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Resilient New York: Greening the Big Apple

Patricia Brown reports on how successive mayors have tried to make the Big Apple future-fit, leaner, greener and greater in a city that is all about the deal

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Sandbags in Times Square as Hurricane Sandy hit the area on 29 October 2012. Photo: Getty
Sandbags in Times Square as Hurricane Sandy hit the area on 29 October 2012. Photo: Getty

Back in 2012, two urbane, well-prepared New York deputy mayors went head-to-head with a rather shambolic Boris Johnson and his sparring partner. The occasion was a debate I had helped establish to raise money for LandAid, the property industry’s charity, to battle out which of these two world cities deserved to be crowned the ‘best for business’.


Both cities volleyed on their respective strengths – from policy initiatives and investment, through share of global HQs, to the meteoric rise of innovation and digital industries. But the debate did more to underscore their similarities than points of departure. That London won the audience vote was more down to its home field advantage than a winning argument and masterful debate on the behalf of the city’s then-mayor.


Johnson seemed genuinely surprised that his place of birth could be a credible challenge to the city he governed, but I abstained from voting as I felt conflicted, my deep affection for both cities tested.


It has been more than 20 years since my professional relationship with London’s twin city first started. Since then, I have pinged back and forth, observing their changes and trading expertise, to help them remain great places to live and work.


Over that time, their populations have grown, economies have risen (and fallen) in parallel, and fast-growing creative and tech ecosystems have helped to rebalance them after the global recession, bringing a very different vibe to the business landscape.


In the late 1990s, when I was CEO of the Central London Partnership (CLP), I sat at the metaphorical knees of New York experts to help us kickstart business improvement districts (BIDs), which had proved a highly effective way of getting business involvement and funds to help New York clean up its act.


Bloomberg recognised that people were increasingly seeking a softer centre to their urban buzz – clean air, and walking or biking down tree-lined streets


We used the knowledge of New York’s officials and BID leaders to get under the skin of many of the issues we wanted to solve in London, from partnership solutions through policing to the basic mechanics of setting up this new form of urban management in the UK. We saw things that were familiar and transferable, others that were very different.


In one early visit to explore BIDs in operation, Farebrother’s Alistair Subba Row hit the nail on the head when he said of New York: “It’s all about deals. We need to be able to do deals.”


I saw BIDs as a means to an end – part of a wider strategy to up the ante on London’s public realm, retrofitting people and urban quality into city planning and pushing quality of life far higher up the agenda. As CLP’s work got traction, my New York colleagues looked to London to help with their transport and public space challenges and for tips on getting their city’s leaders to address them.


Then came mayor Michael Bloomberg and deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff’s PlaNYC – the 2007 strategic plan for a “greener, greater New York”. This addressed the twin goals of climate change and quality of life, echoing CLP’s mantra that this is the key to retaining talent – the biggest asset of a knowledge economy – and fundamental to a city’s economic success.


New York’s urban intensity is an intrinsic part of its character and appeal, but Bloomberg recognised that people were increasingly seeking a softer centre to their urban buzz – clean air, and walking or biking down tree-lined streets to a local park or pedestrian plaza to watch the world go by, work or play with their kids.


The administration worked at pace on an audacious roll-out of measurable goals, underpinned by a strong focus on sustainability: a network of pedestrian plazas, family-friendly streets, bike lanes, bike shares, and waterfront and neighbourhood parks, with the aim of providing all New Yorkers with green space no more than a 10-minute stroll away. One part of this was a target of adding one million trees in 10 years.


Times Square’s pavements now had more people than they could handle, so the experience for visitors and workers alike needed to be upgraded


Probably the most high-profile scheme was Times Square – the ‘Crossroads of the World’ – where the Times Square Alliance, the BID led by Tim Tompkins, had been struggling with the problems of ‘success’ caused in part by the clean-up of the district. The area’s pavements now had more people than they could handle, so the experience for visitors and workers alike needed to be upgraded to maintain the area’s offer.


Some progress had been made, nibbling space from cars to give to people, but despite the alliance’s vision and creative approach, it was slow and hard-won.


When transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan first mooted a total pedestrianisation of the ‘bow tie’ section of Broadway, it was both surprising and bold. To make its introduction more palatable and speedier, the change was proposed as a short-term pilot. But it quickly proved popular and viable, leading to the commission of Snøhetta to design the permanent transformation.


Creating more space for people is only part of the task of sustaining a busy tourist destination that is also a vibrant business cluster and a place for New Yorkers. So the BID team quickly followed up with ambitious, leading-edge programming, including Times Square Arts – a public art programme that provides a platform for innovative contemporary performance and visual arts. Times Square gets 312,000 visitors every day, so it is one of the highest-profile public arts programmes in the world. Supported by an independent advisory group, it has featured diverse works in different media, with the unique backdrop of Times Square the setting for hundreds of prominent and emerging artists.


The speed and scale of this high-profile scheme sent an important signal across the city. Yet many of the most life-enhancing changes happened quietly throughout the city, with space given to smaller-scale pedestrian plazas, road closures, street seats and support – both financial and regulatory – for a roll-out of waterfront parks.


I have been watching the blossoming of one of the largest of these, Brooklyn Bridge Park, ever since it broke ground in 2008. Designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, this 1.3-mile long, 85-acre riparian public park was created along the East River from the Port Authority’s defunct cargo shipping and storage complex. The announcement in 1983 of the authority’s intention to sell the complex sparked a debate about how the site could be put to better use as a space for the community, out of which emerged the idea of a park for reconnecting people with the waterfront.


After years of community activism and an intensive planning process, this vision started to become a reality in 2002, when it received a funding commitment from the city and state. This also locked in a provision for the park to become fully self-sufficient when operational.


Cornell Tech campus was the result of an international competition for $100m and land Photo: Getty
Cornell Tech campus was the result of an international competition for $100m and land Photo: Getty


The industrial waterfront has been shaped from a brownfield site and redundant shipping piers into an urban oasis – a natural landscape of rolling hills and lush gardens encircled by riverfront promenades that offer spectacular city views and a chance to enjoy the waterfront. This is matched equally by the acres of space dedicated to recreation and fun, with a variety of activities and attractions including playing fields, sport courts, playgrounds, barbecue pits, a roller rink and boat launches. Beaches give direct access to the river, making the area the perfect launch pad for kayaking.


Part of its beauty is this diversity of spaces and uses – and, consequently, its users. It is one of the most democratic planned spaces I have experienced and one of my favourite places anywhere, ever. It is not just a wonderful place for people-watching, it is a great spot for listening – a gentle strum of an acoustic guitar, the laughter from a birthday party, the swooshing and squeaking from Pier 2’s basketball courts.


Material recycled from its former self is used throughout the park and it has been designed to help recreate the diverse plants, birds and marine life that would have thrived before the area became a hub of industry. Once again home to distinct ecosystems of native woodland, meadows, wetlands and salt marshes, the park is managed with an emphasis on ecology.


The city Bloomberg handed to his Democratic successor, Bill de Blasio, looked very different from the city he took on


The designers carefully considered the shoreline conditions, along with climate change and rising sea levels, to create a park capable of withstanding storms and major floods. Their work was put to the test on 29 October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy battered New York. Sandy’s arrival coincided almost exactly with the spring high tide, generating a massive surge of some 14 feet over typical low water. But despite being submerged in saltwater for hours, the park was able to recover from the inundation relatively speedily.


Sandy killed 43 people and left two million people and 90,000 buildings in the inundation zone without power. It is estimated to have caused $19bn in damage and changed many lives and businesses forever. The impact on transport was tremendous, too, with some 11 million travellers affected.


Bloomberg spent his administration’s final year dealing with the significant devastation wrought by the storm – a recovery and rebuilding effort that continues even today.


But the city he handed to his Democratic successor, Bill de Blasio, looked very different from the city he took on. Sandy’s impact was felt most acutely in poorer neighbourhoods, adding to an already growing sense of inequality in the city – both New York and London are like catnip to the world’s elite, and this ‘urban renaissance’ brought distinct challenges alongside the positives. More than a third of New Yorkers reported being severely rent burdened and the decline in construction of homes within reach of most wallets and the city’s growing population meant the issues at the top of the mayor’s in-tray were similar to those facing London mayor Sadiq Khan.


De Blasio entered office in 2014 with an ambitious promise to tackle the city’s growing housing problem. He quickly set to work on his housing strategy, ‘Housing New York’, promising to preserve and create some 200,000 or so affordable housing units (now upped to 300,000).


Housing New York set out a cocktail of measures to achieve this, some highly nuanced and complex, brought forward by the teamwork of the Department of City Planning (DCP) and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). Land-use mechanisms and an overhaul of housing programmes and tax incentives were brought together or freshly minted to incentivise and compel developers to meet the new and challenging targets.


The land-use system in New York is based on zoning. ‘Inclusionary zoning’ is a way to create housing that is affordable for low and moderate income households, by tapping the momentum of the market to develop affordable housing. New York sets out what it wants and what it will provide developers in return, with guidelines and rules tied to a combination of incentives, such as an increase in density or tax abatements.


David Burney, director of urban placemaking and management at the Pratt Institute School of Architecture, served under Bloomberg as commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction. He says: “There are planning cities and deal cities. New York is a deal city.”


Part of de Blasio’s approach includes a plan to rezone 15 neighbourhoods, allowing for greater density to fit in more homes. Since then, seven of these neighbourhoods have been rezoned, including East New York, Downtown Far Rockaway and East Harlem, and other studies are under way. In these areas, a new ‘Mandatory Inclusionary Housing’ rule requires developers to provide a percentage of the new homes at ‘affordable’ rents, with rent levels set by the city.


The foundation of the housing strategy is an inclusive vision of New York’s future, committed to protecting residents and maintaining vibrant, mixed-income neighbourhoods


The foundation of the housing strategy is an inclusive vision of New York’s future, committed to protecting residents and maintaining vibrant, mixed-income neighbourhoods.


Even with this grand aim, an increase in housing is a double-edged sword, since building much-needed homes dramatically alters the character of established, mostly (relatively) low-density neighbourhoods. Lower-income communities are fearful of further gentrification and displacement, so the city has had to work hard to win the acceptance of the multitudes of New Yorkers living in the areas slated for significant growth.


The Office of Neighborhood Strategies was created to help this along. Its task was to truly understand local needs and conditions and deploy a range of tactics, as well as bust the silos that existed across various city agencies. Crucially, it worked to build trust and relationships across the various partners.


One tool created to help with this was the Neighborhood Planning Playbook, which is for communities in rezoned areas to use. Developed in collaboration with relevant city agencies and community organisers, this provides a simple planning process and framework for gathering and sharing information, as well as identifying and solving problems. The desired outcome was to get government and community working together within a shared framework and to make expectations and outcomes clear.


Brooklyn Grange farm covers 5.6 acres of rooftop space
Brooklyn Grange farm covers 5.6 acres of rooftop space


The playbook has brought greater transparency to planning, providing a blueprint for communities to follow. This transparency is mirrored by another city agency, the Department of Small Business Services (SBS), through its neighbourhood services team. A former BID director, deputy commissioner Michael Blaise Backer has a keen eye on what is needed for commercial revitalisation across the city. Focused on the areas in transition, SBS designed its ‘Neighborhood 360º’ programme to identify, develop and launch revitalisation projects in partnership with local stakeholders. The result is a comprehensive analysis of the offer and conditions, opportunities and needs, of each commercial district and the populations they serve. SBS’s goal is to build capacity for local business and community organisations, so has targeted grants of up to $0.5m to community-based organisations to run each ‘commercial district needs assessment’.


SBS hopes this will build resilience within local economies, giving them a much better chance of sustainability, and spread support and opportunity – and therefore equity – for people and businesses beyond established BID areas.


As in London, the city’s housing needs have been a dominant issue, with swathes of former industrial land given over to homes and new commercial uses, after traditional industries shrunk. Yet as with London, it is dangerous to let that pendulum swing too far, as we need our cities to function as more than dorms – they are places of employment, services, production and distribution.


New York’s officials are busy figuring out how industry can truly co-exist with homes, creating places that are good for people to live in and enjoy while providing space to work and service the metropolis – places that are adaptable for a modern economy.


Brooklyn Grange, an organic urban rooftop farm is one of three farms situated in Queens and Brooklyn, with 5.6 acres of productive rooftop space dedicated to vegetables and honey


The shifts in land-use needs are being played out on the city’s waterfront, since many industrial buildings are ripe for adaptive re-use, marrying their industrial heritage with new commercial opportunities. There are some enviable examples of this. Brooklyn Navy Yard is a former US Navy shipyard occupying a strategic location on the East River. This 300-acre facility, now owned by New York City, has been transformed by the not-for-profit Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation. Using the city’s funds and land, it has leveraged significant private investment to create a modern industrial park that is a centre for modern urban manufacturing and home to 400 businesses, including Steiner Studios. The studio complex is the largest film and television production studio in the US outside Hollywood, boosting New York’s economy by $2.35bn every year.


One of the yard’s more unusual tenants is Brooklyn Grange, an organic urban rooftop farm. This is one of three farms situated in Queens and Brooklyn, with 5.6 acres of productive rooftop space dedicated to vegetables and honey that supply local restaurants and markets.


The third and newest farm opened this year just a few miles downstream from Brooklyn Navy Yard. Its growing space graces the rooftop of one of the former factory buildings that now forms Industry City, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Originally built as a monumental-scale intermodal manufacturing, warehousing and distribution centre supporting a wide spectrum of businesses, Industry City employed nearly 25,000 workers at its height and was part of Brooklyn’s success as a major international seaport. Decline started to set in during the 1960s, and the next 40 years led to a period of disinvestment and decay.


This all changed in 2013 when a new ownership group led by Belvedere Capital and Jamestown began to redevelop Industry City. Its audacious investment programme breathed life into the six million square feet of waterfront space. Covering 35 acres and 16 buildings, Industry City is now home to 500 companies, comfortably straddling the traditional industries that have called it home for decades and the new innovation economy.


Working at such a scale means the ‘campus’ can have multiple uses, making it a diverse and interesting place to walk around. The Brooklyn Nets basketball team has its headquarters and training facilities here. Not far away, pizza ovens are built and serviced next to milliners, bakers and advanced manufacturers and designers. Already a destination for design and creative events, it is advancing plans to rezone part of its footprint to make provision for two hotels, additional retail space and higher education, making it an even more significant destination.


There are concerns that its growing appeal as a destination and a new, more affluent community bolstered by the rezoning plans will gentrify the traditionally blue-collar neighbourhood. From the outset, CEO Andrew Kimball and his team have been keen to manage that tension, putting the community at the centre of plans – whether that is the occupier strategy, the retail and food offer, or training opportunities. Already, more than a third of the people who work at Industry City live in the surrounding neighbourhoods, and one in every five people lives in or close to Sunset Park.


Industry City and the Brooklyn Navy Yard are both major players in the city’s innovation and tech ecosystem


One of the country’s largest adaptive reuse projects in the US, sustainability has always been central to its mission and action. From the outset it has focused on minimising its carbon footprint and has invested $25m in energy infrastructure upgrades. To date, a staggering 14,500 energy-efficient windows have been installed, with the original metal-framed panes deployed throughout the interior. Its approach is also attracting like-minded business – ethically-driven tenants with sustainability and equity at the core of their business models.


Industry City is one of a small number of commercial developers that have signed up to the ‘NYC Carbon Challenge’. Aimed at reducing the city’s building-based emissions by 30% by 2025, this was originally a Bloomberg initiative, but de Blasio affirmed his commitment to it when he took office. Already, 10 of the pledging companies have met or exceeded the target, putting them in a better place to meet new emissions targets.


Industry City and the Brooklyn Navy Yard are both major players in the city’s innovation and tech ecosystem. This has become a fundamental part of its economic growth over the past decade or so, and the city has invested in several dedicated graduate schools centred on technology and urban innovation in the widest sense.


The most significant and highest profile of these is Cornell Tech, an applied science graduate centre born out of a Bloomberg administration international competition. Spotting the need to sustain a skilled talent pool and foster a start-up culture, New York offered $100m and a stretch of city-owned land on Roosevelt Island as the prize. The winning bid – a partnership between Cornell University and Israel’s Technion – lost no time in breaking ground and the campus opened in 2017 after several years of operating initial courses out of a Google building in Chelsea.


Times Square Arts provides a platform for innovative contemporary performance and visual arts
Times Square Arts provides a platform for innovative contemporary performance and visual arts


All the buildings on the campus have been designed to be as energy efficient as possible, with a whole host of features to improve energy use and the quality of the experience in the buildings. They also make enough electricity to be self-sufficient. The campus’ main academic centre has nearly 1,500 solar panels on its roof, while in its basement is a geothermal heating and cooling system. This connects to 80 wells drilled 400 feet beneath the site, while a 40,000-gallon underground tank collects rainwater for plumbing, cooling and irrigation systems.


This highly sustainable approach extends to the living quarters for the students and academic staff who have the chance to live on campus in The House. Promoted as the world’s first high rise ‘passive house’, this 26-storey residential tower was designed by the Hudson Companies and Related Companies to consume 60% to 80% less energy than a traditional high rise, for a projected annual saving of 882 tons of CO2.


Fittingly for a building that houses data and tech scientists, The House provides a steady stream of data for researchers and engineers at work on the campus that in turn feeds further research into energy-saving technologies.


This rather desirable and highly sustainable residence is just one of 73 passive houses being built across New York. These range from brownstones to a 74-storey residential block, and include affordable, multi-family homes being taken forward by the HPD. The first of these was Knickerbocker Commons, a 24-unit, six-storey apartment complex, while Chestnut Commons in East New York, due for completion next year, has 274 homes for very low to low-income families, along with a college and a range of community facilities.


Passive house is just one of HPD’s investments in energy-efficient and sustainable affordable housing across New York


Passive house is just one of HPD’s investments in energy-efficient and sustainable affordable housing across New York. To add speed to the mix, HPD is turning to modern methods of construction. Following a call for real estate partners, it has several modular housing developments in train.


One selected developer, Thorobird Companies, is now working in East New York with a local non-profit to build 167 homes for low-income New Yorkers. These homes will also benefit from being constructed from modular units manufactured locally by Brooklyn-based FullStack Modular.


HPD’s programmes tie into other agencies’ work to achieve climate change and resilience goals. A focus on resiliency is fundamental, given the area’s increasing vulnerability to rising sea levels and vehement storms. It is not just people living on the waterfront who are vulnerable – neighbourhoods across the city are suffering from the double whammy of climate change and ageing infrastructure, as more frequent and intense heatwaves and downpours bring power failures and extensive flooding.


During Sandy, as the storm water extended way beyond recognised flood zones, buildings that allowed water to flow both in and out survived the inundation with minimal damage. These have pointed the way for a range of policies and approaches to retrofitting and designing for greater resilience.


For DCP, this has meant revising zoning rules, including the emergency regulations put in place following Sandy. Combined with changes to the building codes and land use, this encourages flood-resilient design and construction of coastal property, as well as adaptation of existing properties.


For homeowners in flood-prone neighbourhoods, this means ensuring all habitable space is above a ‘design flood elevation’, with lower levels used only for storage or parking. DCP’s new rules permit changes to the ‘zoning envelope’ so building owners can build higher to make up for any loss of living space. Elsewhere, thousands of homes are being elevated or constructed on concrete piers.


Resilient neighbourhoods are more than homes that withstand flooding – they are responsive to local needs and conditions. DCP’s place-based approach to this adaptation is therefore crucial. As with so much in New York, many communities step forward to be active partners, often taking the lead.


One source of help in stepping up to the challenge are the Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines, which were created to educate and support myriad public and professionals stakeholders about how to “create resilient, ecological, and accessible waterfronts”. Masterminded by the Waterfront Alliance, these help coastal communities better respond to the numerous challenges of shaping resilient waterfronts, from sustainable design through to legal structures and access. They offer guidance and case studies, a detailed design guide and an accreditation system that extends beyond New York.


Nevertheless, some still worry that New York is not nearly sufficiently prepared for the next Sandy. Indeed, some of my colleagues are cynical about de Blasio’s approach to sustainability, thinking it lacks the focus and clarity his predecessor brought to the issue. Some critics point to his lack of leadership on the planned congestion charge.


However, I certainly found a dizzying array of initiatives and policies, strategies and city agencies that are part of the administration’s efforts toward sustainability, carbon reduction and resilience. And while Bloomberg made sustainability a central goal of his time in office, de Blasio has looked at the issues through a different lens, weaving growth, sustainability, resilience and equity together in his OneNYC strategy.


What cannot be challenged is that New York’s approach to the ticking clock of the climate emergency has hardened in recent years: targets have ratcheted up in line with scientific revelations on the extent of our global crisis.


In 2016, the administration released its New York City’s Roadmap to 80×50. This articulated strategies to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. On 2 June 2017, just one day after President Trump pulled the US out of the Paris climate change agreement, de Blasio signed Executive Order 26, committing New York to the Paris principles.


In July this year, New York City Council declared a climate emergency. This came after passing legislation that will force thousands of medium-sized and large buildings to sharply reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, part of a wider package of bills known as the ‘Climate Mobilization Act’. With buildings estimated to account for 67% of emissions, the legislation is a reaction to the failure of the past decade’s efforts to achieve voluntary action.


The Climate Mobilization Act is heralded by the city’s lawmakers as “the single largest carbon reduction effort in any city, anywhere” – the equivalent of taking more than one million cars off the road by 2030


Like London, much of New York’s recent real estate is built to high standards of sustainability, while many property owners have retrofitted existing buildings to meet the changing needs and demands of occupiers, as well as energy efficiency.


The legislation is targeted at buildings exceeding 25,000 square feet requiring reductions of 40% in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and 80% by 2050. Each building will have an emissions limit based on the property’s occupancy group; those that exceed their limits will meet stringent fines.


Critics say the legislation is unfairly designed, placing greater burdens on different occupiers, and is especially punitive to high-occupancy buildings or sectors that have higher energy consumption. Putting in place the measures needed to meet the cap will cost an estimated $4bn, and some building owners are privately saying it will be cheaper to pay the swingeing fines.


To deter this, 2030 penalties are set at $268 per metric ton of CO2 emitted over the caps, a price point so punitive it will compel building owners to retrofit. Nevertheless, since 50% of buildings are exempt, others say it will not have its intended impact.


The Climate Mobilization Act will keep New York in line with emissions reduction targets set by the Paris agreement. It is heralded by the city’s lawmakers as “the single largest carbon reduction effort in any city, anywhere” – the equivalent of taking more than one million cars off the road by 2030.


It also paves the way for a ‘Green New Deal’, with upwards of a quarter of a million new jobs, some for the likes of the people living in The House, many in construction and maintenance. The goal is to get New York future-fit – to make it a sustainable city that is a great place to live for everyone. The ambition is stretching, the challenges are many and significant.


Remember, though: New York is a deal city.


Patricia Brown is director of consultancy Central. She was CEO of Central London Partnership from 1997-2008, and is contributing editor of The Developer

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