegal because it violates interstate commerce law and risks inducing monopolies by companies that make particular products over others;
  • The exclusivity of LEED certification. Obtaining LEED standards for a building is costly, which creates problems of access and equity. Architects and engineers experienced in green building understand that LEED is only really meant for the top 10-20% of the building market.

What other barriers to sustainability might be holding New York City and other communities back? And more importantly, what can be done to overcome them?

(All images and research linked to source, except the last two bullet points – these are from an interview by the author with Chris Garvin, co-founder of Terrapin Bright Green.)

Nina Coveney

Nina Coveney graduated from Cornell University in 2011 with a B.S. in Urban and Regional Studies. When she began as a blogger with Global Site Plans, she worked for the Town of Ithaca, New York Planning Department. She then transitioned - in writing and real life - to New York City where she began working in the Events department of the Bryant Park Corporation. She hopes to eventually pursue a Master’s Degree in urban planning and design. A native of the New York City metro area, she blogged about trends in sustainability, housing, transportation, and adaptive reuse in both Ithaca and the Big Apple until April 2012.

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This entry was posted on Friday, January 20th, 2012 at 1:07 pm and is filed under Architecture, Community/Economic Development, Energy, Engineering, Environment, Environmental Non-Profit, Government/Politics, Housing, Land Use, Urban Development/Real Estate, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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